For the most part, in thinking about “St. James Infirmary” I have focused on the song’s descent from an English/Irish folk song, and how it seems to have been transformed and tweaked (particularly by African-Americans) into blues and jazz styles.
But reader Larry Broomberg once suggested to me another line of influence that, to date, I’ve not had a change to explore more fully. But I’ll share it here, and perhaps someone out there will have a suggestion or two.
What he suggested is a possible connection to Eastern European Jewish musicians in the U.S. It seems he was looking for musical numbers to play at a function organized for the Jewish Cultural Council of Grand Rapids, MI, and got interested in “St. James Infirmary.” He wrote to me:
“I was drawn to this particular piece by its simplistic structure and just wondered if there was a trace of Eastern European influence. The Dm, A7th, Dm, Bb, A7th Dm, Bb7, A7, Dm stream is so like many ‘traditional’ Jewish melodies of Eastern European origin. We know that the early Jewish immigrants found acceptance and boarding with many ‘negro’ families in the South. I could not help conjuring up the scenario of a couple of these immigrants with some musical talent, singing or playing these traditional numbers being overheard by a local originator of the blues who was then influenced by those minor harmonies when creating a lament for the passing of his lady!”
Later he added:
“The Klezmer tradition was, as you may well know, one of musicians going from village to village in the countries of Eastern Europe playing for weddings, bar mitzvahs or anything else that they could celebrate in between pogroms. Many of these people immigrated to the USA and found little acceptance into society anywhere outside Delancey Street, NY. Many found work as traveling salesmen in the southern states, and that’s where they established a kinsmanship with the black population, who were having their own social integration problems.”
Well, I was pretty fascinated by that possibility, and still am. But apart from, you know, a passing familiarity with klezmer music, I know very little about any of this — certainly I’m not knowledgeable about Jewish musicians who emigrated and ended up as traveling salesmen in the South.
What really gave me pause is I had actually noticed before that a couple of songs on a Steven Bernstein CD called Diaspora Soul (which Amazon.com summarizes as the “result of Bernstein’s desire to combine what he described as ‘the Gulf Coast sound, encompassing Texas and Cuba’ with traditional Hebrew music”) have “St. James”-like melodies, to my ears, anyway. Particularly one called “Chusen Kalah Mazel Tov.” I’d never really given much thought to this — beyond entertaining the possibility that I’ve listened to “St. James Infirmary” so many times that I hear it even when it’s not there.
So, I put all this on the record, and the Web, on the off chance that it will lead to suggestions about how to research it further. Is there a definitive book, for example, on this subject? Email me (walker at robwalker.net) or comment below, if you have thoughts.