[A couple months ago the folks at Offbeat in New Orleans gave me the opportunity to write something about “St. James Infirmary” for their JazzFest issue. I proposed a set of liner notes to a fantasy compilation CD — an all-“SJI” compilation of course. The piece was published, but isn’t online, so with Offbeat‘s permission, I share it with you here.]
For longer than I care to admit, I’ve had what might be politely described as an intense interest in the song “St. James Infirmary.” I don’t know where or when I heard it the first time, but I do know where and when my obsession began: New Orleans, in 1998. On a visit from New York, my then-girlfriend (now wife) E and I heard the Hot 8 play the tune at Donna’s, and for whatever reason, I couldn’t forget it – and didn’t want to, really.
Later we moved to New Orleans for several years, a period I wrote about in a book of essays called Letters From New Orleans. That book included a chapter about my “SJI” devotion and exploration, but I won’t recapitulate the song’s history here. The point is my interest didn’t subside, and after the book I started a blog called nonotes.wordpress.com to document even more devotion and exploration. (You can find a link to the history-and-meaning essay there, if you like.) Along the way I’ve acquired – oh my – more than 130 versions of the song and its variations.
The tune will almost certainly be in the air at Jazz Fest. Aside from the Hot 8, Ellis Marsalis, Dr. John, Nicholas Payton, Trombone Shorty, Ingrid Lucia, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Bob French are among this year’s performers who have recorded it in the past. Both Cassandra Wilson and Art Neville are reported to have recorded it for forthcoming records. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint include a snippet of the song’s lyrics in their “Ascension Day.” And so on.
More than once it’s occurred to me how much fun — and what a challenge — it would be to put together my dream all-“SJI” compilation. I haven’t quite landed the record-label meetings to make that a reality just yet, but while we wait for that, maybe I’ll just go ahead and write up the liner notes. Here goes:1. “St. James Infirmary,” Louis Armstrong. Starting wit h the 1928 recording is mandatory. The song existed, and indeed had been recorded prior to this moment, but that’s a story for another time and place. This version remains the standard by which all others must be judged, the reference point for every variation. It opens with a note of melancholy that never quite goes away, even when things get noisy as the song unfolds; Armstrong sings a pared-down version of the lyrics that implies a story but leaves many blank spaces for the listener to fill in: The image of the lover stretched out on a long white table hardly has time to sink in before the narration switches from grieving to the odd declaration that “she’ll never find a sweet man like me,” and the even more curious leap to the singer musing over his own funeral arrangements. To listen once is to want to hear it again.
2. “St. James Infirmary Blues,” Hall Johnson Negro Choir. The 1931 recording uses a fuller set of lyrics but is most striking for the full-on gospel chorus and almost operatic drama of the arrangement. Suddenly the song is not just tragic but a cautionary tale – before a kind of strangely jaunty ending that I suppose suggests some kind of redemption. It seems over the top (and, uh, preachy) after Amstrong’s restraint, but it makes a point: Whatever the song is about, it’s certainly about eternity.
3. “St. James Infirmary,” Django Rheinhardt. Recorded in Rome around 1950, this quiet version uses no lyrics at all, but the soulful and stripped feel makes the point loud and clear: A raw, introspective lament.
4. “St. James Infirmary,” Baby Face Willette. The sequencing here causes a transition from sad to swing that’s either jarring, smile-inducing, or both. This is a super-cool instrumental, almost a lounge track, with Willette’s peppery organ. A reader sent it to me a while ago and I admit that when I heard it, the idea of an interpretation like this was not something I’d anticipated. Then again, it does make a kind of sense. The song’s sadness is always tempered bravado – by the narrator’s cool. That’s what you hear.
5. “St. James Infirmary,” Pérez Prado. As long as we’re swinging, let’s take that idea to the extreme as only Prado can: This instrumental isn’t merely cool, it’s bombastic. This version came to me by way of Doug Schulkind, a wonderful WFMU DJ, and it too caught me off guard. But think of the way the song is often performed in jazz funerals in New Orleans to this day: Starting as a dirge and building into a frenzy; like the jazz funeral idea in general, it transitions to a joyousness that celebrates life and defies death. Prado’s take simply skips that first part, and makes you want to dance.
6. “St. James Infirmary,” Snooks Eaglin. Another sequencing juxtaposition: Here is Eaglin recorded in 1959 for a Folkways disc when he was not yet a New Orleans institution, but rather a “New Orleans Street Singer.” Alone with an acoustic guitar, his mood won’t be mistaken for joy. He’s a man with a sad story to tell. Philosophical, fatalistic: blues. There have been quite a few blues variations on the tune, and perhaps the most famous is actually “The Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” recorded by Blind Willie McTell, in which he invents a different narrative of his own. Dylan freaks among you may know his song “Blind Willie McTell,” which begins with a reference to “the St. James hotel.” In a recent episode of Dylan’s satellite radio show, he talked about “St. James Infirmary,” and then proceeded to spin … this very Snooks Eaglin version. So you see, it all comes around.
7. “Touro Infirmary,” Dr. John. Clearly, then, one of the charms of “SJI” is not the way not only different musical performances open it up, but the way the lyrics get rewritten to tell whole new stories. I can’t include all of them on my imaginary CD, so instead of the McTell/Dylan branch, I’m going with Dr. John’s “Touro Infirmary,” in which he converts the story from concerning a lost lover to a lost friend, twisting out the words in that unique blend of anguish and soul, floating over his own piano accompaniment and nothing else. Everybody knows that “St. James Infirmary,” wherever it may have originated, is a New Orleans song. This version just proves that all over again.
