Actually: Speaking of the Toussaint/Costello tune “Ascension Day,” it’s the song that made me zero on the phrase “let her go” in “SJI,” because I assumed (and actually still believe) that “SJI” is what Costello was referencing when he dropped it into his lyrics.
A reader pointed out to me some time ago that the phrase probably found its way into “SJI” from elsewhere. Moreover, heroic “SJI” researcher and author Robert W. Harwood and the readers of his I Went Down To St. James Infirmary blog have since traced it back to at least 1909. Now: He has a new post on the matter, concerning a tune called “She’s Gone Let Her Go,” appearing in, of all places, a 1902 book of “Harvard University Songs”:
“She’s Gone, Let Her Go,” with its chorus that is so familiar from SJI, appears on page 72. The melody is utterly ordinary, a kind of parlor ditty that one could imagine being sung by hearty fellows in argyle sweaters, gathered around a piano with drinks in their hands. The lyric is the same as that identified in a March 21st entry on this blog, from the 1909 Harvard song book. The fact that it has appeared in at least two of these books, and that it is joined by only twenty-six others in this 1902 book, attests to its popularity at the time – at least among students at Harvard.
Mr. Harwood’s new post is here.