I can’t say I was ever much of an expert on piano and Hammond B-3 player Joe Krown. While he gigged around town a lot when we lived in New Orleans, I’m not sure I ever saw him perform. But I was obviously interested to learn that he’s got a take of “St. James Infirmary” on his new CD, Old Friends. Particularly because of this bit in a recent Times-Picayune piece:
In those first few months after Hurricane Katrina, keyboardist Joe Krown marveled at audiences’ heightened response to well-worn New Orleans standards.
“People were crying,” Krown said. “It was a very emotional thing, to come back into the city for the first time, see your home, then go hear a band and we cut into a version of ‘Junko Partner’ or ‘St. James Infirmary.’ All of a sudden it had a different meaning to everybody.”
Certainly it’s true that a lot of New Orleansy songs have taken on different textures and resonances since Katrina. And while I can’t always tell, given my skewed perspective, it’s seemed to me that “SJI” is one that’s become a far sadder listen since the flood. If you’ve seen the Spike Lee documentary, you may have noticed the rather prominent role of the song in the first episode of the series.
Obviously I think it makes a certain sense that a song with a long history and many interpretations should continue to change over time — even if the change is more in how we hear it than in the song itself. One of the things that keeps me interested in “SJI” is that I think it’s a particularly dynamic piece, for listeners as well as performers.
But it’s hard for me to isolate exactly what it is that makes it feel different after Katrina, or perhaps makes it feel resonant with the post-Katrina world. It could be something as simple as the refrain, “Let her go,” and the sentiment of letting go of a person (or thing) that is tragically disappeared. (I don’t want to say dead.)
Perhaps less gloomily, the song’s note of what I have argued is a kind of defiance in the face of the fates is also, I suspect, relevant.
Or maybe it’s just the pure musical sound of it that matters. Listening now to the Joe Krown version (vocals Brint Anderson, I think), the tune is such a lament. In some versions, of course, it starts that way, then winds upward into celebration, a jazz funeral in a single song. But here it stays low and soulfully sad. Maybe that’s just the only way to play it right now. It’s comfortable — an old friend, as the title of Krown’s CD suggests. I can’t complain: It’s a nice take.
“St. James Infirmary,” Joe Krown