Archive for the ‘Non-musical context’ Category

Wednesday night here in Savannah there was a showing of the Todd Haynes movie I’m Not There — his wild riff on the idea of Bob Dylan, using six different actors to portray aspects of Dylan-ness — at a coffee shop here, courtesy of The Psychotronic Film Society. It was pretty crowded, kind of too warm, and not the perfect night for me to spend two-plus hours in a wooden chair. But still. Interesting movie.

I bring it up because I was interested that the film included Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell,” which as readers of my original SJI essay know, is an interesting song document in the history of SJI. The visuals it played against were largely evocative of late-Civil Rights era violence. Make of that what you will.

Also, one of the Dylan versions, the one played by Cate Blanchett, in a soliloquy, dropped the line “mystery is a traditional fact,” a Dylan-ism I mused about here.

If you see, or have seen, the film, let me know what you make of it. I’ll admit straight out that it didn’t totally connect with me, but that I think that may have had more to do with my state of mind at the time than the film itself.

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T-P Music writer Keith Spera says:

The well-trod “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” is, like “St. James Infirmary” and “Lil’ Liza Jane, ” a New Orleans standard overdue for retirement.

Due for retirement?

“St. James Infirmary”??

You’re fucking fired.

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Every city has its dive bars. Sometimes those bars have a reputation for being a bit dangerous, a bit of a risk. We all know these places; we’ve all been to them. The vague sense of edginess is part of the appeal.

Back when we lived in New Orleans, we had quite a number of such bars to choose from. One of the most interesting was Joe’s Cozy Corner. It certainly felt like an authentic dive bar — a place where you wouldn’t end up surrounded by tourists.

On our most recent trip to New Orleans, in late November/early December, I swung by to take a look at Joe’s. I did so even though I already knew it wasn’t really there anymore.

Joe’s Cozy Corner closed a while back, and Joe himself is dead. I’d been told that more recently they’d peeled away the outer walls and uncovered the evidence that before it was Joe’s Cozy Corner, it was Ruth’s Cozy Corner. See picture above.

But I had to take a look, because Joe’s was a bit of a New Orleans landmark for me, not least because it has a certain connection to Letters from New Orleans. I have a couple of things to say about Joe’s, and there’s no short way to say them, so the rest is after the jump. (more…)

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Until recently, the only literary reference to “St. James Infirmary” that anyone had ever mentioned to me is the closing scene of Robert Stone’s Hall of Mirrors, which involves a morgue visit that seems pretty clearly to be inspired by “SJI” on some level (although I do not believe the song is ever specifically mentioned).

So I was quite intrigued to get a note from a reader not long ago, a student in White Plains, New York, named Dan Pasternack. He said he was a fan of “SJI” himself, dating back to a time he’d heard it performed at Preservation Hall on a visit to New Orleans. “I was stunned,” he continued, “to find the song appear in Albert Camus’ 1947 book The Plague, playing in a crowded bar and then on a character’s record player.”

Turned out he was reading that book for a class assignment, and I got him to send me the paper he wrote, in which he actually deals a bit with the “SJI” cameo.

The Plague, as those of you who are more literary-minded than I am no doubt already know, is a novel about a small city in a French colony in North Africa that must cut itself off from the outside world due to, yes, a plague. Not surprisingly, there’s a claustrophobic and introspective feel to the narrative, as the citizens of this town, Oran, deal with their isolation and with the fact that their fellow citizens are dying and they could be next. How does “SJI” fit in? That’s explained after the jump. (more…)

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Here’s something I came upon by checking my “incoming links.” You know how I’m always going on about that Betty Boop cartoon featuring Cab Calloway’s take on “SJI”? Well, echenblog had a post mentioning that (and this site) the other day — and noting that in one poll of animators it was voted the 19th best cartoon ever. Pretty cool. But the real payoff is that the echenblog post also mentions several other Max Fleischer cartoons featuring jazz numbers.

For instance: Two more Boop toons with Calloway. In one from 1932 (link here), Calloway does the famous “Minnie The Moocher” — a tune that, of course, owes a rather considerable debt to the tune of “SJI.” (Koko the clown has a very brief cameo). The other (here) is from 1933, and has Calloway doing a fairly asinine number called “The Old Man of the Mountain,” and then doing a “hi-de-ho” duet with Boop. Both cartoons are delightful little pieces of pop culture surrealism.

Then there’s one from 1932, featuring none other than Louis Armstrong, singing “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” Here is the link to see that. This one has Boop visiting the jungle, in the company of Koko and another character, only to be abducted by a bunch of racistly rendered “savages” guaranteed to make you cringe.

It gets worse when one of them is intercut with a singing Armstrong, so the image goes back and forth from Armstrong to this really offensive caricature. Similarly, drumming is juxtaposed with anther savage preparing the pot in which Boop will boiled, presumably for eating.

Shameful. Then again, there’s no point in pretending such things never happened. You can’t glorify the past one minute, and then bury its uglier realities the next.

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A while back I wrote about the Bethany & Rufus version of “SJI.” An interesting comment from Bethany Yarrow from this piece in the East Bay Express:

“St. James Infirmary,” about an untimely death, originated as a British folk ballad and eventually became a New Orleans bar song. Yarrow describes the uncanny feeling she got performing the tune in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina. “It’s about going to the morgue to see your lover,” she says. “It was bone-chilling.”

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Speaking of “SJI” in the movies, here’s another example — rather different from the previously mentioned Taste of Cherry.

I forget how I got wind that the tune appears in the 2001 anime film Metropolis; it may be that I became aware of the sound track first, and then backed into it from there.

In any case, the film is a bit of a big deal in anime circles:

Based on the Metropolis manga created by the late Osamu Tezuka. The movie had an all star production team including renown anime director Rintaro, Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo as script writer, and animation by Madhouse Studios with conceptual support from Tezuka Production.

I’ll leave it to you to decode all that as you wish. After some deliberation, I’ve decided it’s best not to try to summarize the plot here, because, as far as I could tell, there’s no particular reason for the specific use of “SJI” in this scene. It’s a nice version, though, credited to Toshiyuki Honda, who from what I can gather is a composer and arranger, but almost certainly not the vocalist. Here’s the clip.

Sorry this entry is a little threadbare on actual information. If someone out there has something to share on any of the above: Speak up!

Toshiyuki Honda - Metropolis (Original Soundtrack) - St. James Infirmary
“St. James Infirmary,” Toshiyuki Honda

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Inspired by the Simpsons movie, Time Out Chicago asks: “What is your favorite cartoon of all time?” Apparently this question was basically posed to the Time Out Chicago staff. Film writer Cliff Doerksen answers:

“Snow White,” the 1933 Betty Boop short with a rotoscoped Cab Calloway singing ‘St James Infirmary Blues.’ So beautiful.

Good choice. One more time for those of you who haven’t seen it: Here’s a link.

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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.

The White Stripes - The White Stripes - St. James Infirmary Blues
“St. James Infirmary Blues,” The White Stripes

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Speaking of Wynton Marsalis & “St. James Infirmary,” a relevant bit of Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke popped up on YouTube recently. If you haven’t seen Lee’s epic documentary about Katrina and its aftermath, I highly recommend it. If you have seen it, you know that the “SJI” tune pops up early in the film, and you may recall this minute-long segment of Marsalis singing the tune, a cappella. As he sings, Lee, cuts the visual from Marsalis in an interview studio to stills from the flooding. When Marsalis finishes, he simply gives a short, sad chuckle and says, “Yep. ‘St. James Infirmary’. ‘St. James Infirmary.'” It’s really never given any particular context, it’s not clear what we’re supposed to conclude, or what this song means juxtaposed against this tragedy. Still, it’s oddly affecting.

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