In case you’re wondering, yes, I still sometimes randomly hunt the Web for information about or references to “St. James Infirmary.” In just such a mode a few weeks ago, I found a reference to the song in the Amazon.com review of the sound track to the film In The Mood For Love, which said that a bonus track on that CD called “Blue” was “actually a version of the classic ‘St. James Infirmary.'” Well, being right there on Amazon, I bought it. And the reviewer had a point: “Blue,” a beautiful song, was clearly related “SJI.” The rather sketchy credits indicated that the piece was composed and arranged by Michael Galasso. So I Googled him, found his Web site, and learned that he was a quite successful and accomplished violinist, composer — and native of Hammond, Louisiana.
Of course it was the last bit that really got my attention. Figuring it never hurts to try, I sent him an email. The reply was much more than I could have reasonably hoped for. He sent back a wonderful letter telling the full, and fascinating, story of his relationship to New Orleans, to the blues, and to “St. James Infirmary.” With his permission, I quote from that email below, drawing also on some of the information from his site to fill in certain details.
I don’t know exactly where to start, so let’s go back to 1971-72 in New Orleans. At the time, I was playing my 2nd season in the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra (which hasn’t existed since sometime in the 80s; now it is the Louisiana Philharmonic). I was living on Ursuline Street between Bourbon and Royal. Ah, what memories….. N.O had not yet attracted the college spring break set, so Mardi Gras was mostly us locals — only the Quarter was jammed.
With one of his friends and colleagues from the symphony (1st French horn), Galasso started going over to the Quarter to hear Ellis Marsalis and the French brothers (Bob and George), among others.
In 1971, there were no jazz clubs in New Orleans! All of these great musicians were playing for the tourists at this place called the Storyville Club, and they were the Storyville Jazz Band. We got to be friends …. After awhile, we started asking if we could jam. But there was no where to go! We had met a folk singer who was playing down Bourbon in a folk club (it was 1971), so we went down there at 2 a.m. after they had finished at Storyville. That is how I learned to improvise — including “St James Infirmary.” Now, it is not easy for a classical violinist to learn how to improvise or play the blues. But I started there. I mean, I learned from Ellis Marsalis!
In the summer of 1972, Mr. Galasso left New Orleans, selling off everything (except his violin) and heading for Europe. There he met Robert Wilson, a life-changing encounter that led to his becoming a composer, collaborating with Wilson and others on an impressive variety of projects. (Just this past summer, for instance, a production of Peer Gynt conceived and directed by Wilson, with a score by Galasso, was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.) His most recent album, High Lines, was released last year.
Back to “St. James Infirmary,” and Galasso’s “Blue.” You might want to click here for a sound clip, lasting about a minute, of “Blue,” before moving on to Galasso’s comments on this particular piece. Turns out that this takes us back to New Orleans in the early 1970s, when he was learning to improvise and play the blues with Ellis Marsalis and the French brothers:
I remember Ellis and the French brothers saying “St. Jame Infirmary” was an old song from like 1908-1912 that guys used to play in New Orleans, and that Louis Armstrong learned it there. Nobody knew who wrote it, except they used to say it was the 1st blues song.”Blue” starts really like “St James Infirmary”, but doesn’t follow the exact chords or melody after that until it resolves at the end. … To me, in music, the basic thing is the chords. Melodies come after. (All of this is a huge simplification.) So my song is something between “St James Infirmary” and some other blues song. “St James Infirmary” is close to my heart and soul. It took me a long time to be able to play the blues.
“Blue” was recorded in October 1998, and first heard publicly the following month, in Stockholm, as part of the score for a production of Strindberg’s “A Dreamplay”. My Swedish musicians were classical players, and the basic instruments were lutes, all kinds of recorders (especially a “flauto dolce basso”), therebo (bass lute), violin, viola da gamba and Baroque cello, percussion, and an instrument called the nykelharpa — a Swedish violin that is something between a violin and a piano — that’s the weird sounding violin on “Blue.”
Now, when I heard “Blue,” I really liked it, and I knew it was because of the combination of the way it was familiar and original at the same time. Would I have predicted that it came from a blues-loving Louisiana-bred classical composer and violinist who encountered a traditional melody in a French Quarter bar and returned to it and reworked it a couple of decades and half a world later? No, I would not have predicted it. But maybe I should have.
As a final note: He lives in Paris now, but remains very much in touch with those musical (and familial) Louisiana roots, and was as affected and moved by the Katrina events as you would expect. In fact he’s currently doing some work that explores those very things, and when there is more to tell you about that, I will tell you.
My thanks to Mr. Galasso for his generosity in sharing his story.