Life and work are still throwing up many barriers that prevent me from spending as much time pondering “SJI” as I would like. But meanwhile, our friend and much-admired fellow-“SJI” enthusiast/scholar Robert W. Harwood has got a pretty interesting series of posts going over at his I Went Down To St. James Infirmary blog. Especially if you like drilling down into particular phrases of the “SJI” lyric. Which, of course, I do.
To be specific: If you know the song at all you know the line, “Let her go, let her go, God bless her.” Well, turns out a very similar line appears as far back as 1909, in a tune apparently titled, “She’s Gone, Let her Go,” discussed here. The bit that’s most relevant is this:
She’s gone, let her go, God bless her,
For she’s mine wherever she may be,
You may roam this wide world all over,
But you’ll never find a friend like me.
Now that’s extremely “SJI”-ish, and more or less captures the sentiment that’s long fascinated me: Addressing a departed lover with the curious sentiment that she’ll never find a suitable replacement — curious, obviously, because it seems like a needless point to make, insofar as she as, um, dead. Notable also is the use of “a friend,” which is echoed in a number of versions of “SJI” and/or “Gamblers Blues,” though often with “pal” used instead. (The more typical “SJI” word choice over the past 75 or so years is of course ” man,” rather than friend or pal.)
So this sparked a memory of an earlier post here about previous usages of “Let her go.” After I’d suggested the inclusion of that phrase by Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint in their “Ascension Day” collaboration was a kind of quasi-quotation of “SJI,” a reader pointed out to me that the phrase’s inclusion in “SJI” is probably a quasi-quotation of something else:
“Let her go, let her go” is “not native to the song ‘St. James Infirmary.’ Rather, it is a graft, from an old song which may be of Irish origin. It’s variously known as ‘Go and Leave Me If You Wish To,’ ‘Dear Companion,’ or ‘Fond Affection,’ and it’s a song of lost love (lost as in an abandoned lover, not lost to death). It’s really a family of songs, just as ‘St. James’ Hospital/Infirmary’ is, with somewhat fluid boundaries. It’s also a line that floats into a few other songs, including ‘Sweet Heaven.’”
One of the precedents he specifically pointed me to, “Dear Companion,” appears to date from … 1909.
Anyway, back to Mr. Harwood’s current series of posts. Most recently, he reveals the lyrics to what I gather is a 1926 piece called “Old Time Gambler’s Song.” This is fascinating, in that it has a lot of the key lyric elements of “SJI,” albeit tweaked (or I guess, waiting to be tweaked). I’ll just zero in on this passage:
If she’s gone, let her go, God bless her,
For she’s mine wherever she may be;
You may search this wide world over
You’ll never find another pal such as she
Ah! Now, that’s an interesting narrative shift — from the voice of a man telling his own story to a sort of omniscient voice speaking to the narrator: You, singer of this lament, will never find another like this dead woman you now behold.
That’s an almost gratuitously devastating thing to say. But it is also rather logically in line with the kind of sentiment that would be running through one’s head at such a grim moment. In other words, the lyric (to me) makes more “sense,” in conventional terms, than the lyric we all know.
And of course in my view, it’s the version we all know — with its mystically wrong sentiments — that fascinates and beguiles.
So: Did it simply come about as a result of a mistake — a lyrical snafu brough about the way folk songs spread, a bit like a game of “telephone”? Well, maybe it did.
And what, might I ask you, would be wrong with that?