It is fair to say that I view “St. James Infirmary” as, fundamentally, a mystery. In particular, as I have made clear at some length elsewhere, there’s something quite enigmatic about the narrator’s line, vis a vis his dead lover: “She can search this wide world over / She’ll never find another sweet man like me.” (Or variations thereof.) Why would he say that? What does he mean? What exactly happened to her, and what makes him abruptly start talking about his own funeral?
It’s these mysteries that animate the song, and makes it worth listening to, in its many permutations. In a way, every version of the song is a fresh answer to the question of what, exactly, it’s about.
This comes to mind after reading this essay in a blog called Faking It (discovered by way of Zoilus), which is a spinoff of recent book: Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. The essay begins by quoting Bob Dylan (who of course has his own links to the “SJI” story) observing that: “You’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery is a fact, a traditional fact.” Writer Yuval Taylor says that whether or not this was an original Dylan insight or argument, “the idea took hold.”
Simply put, the idea was this: that in traditional American songs are mysteries, and these mysteries are not solvable ones. Instead they lend the music a quasi-religious significance. The mysteries in traditional American songs are akin to the mysteries of faith — the unknowability of God, of death, of salvation.
Then Taylor asks a good question: “Did the people who created and sang these songs find them mysterious themselves, or is the mystery we find in them purely a product of our distance from them?”
After surveying a few examples of songs that seem mysterious, Taylor comes to an answer:
I won’t claim that there’s nothing really mysterious about the old traditional American songs. But I do think that with a little digging you can find pretty reasonable explanations. Some songs were mysterious on purpose–Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night–Cold Was the Ground” is clearly meant to be as mysterious as God himself, especially since Blind Willie Johnson’s other songs are all about God. (Dolly Parton’s “The Mystery of the Mystery” is another song that falls firmly in the religious camp.) Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” is also deliberately mysterious, quite self-consciously so. Some songs, on the other hand, were mysterious as a joke. And some songs were simply nonsense–which is inherently mysterious if you try to take it seriously.
I’m going to come out and say it: Dylan was wrong. I think it’s important to make a distinction between the kind of mysteries one solves and the kind of mysteries that confront us when faced with the ineffable. It’s only natural and probably inevitable that we should confuse the two, so that what is not yet solved gains an aura of the sacred. We naturally, then, elevate the more mysterious products of our culture. The mysteries they evoke lend them depth, and we call them more authentic, among other things. This is what attracted Dylan and [Harry] Smith to them, and, in part, what caused them to elevate the “old, weird America” (to quote Greil Marcus) over, say, the relatively un-mysterious music of Duke Ellington or Cole Porter.
Clearly the things I am calling mysterious about “SJI” have explanations — up to a point. Delving into the song’s evolution, one can find answers to why the singer’s lover is dead, and why the singer may well have good reason to be thinking about his own mortality. (Again, I’ve had my say about that stuff.) Much of the mystery in more contemporary versions is just a side effect of direct narrative elements having fallen away or gotten reworked over many, many years of re-interpretation, across vast geography and diverse cultures.
This brings us to Taylor’s final point: “What makes mysteries compelling isn’t just letting them sit there, or accepting them as fact, as Dylan advocated. What makes mysteries compelling is trying to solve them. I hope I’ve solved a few, and I hope you can too.”
I have mixed feelings about that. Yes, it’s possible to “solve” the mystery of “St. James Infirmary,” or parts of it. Then again, one of the things that make it more sensible to describe the song as traditional, rather than attributing it to a single author, is its endless mutability — the fact that it defies any attempt to pin it down and say, with certainty, this is the song. Sure, as Taylor suggests, that may have a lot to do with our distance from the song’s origins. But as listeners, that’s where we reside: far away from the moment of creation.
And if we listeners can’t say this is the song, then we can’t say this is what the song is “about.” That’s what I mean when I say that every version is a different solution (some more satisfying than others, of course) to the mystery. And to the extent that anybody can pin down what the ever- mysterious Bob Dylan means, perhaps something like that is what he was suggesting when he called mystery “a traditional fact.”
Anyway, it’s an interesting essay — so here’s the link again.