A while back, Rosemarie Harmon wrote in with an interesting observation, about “St. James Infirmary.” She is at work on a book, The Moral Career of a Stripper, and said that “St. James Infirmary” was, at one time, “a standard for exotic dancers – before rock ‘n’ roll ht the skin houses.” She continued:
“I worked with a jazz pianist who couldn’t sing a note, she ‘talked’ her way through songs, but she was impressive, going by Mother Light at the time (around 1969/70). She had a lot of a/k/a’s, including Tug Boat Annie, when she worked at the River Queen in Portland. Which brings me to her version of ‘St. James Infirmary’: she said it was a song about a group of poor people who were deliberately infected with venereal disease as part of a scientific/medical experiment. She didn’t say where the Infirmary was, for some reason I heard, or dreamed, or something, that St. James Infirmary was in Western Canada, possibly Vancouver B.C.”
This intriguing information inspired a few questions, which Ms. Harmon graciously answers, below.
Q: You say you “worked with” Mother Light — worked with her in what sense, if you don’t mind my asking?
A: I was an exotic dancer — September Rose — for the better part of 25 years. I had a pretty face and a ninth-grade education, and the welfare dime wasn’t for me. It took two decades to earn a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and then an MFA in creative writing.
I worked with Mother Light in the sense that she tutored me: the green-as-grass strutter who could dance to anything, but who had never heard of four/four time, six/eight time, nothing. She often stopped by the bar where I worked and we’d chat while she sucked down a couple of drinks after her gig was over. She’d played all over the West Coast. She didn’t back strippers anymore, but she told me about the old days, the tough times, when she had to forget her classical/jazz roots and get up on the stand with musicians who couldn’t read music. She’d bang out “Satin Doll” on an out-of-tune piano and be grateful for a paycheck. That is, if the club owner was sober enough to pay up at the end of the week!
She’d always enjoyed the dancers. By telling me her story, she dignified my experience. I learned there were many generations of performers like me — poor folk who worked the fairs, the carnivals, the road houses, supper clubs, burlesque theaters, nightclubs and more, all over America.
Q: Was “St. James Infirmary” a good pick for a burlesque performance?
A: It was usually used for what was then called “floor work,” or a “floor routine”. (Now it is referred to as a “floor show”, which used to mean the entire revue, musicians, chorus girls, singers, the works.) Anyway, as a dirge with a sensual and sorrowful tone, this piece was a natural for the way floor routines were done when exotic dancers posed on fur rugs and couches and used other props during their floor work. This floor work was the /last/ number, the finale, done in a languid, graceful way. There was never any hopping up and down to grab a buck because dancers didn’t work for tips at that time. Pole dancing was a future event.
Mother Light and I mused that “St. James Infirmary” was also about death: “…and I saw my baby there… stretched out on a long white table, so pale, so cold, and so fair…” We thought that death, the long sleep, and the long white limbs of a stripper who was doing her finale (and most strippers were white at that time; women of color were referred to as “novelty acts”) — a dancer so passively displayed probably had a huge appeal to men who were habitués of these skin palaces. They came to see females who were the antithesis of modern woman: no voice, presumably no education, naked and physically vulnerable. Although not necessarily available–which is another theory altogether.
Q: What else might you be willing to say about yourself, and your book?
I left Portland, Oregon and came to the East Coast via a long, lonely Midwest tour, almost exactly 21 years ago. Arrived with that ninth grade education and a trunk full of costumes that smelled like cheap cologne and cigarette smoke. I’m an artist, and I’ve also been a costume designer, a hair dresser. I figure I could write for True Romance magazine and never run out of stories! I loved the people who have become characters in my books. I want to preserve their histories.
The Moral Career of a Stripper is one of four unfinished works. It’s about coming of age in the midst of the women’s movement. I loved the stage and the night life, it was difficult to reconcile my image of myself with the one that the feminists put out: strippers were anachronisms, traitors to the cause of women’s rights. These days I refer to myself as a recovering feminist, although I value and defend most of the dogma. Lots of conflict and confession there!
The other books-in-progress are Dirty Little Girl (as a fifteen-year-old hooker); Lock Jockey, which is told from the perspective of a kid who was a consumer of social services, then as an adult who delivered those services (I was in reformatories for six years, almost all of my adolescence; after I left the dance business I went to work in the human service industry); and From An Ex-Con in Corporate America, which details the experience of me surfacing and joining the hordes of office workers and the nine-to-fivers. It was a pretty startling transition. Trying to tone down the red hair and ankle bracelets (which I still loved), watch the swears and the hearty laughter. All these would be considered creative non-fiction, rather than autobiography.
Q: Thanks for all the answers — and good luck with the book(s)!
A: Thanks for all the questions. . . I love the subject, and the history.