The previous post about “fixing up” a traditional tune is a good lead-in to addressing one of the versinos of “SJI” that I bought using my Linkshare loot. It’s a a slow, spare, and fairly haunting arrangement, by Little Pink Anderson; it lasts more than seven minutes, and I like it a lot.
Little Pink Anderson is the son of the famous South Carolina bluesman Pink Anderson, who started out on the medicine show circuit, did a little recording, and died in 1974. (As everybody points out the members of Pink Floyd took the “Pink” in that name is a kind of homage to Anderson.) Little Pink Anderson has apprently said that this was the first song his father taught him. It appears on an album called Carolina Bluesman, which I believe was released in 2005. (There’s some conflicting information around on that, but I’m going with this All Music Guide entry.)
Anyway, the version is an interesting one to parse because of how Anderson decides to “fix up” the lyrics. As noted in my original long essay on this subject (available here or in Letters from New Orleans, which makes a great gift), some versions of “SJI” are pretty in the first person: I went down the infirmary and, etc. etc. Other versions have Big Joe McKennedy (or some variation thereof) telling the story at his bar. Here’s what Anderson does:
As I walked through St. James Infirmary
I saw my best girl there.
She was all stretched out on a long, white table,
So cool, so cold, fair.
To the left, there stood old Joe McKenzie
His eyes all bloodshot red.
You know Joe mumbled a few words,
A few words in pity.
And these are the words he said:
“Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be.
She can search this whole wide world over,
She’ll never find another fool like me.”
So far as I know, this is is a unique variation: For reasons that aren’t really clear, Big Joe McKenzie is actually hanging around the infirmary, with the body of the singer’s “best girl.” And, oddly enough, he promptly declares that she’ll never find another man like him! The nerve!
Now you could conclude that Anderson just got sloppy. Or, you could argue that he was creating a sense of mystery (see this earlier post on mystery & traditional music). Perhaps both the singer and Joe McKenzie were dating this woman. (Recall that the antecedant “The Unfortunate Rake” involved the singer/narrator bumming out because his girl just died of VD.)
Or, you could argue for some combination thereof: A sloppy lyrical take creates a new sense of mystery.
After a guitar break, the next bit is:
There were six coal black horses
Attached to a long black hearse
There were seven girls going to the graveyard
Only six was coming back.
I may get killed, I may get killed in the ocean.
I may get shot by a cannonball.
But if anyone here should happen to ask you,
Tell ’em that a woman was the cause of it it.
It’s impossible to say whether it’s the original singer/narrator talking, or if this is still Big Joe. This bit about getting killed by a cannonball and so on is seldom used, but it’s part of one of the lyrical variations that Carl Sandburg included (as “Those Gambler’s Blues”) in his 1927 American Songbag book. The Hokum Boys use a variation of it in on their 1929 “Gambler’s Blues No. 2.”
Similarly, it’s hard to know if it’s the singer Big Joe who raises the subject of his own death — although if they’ve got in common a woman who just died of a sexually transmitted disease, perhaps they both have a right to it:
Mama, when I die, I want you to bury me
In a long tail suit and a Stetson hat.
I want a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
Tell all the guys that I died standin’ pat*.
Now you done heard, you done heard my story.
Give me another shot of booze.
Then we can keep on, we’ll keep on singing
The St. James Infirmary Blues…