Sorry if that headline is misleading — no Trombone Shorty/Carl Sandburg mashup is in the offing. (That I know of.)
But two quick noteworthy links:
1. Trombone Shorty was on Sound Opinions (great show) recently. The interview was fine (nothing revelatory to anyone who has been paying attention to New Orleans music in the last, say, decade), but the performances are really excellent. Listen to the entire show here, or just check out the Trombone Shorty portion here.
2. Leading “SJI” blogger and writer Robert W. Harwood has a nice surprise over I Went Down to St. James Infirmary: The first of a batch of monologues recorded for an “SJI” radio documentary includes some great details about Sandburg and early variations on the song. And he even breaks out his guitar! eally cool… Give it a listen here. And if you want to hear more, tell Mr. Harwood so, he’s looking for feedback!
This morning I posted on my Design Observer blog about the waveform as a visual symbol of music (and sound), noting the role of SoundCloud in the spread of this stealth iconography. An hour or so later, I happened upon the below: User Gizmo has uploaded the intro to a rendition of “SJI” to SoundCloud. You can hear it — and see it — below.
One of the more unanticipated sub-themes of “SJI”-mining has been the recurrence of the song’s role as a burlesque number. Back in 2006 this site featured a Q&A with the former “September Rose” on that subject. In 2009 I posted a video of one Charlotte Treuse performing to SJI, and later added some further details about the contemporary performer and the context in which she performs. With that as background, I will now share with you a more recent burlesque performance using “SJI,” featuring Miss Bruise Violet — described in the intro to the video below as “the green-haired wonder.” Those of you who feel suitably mature: check it out.
The tune at hand is “Full Time Lover,” by Frankie Lee. I don’t know much about Lee, but here’s a site with a bio-sketch and something of a discography. It notes in passing that “Full Time Lover” got some regional attention (Lee is from Texas), I gather in the 1960s. It’s a bluesy soul scorcher, entertaining enough on its own — the opening organ riff and slow-drip drumming are kinda hot — but maybe not the sort of thing I’d spend much time on normally. The lyric starts out “Oh, well I got me a full time lover,” and so on, repeated per the standards of the form. “She used to be my part time girl, but she’s my full time lover now.” So yeah.
But then Lee wails: “There’s one thing I want to say right now!” And:
I went down to St. James Infirmary Asked was my baby there. He said “No sir.” I said, “Well, she must be somewhere.”
There’s a horn riff under this, which repeats while he zags off onto two more verses about finding his baby, who decides to come home. Later he declares that he’s happy about that.
This obviously has very little to do with “SJI,” but it’s pretty fascinating nonetheless — a real cut-and-paste moment, just tossing in the line about going down to St. James Infirmary, and proceeding to move things in an amusing different direction. He went down to St. James Infirmary — and his baby wasn’t there! Of all the variations I’ve come upon, that one somehow strikes me as the most hilariously subversive bait-and-switch version yet!
Some weeks back, friend of no notes Marc “Disquiet” Weidenbaum alerted me to a forthcoming version of “SJI,” from Hugh Laurie — a name, I must admit, that meant nothing to me. But as you may know, it’s a name that plenty of people do recognize, even if they don’t associate it with music: Laurie is an actor, probably best known (in the U.S.) as the star of the popular TV show House. His record, Let Them Talk, is billed as a blues collection, with an emphasis on New Orleans influences. Aside from “SJI,” he sings “Tipitina” and “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” among others; guests on the record include Irma Thomas and Dr. John. (The best overview of the album I’ve seen is this Mail Online piece.) Albums recorded by actors-not-previously-known-for-singing frequently get knocked around in the press, or ignored. That does not appear to be the case with this one, at least in the UK. (It doesn’t seem to have been released in the U.S. yet, as I type this.) The Yorker: “The first track, ‘St James Infirmary’, immediately shows the adeptness of Laurie’s musical nature. He makes the piano sing, life flowing out into the stillness of the moment, and a pleasure to listen to.” The Independent: “Usually, actors’ albums should be avoided as carefully as pop stars’ movies; but Hugh Laurie’s New Orleans tribute Let Them Talk may be the exception that proves the rule. “Apparently the public is going along with these views, putting Laurie, not long ago, into a UK chart battle with Adele! You can hear Laurie’s take on “SJI” here. It’s billed as being “in two parts,” lasting a total of nearly six and a half minutes. The first part is instrumental, largely focused on Laurie’s own piano playing, gradually joined by other instruments and working its way to a fairly bombastic (to my ears) crescendo; frankly the restrained guitar sounds better to me than the hammering piano. Then it pivots to the second part: a swingy approach, designed to highlight Laurie’s singing. The lyrics follow the most common pattern, no trickiness there — very straight. I like the arrangement in the second part better; Laurie’s voice is interesting, if not exactly charismatic (again, to my ears). Taken together it’s a very respectable version, but nothing I’d call special. By way of HughLaurieBlues.com, I also found this video in which Laurie and producer Joe Henry talk about their approach to “SJI,” apparently the first thing they recorded. It’s pretty standard “behind the scenes” fare, but Laurie is so serious, it’s really rather sweet:
Via this recent comment on an earlier post: Here is a version I don’t remember having heard, evidently from 1969, by Jerry Reed. While it starts out with a pretty familiar arrangement, he really funks it up as he goes along. Super. Check it out.
Billed as “St James Infirmary (Dub) by Jeremy Phipps and the Outsiders feat. Maddie Ruthless,” it sounds more ska/reggae than dub to me, but I’m not exactly an expert. (Feel free to set me straight in the comments.) Anyway, Ruthless has a nice voice and the vibe, whatever its proper label, is excellent. Worth a listen!
A couple of years ago I did some research into the song "St. James Infirmary," wrote up what I found, emailed that essay to friends and posted it on my web site (as part of a series of "Letters From New Orleans," as I was living in that city at the time). Based on the feedback, I wrote a second version of the essay, and asked for more feedback. Based on that, I wrote a third version.
And now, this site: A place to collect some of the links, leads, thoughts, and suggestions relating to the song that readers (from Finland, The Netherlands, Australia, Spain, England, Sweden, Canada, and all over the U.S.) have sent me. This may lead to a fourth and significantly expanded version of the essay, some day. Also on this site: Plenty of tangents.
The most recent version of my "St. James Infirmary" essay is now a few years old. But it's still a fairly decent overview of what I know about the song, and why I'm interested in it. You can read it either in the book Letters from New Orleans (see below), or in the archives of The Gambit, the New Orleans weekly that published the piece as a book excerpt when LfNO came out.
This site is a partial spinoff of the book Letters from New Orleans, published by the unstoppable Garrett County Press. My interest in "St. James Infirmary" is the subject of one essay in the book. All author proceeds from the book still go to post-Katrina relief efforts, so I think it's okay for me to say: You ought to buy it.
In November 2007 I was invited to do an all-"SJI" episode of the outstanding Podcast The Sounds In My Head. My episode is here. Post about it (with playlist, so, you know, spoiler alert) is here.
I either own or am familiar with a bunch of versions of S.J.I. and close variations by a variety of artists. Here's a list, in progress. For now I'm concentrating on SJI, rather than its folk antecedents or any of the "Streets of Laredo" thread. Title is "St. James Infirmary" or "St. James Infirmary Blues" unless otherwise noted: