From time to time I’m asked which version of “St. James Infirmary” is my favorite. Of course, I cannot choose. However, it recently occurred to me that what I might do is offer up, as a kind of elaborate dodge to answering the question, a guide to some versions of the song that I like a lot and that are available on iTunes. (So this isn’t exactly my top eight — it’s eight that are easy to buy.) I know not everybody uses iTunes, and it’s no skin off my nose if you’d prefer never to use it yourself. It just seems like a handy thing to do. So here goes: an eight-song buyer’s guide.
1. It’s mandatory to start with Louis Armstrong‘s 1928 version of the song. Among other reasons, I believe this is the blueprint for the many, many New Orleans musicians who continue to perform “St. James Inifrmary” to this day.
Louis Armstrong, “St. James Infirmary.”
2. The Hokum Boys recorded two versions of the song, and both are phenomenal. I’m going to choose the take that’s titled “Gambler’s Blues No. 2.” At some point I intend to do an entry on their versions, when I’ve had a chance to do a little more research. (By the way any good tips regarding Hokum Boys history are welcome.) Lots of great lyrical flourishes.
The Hokum Boys, “Gambler’s Blues No. 2”
3. Among recent-ish takes on the tune, I like Marc Ribot‘s instrumental on his solo-guitar record Saints, released in 2001. I’m a bit biased here, because I’m a big fan of basically everything Ribot does, from his solo work, his astonishing albums with Los Cubanos Postizos, and his playing on other people’s records (including, for instance, my all-time favorite guitar solo, the one in Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon”). Maybe this version isn’t for everybody, but I enjoy it quite a bit.
Marc Ribot, “St. James Infirmary.”
4. I wrote about James Booker‘s version a while back, and don’t have much to add. It’s really beautiful.
James Booker, “St. James Infirmary”
5. Another nice instrumental version is Red Garland‘s. I don’t know any more about the Texas-born piano player than any other casual jazz fan, and actually I don’t really even remember how and when I first heard this version. I think it may have been a part of the binge that I went on a few years ago when I first decided I was going to do some research on “St. James Infirmary.” This mellow, pretty, beguiling take stood out then, and it stands out now.
Red Garland, “St. James Infirmary.”
6. More than a year ago now a reader named Nate Lane sent me a great version by Jack Teagarden. Teagarden recorded the song more than once, but the one I’m referring to is a live performance at Club Hangover, evidently part of a series of radio broadcasts from that San Francisco club recorded in 1954. It’s an instrumental version, and the opening section in particular is so mysterious and sexy, with gently primal percussion, and the horn and piano parts so smooth — and, something about the background crowd chatter and clinking glasses always gets me. This would be great in a movie. A black and white movie. The other interesting thing about it is that the end of this thoroughly riveting performance there’s polite applause and then this incredibly awkward bit from the guy who is I guess the host, who sounds like the world’s biggest square, describes how, “Jack disassembled his trombone — heh, heh — and used the forward portion of same,” blowing into “a glass that he employs for this purpose,” etc. A truly absurd coda.
Jack Teagarden, “St. James Infirmary” (1954 Club Hangover recording)
7. It’s interesting to note that the now-famous White Stripes recorded this tune their first record. I don’t know that I think it’s a remarkable version, but it’s not bad. I bet Jack White would have some interesting things to say about the song.
The White Stripes, “St. James Infirmary Blues”
8. I also did an earlier entry on Dr. John‘s reworking of the song into “Touro Blues.” Definitely one of my favorites.
Dr. John, “Touro Infirmary”