Earlier I mentioned the new album, Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook: Volume 1, which includes a rendition of “St. James Infirmary.”
The Old Town School of Folk Music itself is an institution based in Chicago, and founded in December 1957. “The first five years of the School’s history mirrored the boom in folk music at that time,” an official history explains. “Enrollment grew and programs expanded. Over 150 students attended guitar and banjo classes on a weekly basis.” The school also hosted performances by people like Big Bill Broozny and Josh White. (White’s “SJI” rejiggering, “Free and Equal Blues,” is discussed here.)
The school grew through the 1960s, declinded in the 1970s, then has gradually rebounded. “Today enrollment in Old Town School tuition programs averages close to 6,000 students per week, 2,700 of them children,” the site says, and the school offers various community programs and workshops and so on.
As the previously noted Chicago Sun-Times article explained, along the way the school has had a kind of semi-official songbook — originally a stapled-together batch of “117 easy-to-learn songs reflecting the North American folk music tradition — songs such as ‘Trouble in Mind,’ ‘Deep River Blues,’ ‘St. James Infirmary’ and ‘Midnight Special.'” This songbook is less of an actual book than a periodically revised collection. Now the school has rounded up a variety of performers to do renditions of many of the songs on a series of four CDs, the first of which is, of course, the thing I’m writing about here.
The version of “SJI” on the disc is performed by Pete Special. I don’t know much about him, but I gather he’s a contemporary Chicago blues-club guy; here’s his sparse site (it plays music at you the second you arrive, so be warned), and here’s something with a glowing quote about him from Dan Akroyd. He’s got a growly voice, maybe a little like Dr. John, or possibly Tom Waits. His take on the tune is, for my take, both a little too traditional (in the arrangement) and a little too hammy (in the vocal delivery). But maybe that’s just me.