A bit of mail came in a while back that’s been on my mind. It came from a person who stumbled upon a version of the “St. James” essay while looking for chords and lyrics to the song, and who professed to be a fan of a version by James Booker. “You might already have it, but just in case you don’t, his lyrics are”:
I went down to St. James Infirmary,
I heard my baby cry.
I was so brokenhearted
She was gone somewhere
in the bye and bye.
Tried so hard to keep from crying
My tears they fell like lead
She was all I had to live for
It could have been someone else instead
She’s gone let’s just say they’re gonna bless her
Wherever she may be
She could have searched the wide world over
She wouldn’t have found another man like me,
She couldn’t have found another man like me
I did have this version, but it took me a while to get around to giving it a fresh listen. I’m not that well-versed on the career of James Booker, but I can say that this version of “St. James Infirmary” appears on an album called “Resurrection of the Bayou Maharaja ,” which draws on various live performances recorded at the Maple Leaf (in New Orleans). (Coincidentally, a different reader, in Baton Rouge, mentioned this version to me via email just the other day.)
As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I generally oppose lyrical variations that change the searching of the deceased from something eternal (“she can search this whole wide world over”) to something conditional (“she could have searched,” etc.). But there are a few little flourishes here that I like, particularly the “let’s just say they’re gonna bless her,” bit.
And really, the playing here is so soulful, you just can’t complain; it is, musically, one of the more striking takes I’ve heard. The sound is so heartbroken and raw. And given how things have gone in N.O. in the post-Katrina era to date, maybe that’s why it’s so much more striking to me lately…
Anyway: Several people have suggested that I include iTunes links to versions of “St. James Infirmary” that are available through the iTunes store, which would be an easy way to hear a 30-second sample (or, obviously, to buy the song if the sample sounds good). Here, then, is my first attempt to do so: