The other day I mentioned The White Stripes including “St. James Infirmary” in a live set. The famous Detroit duo also of course have recorded the song, on their first album. I’ve never written about that version here, but now’s as good a time as any. The occasion is the appearance on YouTube of what I guess is a fan-made “video” of sorts, basically a series of still images of the band etc., as the song plays in the sound track.
Jack White’s phrasing seems a little eccentric, and he tweaks some lyrics here and there. It’s a good solid version, but probably wouldn’t stand out if it weren’t for the fact that White tosses in a verse I’m pretty sure he made up. (Or at least, I don’t know where he got it from; correct me if you do.) Right after the verse about the deceased lover being unlikely to find a man like the singer, even if she searched the wide world over, he sings this:
Take apart your bones and put ‘em back together.
Tell your mama that you’re somebody new.
Feel the breeze blowing, look out here it comes!
Now I can say whatever I feel like to you.
I never really gave this a great deal of thought, but for some reason listening to it again, I suddenly thought of the old Betty Boop cartoon that includes Cab Calloway singing “SJI.” I’ve written about that before — here — but suffice it to say it’s super-surreal and hard to explain.
Nothing in it specifically echoes or illustrates, say, taking apart your bones and putting them back together. But the curious clown character in the short film, who sings the song (via Calloway, or I guess Calloway sings it via the clown) spends a certain amount of time in a ghostly, semi-skeletal state. White’s phrasing — upon watching the Boop cartoon again — is pretty clearly taken from, or a tribute to, Calloway. And certainly those lyrics have the same strange, loopy, vaguely macabre feel of the old cartoon.
Also this: The clown’s name is Koko, and listening one more time to the White Stripes version, I picked up on something I’d somehow never noticed or forgot about or didn’t hear before: In the sort of musical lead-in, White says, “Oh, Koko!”
How about that?
The Boop cartoon, about seven minutes long (“SJI” is toward the end), is here, and also pretty easy to find on YouTube.
“St. James Infirmary Blues,” The White Stripes
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