That’s right, Andy Griffith’s take.
Months and months ago, when this site was in a bit of flux, reader Neal T. sent me an interesting note, which read in part:
As a SJI completist, I have trouble deciding if versions such as Andy Griffith and Lily Tomlin should be included in a collection. Also, what about when a cover band releases a CD with the song on it. What are you thoughts on these issues?
Leaving aside my thoughts about cover-band versions for the moment, I think oddball versions like Tomlin’s quasi-famous (and basically inexplicable) performance of the song on Saturday Night Live in the mid 1970s definitely “count,” as it were. As for Griffith’s version, I was aware it existed, but at the time had never heard it. Neal graciously sent it to me.
I don’t really know precisely what the context of Griffith singing “St. James Infirmary” is, but his version is a bit of a doozy. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes. You can hear a bit of it here, on the Andy Griffith page of the Mad Music Archive. The style in which he sings it is something I guess I would call backwoods lounge music — kind of a swinging arrangment, topped by corn-pone chatter-singing.
His intro goes like this:
This is a piece called “The St. James Infirmary.” Now, I don’t know zactly where it is. They is, on Route 66, in St., St. James, Missouri, they is a St. James Federal hospital that I know about. Now why they put yankees in the South, I don’t know, but it’s all right, I guess.
Some of the boys claim, now, that St. James Infirmary itself is a hospital in hell. Now I don’t know. Never having been there.
So, let’s stop right there for a second. What the hell is he talking about? Missouri? And does his bit about yankees in the South make any sense to you? And his joke about “never having been there myself” — kinda Hee Haw.
For the record, it appears there really is a St. James, MO.
Anyway. Here’s Griffith’s version of the lyrics:
It was down in Old Joe’s Barrom.
Now that’s on the corner.
You know, down by the square?
The drinks were served as usual,
And the usual crowd was boozin’ there.
Now on my left stood Big Joe McKnight.
And his eyes, they were just this bloodshot red.
From drankin’ or cryin’, one.
I love that little vamp about why Big Joe’s eyes might be red. Griffith kind of sounds like he’s doing a cold first reading of the lyrics, and trying to punch it up a bit so you’ll believe him.
Now he turned to the crowd that was standin’ around in there,
And they claim this is what he said.
They claim! At this point, he starts to sing, and pretty much does the lyrics as you’re used to hearing them. Although it’s interesting to note that in addition to, for example, the lyrics in the Louis Armstrong version, he sings the additional verse about crapshooters as pallbearers, and toward the end describes himself as having “those gambler’s blues,” then he circles back around and repeats the “never find another man like me” verse.
By and large, it’s a hash, and pretty much awful. But in the best possible way. I love it.
Thanks again, Neal T.