Having now seen four episodes of Treme, I’ve got an opinion about the show, which I may or may not get around to articulating here. But in the meantime, a moment from last night’s show must be acknowledged — not least because it resulted in a mention of this very blog in the wrapup/recap by Times Picayune columnist Dave Walker (no relation, but a friend from our N.O. days and a great guy and talented writer) of the episode:
Antoine Batiste awaits emergency health care in Touro Infirmary, a Garden District hospital founded in 1852, and one of two city hospitals operating in this episode’s time frame (suburban facilities were also treating patients). Pre-Katrina, Batiste would’ve likely visited Charity Hospital for treatment. It closed after a horrific period immediately post-storm and has yet to reopen.
Batiste sings a parody version of “St. James Infirmary,” a deep-blue standard (Danny Barker’s version, Louis Armstrong’s, Kermit Ruffins’) with a vast and mysterious history. Wynton Marsalis sings a snippet in Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke.” In 1998, journalist Rob Walker (no relation) heard a rendition of the song by the Hot Eight Brass Band at Donna’s in New Orleans that launched this, a great blog (mostly) devoted to the song.
First: Thanks, Dave!
Second: Since he’s already pretty much summarized the relevant facts there, I’ll just add that I was very pleased that “SJI” finally had its Treme moment. I was somewhat disappointed that the song’s cameo didn’t take a more fully realized form. On the other hand, I liked that the version we got was an improvised rewrite, adapted to the specific circumstance of the singer in a particular moment. (In this case, his parody turned on the idea of waiting endlessly in the Touro Infirmary to get some treatment for his busted lip — concluding with a reiteration that despite everything, “New Orleans is my home.”)
Later I’ll find a way to get transcribe the full lyrics to his short, alternative version.
PS: Anybody arriving here because of Dave’s link might be interested in the essay I wrote a few years ago about “SJI.” It appears in Letters From New Orleans, which of course I recommend, and here. It’s a bit out of date now, not reflecting more recent findings and conclusions, in particular those unearthed and documented by Robert W. Harwood in his book I Went Down To St. James Infirmary, which I also recommend. Mr. Harwood’s related, excellent, blog is here.