8. “St. James Infirmary Blues,” The White Stripes. Among jazz versions, the one people are mostly likely to know after Armstrong’s take is probably Cab Calloway’s, which I’ve neglected here. But I include The White Stripes, because their version owes a great deal to his: The Detroit indie rockers may be, you know, indie rockers, and Jack White may style himself as a blues aficianado, but the White Stripes are big on the theater of musical performance. That’s why their borrowing of the borderline hamminess of Calloway makes so much sense. That’s particularly true in assessing whether “SJI” can survive in our modern times when everything comes with an ironic wink – thus the absurdity of White belting this out like a vaudevillian, and throwing in a completely made-up nonsense stanza. Suddenly “St. James Infirmary” is ready for college radio.
9. “St. James Infirmary,” Main Squeeze Orchestra. Daniel Dunham, proprietor of an excellent Podcast called The Sounds in My Head (he even let me guest-DJ an all-“SJI” episode once) passed this one along. The Main Squeeze Orchestra is an all-accordion band. Their version has a wistful quality, and a distinctly Eastern European flair. I include it here as a bridge between the college-alt-radio idea, and what comes next.
10. “Chusen Kalah Mazel Tov,” Steve Bernstein. Okay, including this track from Bernstein’s “Diaspora Soul” album is, technically, cheating, insofar as, technically, it’s not “St. James Infirmary.” However: One of the most interesting letters I ever got from a reader was one suggesting parallels between “SJI” and music played by traveling Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the U.S. The song’s structure, he told me, echoes that found in many traditional melodies that such musicians would know well. This made me think of how Bernstein’s “Diaspora Soul,” which is a musical examination of both Gulf Coast and Jewish sounds, has a number of passages that always reminded me of “SJI.” Especially this tune. More recently, Bernstein himself has suggested parallels between “SJI” and a traditional Jewish tune, “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem.” But I’m going to go with my own ears: This is the tune that first sparked in me the potential connections between “St. James Infirmary” and traditional Jewish music, one I’m still exploring.
11. “Blue,” Michael Galasso. Another cheat. But another fair one, and one that moves the tune into the realm of classical music, performed with lutes, recorders, strings. This ethereal and lovely work by composer Michael Galasso (who has collaborated with Robert Wilson, among others) is part of the sound track to the film In The Mood For Love. While it is not “St. James Infirmary,” you can hear “St. James Infirmary” in it – or at least that’s what I thought. And in this case I went right to the source. Mr. Galosso wrote me a surprising letter in reply. For one thing, turns out he’s from Hammond, LA. For another, he spent some time in New Orleans as part of the Louisiana Philharmonic in the early 1970s, and used to join in after-hours jam sessions in the Quarter with the likes of Ellis Marsalis and Bob and George French: “That is how I learned to improvise — including ‘St James Infirmary.’ Now, it is not easy for a classical violinist to learn how to improvise or play the blues. But I started there.” And he had quite good teachers.
12. “St. James Infirmary,” Marc Ribot. Taken from Ribot’s excellent solo-guitar album Saints, this is a more-with-less performance, a radical experiment of the sort that could render the tune bloodless. But what Ribot does isn’t reduce it to the core, but reveal the core. Stripped nearly bare, the melody remains a beauty.
13. “It Ain’t Necessarily the Saint James Infirmary Blues,” Frank Zappa. Dylan fanatics are notorious for their never-ending deconstruction of their hero’s every utterance and maneuver, but Zappa fans hold their own in this regard. So I’m reluctant to venture too far into analyzing what he is up to, or what he meant to reveal, in this rather wildly performed mashup from the 1988 album Guitar. I like it following Ribot because instead of a crunchy squeeze of the song, it’s a luxurious stretch. To me it’s more of an intellectual exercise than a pleasure, but finding “SJI” at the center of such thing is another revelation in itself.
14. “Those Gambler’s Blues,” Jimmie Rodgers. Zappa and Ribot and others reinvented the song musically, Dr. John and Blind Willie McTell are among those who reinvented it lyrically. These are not consequences of modernity: They are confirmations of tradition. Long before someone managed to claim the copyright on “SJI,” the song had been around, in various forms tracing back to an old English folk ballad called “The Unfortunate Rake.” You can read all about that with my other musings in that essay in Letters from New Orleans, or at the blog. But better than that is a listen to what Jimmie Rodgers did in 1930: With his own set of lyrics and a title plucked from another of the song’s long and varied roots, he transforms the song you recognize into a country-blues heartbreaker that somehow retains all the mysticism of Armstrong’s performance. It says something about an artist who can make a traditional song sound so truly his own. And it says something about the song, too.
Hidden Bonus Track: The set above runs almost 49 minutes, which is about the most an album ever should, but I’ll throw in one more version, because it doesn’t exactly exist. For me, for personal and sentimental reasons, the ultimate version of “St. James Infirmary” will always be the one I heard the Hot 8 perform that night at Donna’s years ago. Part of the charm is that you had to be there, and maybe you had to be me, to really appreciate it. Sometimes no recording means much next to a memory. To my knowledge, the Hot 8 have not put a version of “SJI” on record, but maybe when the record-company advance comes through for me to put this project together, I’ll approach the makers of a 30-minute documentary about the group from 2003, titled The Hot 8. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, it’s made up of interviews and performances, and at one point, toward the end, used as background music, is the veteran brass band’s version (at the time anyway) of “St. James Infirmary.” So there is a recording out there somewhere.
But never mind that, and never mind any of these recordings. Listen for the song at the Fest. Maybe you’ll hear a version that you really have to be present to appreciate. Odds are good.