I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there.
She was stretched out on a long white table, so sweet,
So cold, so bare.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be,
She can search this whole wide world over,
She ain’t never gonna find another man like me.
In the badly-in-need-of-updating essay I wrote about “SJI” a few years ago, I went on and on about how the song’s opening passages in the version that’s most commonly heard in New Orleans — above — is a major part of what captivates me: the singer beholds his dead lover, and promptly declares that “She can search this whole wide world over; she ain’t never gonna find another man like me.” Since I’m practically self-plagiarizing, I may as well just resort to quoting myself:
That passage I’m so obsessed with does not appear in the old English “Rake” songs, nor is it in either version of the lyrics provided by Sandburg, or in McTell’s version. In one of the sets of lyrics that Sandburg offers, the line is replaced with, “There’ll never be another like her; there’ll never be another for me.” This is the way the Hall Johnson Negro Choir did it in December 1931, and it’s also the reading that Bobby Bland went with decades later. It’s certainly a more traditional and less jarring sentiment. And it’s much less interesting.
The line is omitted from Fess Williams’ 1927 take, which skips straight from the image of the dead woman to the narrator discussing his own funeral…
The references there are several. Most notably, the “Rake” songs refers to the line of songs stretching back, perhaps, to Ireland in 1790. The root song, “The Unfortunate Rake,” concerns a man lamenting that his lover has given him syphilis. It’s a scenario that naturally raises the subject of betrayal, and of the singer’s own demise as a result of it. “Streets of Laredo” is the more obvious descendant of this song cycle, but “SJI” is often described, by me among others, as a kind of spinoff or offshoot. Robert W. Harwood’s I Went Down To St. James Infirmary teases out a more detailed history of the “SJI” we all know and love today. In particular, he zeroes in on the creation of the song “Gambler’s Blues,” credited to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter (and recorded by Fess Williams in 1927), that is pretty darn close to the song that Louis Armstrong recorded in 1928 , and that was later attributed to “Joe Primrose” (Irving Mills). Please see Mr. Harwood’s book for details, because I can’t do the whole story justice here, and I have something else I want to say.
What I want to say concerns that “Let her go” bit. And I guess I should warn you that this is a very, very long post.
As noted above, the “Let her go” passage is not in the versions of “Gambler’s Blues” recorded by Williams, or published by Carl Sandburg in his 1927 American Songbag book of traditional tunes. Still, I so much associate that bit with “SJI” that I once casually stated on this site that when Elvis Costello dropped the phrase into a song a couple years ago, he was referencing “SJI.” This brought a correction from a reader, Paul Stamler, who pointed out that the “Let her go” line actually existed in a whole other trail of songs that had nothing to do with the “Rake” cycle or its descendants:
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.’
Mr. Stamler directed me to the “Traditional Ballad Index,” associated with the folklore department of California State University, Fresno, where there is an entry on “Dear Companion.” More recently, Mr. Harwood has done a series of valuable posts relating to what I guess could be considered the “Let her go” cycle. These songs are not about about a dead lover, or sexually transmitted diseases. These songs are about being jilted.
We saw one example yesterday, with the Nelstone’s Hawaiians song from the late 1920s. Mr. Harwood has also noted a 1902 book called Harvard University Songs that includes “She’s Gone, Let Her Go,” which also appears in a Harvard Club of San Francisco songbook from 1909 (lyrics here) opens this way:
They say true love is a blessing,
But the blessing I never could see,
For the only girl I ever loved
Has done gone back on me.
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.
So you see: The singer is simply brokenhearted, possibly bitter, but ultimately just sort of sad. His declaration that his lost love will never find another like him is, to put it mildly, not convincing.
Oh she turned me down last summer
For she said she didn’t love me anymore;
But now she has written that she’ll be my wife
An I’ve gone and joined the Flying Corps.
She has gone, let her go, God Bless her
She is mine wherever she may be
She may search this wide world over
But she’ll never find another like me.
I’m not quite sure how to read that. She’s told you she’ll be your wife … and then a line later “she has gone”? Perhaps the idea is that the airman must simply put all such thoughts behind him. And the singer throws in the (kind of pointless) boast that he’s the best thing that ever happened to her anyway, just to make himself feel better?
In any case, what seems bizarre in “SJI” (bragging that your ex will never find another like you when she’s, um, dead) pretty much makes sense in these songs of simply being jilted, betrayed, dumped, or otherwise involuntarily separated from a living lover who either has moved on to others, or will.
This brings us to the “graft,” as Mr. Stamler called it. “Gambler’s Blues” / “SJI,” being at heart a traditional folk tune, is a bit of a cut-and-paste mashup, and clearly one of the elements that made its way into the version that became canonical (once it was copyrighted) is the “Let her go passage,” pasted in just after the song’s protagonist talks about or witnesses a departed lover (a plot point that I think can be, fairly, traced through the “Rake” cycle). Some who did this grafting, in proto versions of “SJI” found a way to “correct” it for the story line: For instance, dropping the idea that the deceased will not “find another like me” for the more sensible (and sappy) “there’ll never be another for me,” in the version Sandburg published. Yet another one of Mr. Harwood’s discoveries is “Old Time Gambler’s Song,” which apparently dates to 1926, offers another example. Full lyrics here, but this is the opening:
I dreamed I went down to St. James InfirmaryThought I saw my baby lying there;Laid out on a clean white table,So pale and yet so fair.
If she’s gone, let her go, God bless her,For she’s mine wherever she may be;You may search this wide world overYou’ll never find another pal such as she.
At first glance this seems so close to “SJI.” But the minor tweaks change the whole flavor of the thing. The entire scenario is explained as a dream, the death is conditional (“if she’s gone”), and a weird shift to second person is deployed to reposition matters so that “she” is the one who can never be matched. Contrast that run-of-the-mill sentiment with the lyrics at the top of this entry, rendered the way Louis Armstrong sang them in 1928, and most “SJI” singers perform them to this day.
Somebody, somewhere along the line, had the genius, or sloppiness, or both, to not correct the supposed problem of pasting in a boastful sentiment from the “Let her go” cycle, right after a tragic passage taken from somewhere else. Instead of trying to reconcile two disparate piece of cultural material, somebody decided to simply juxtapose them, and let a new meaning, however unsettling or strange or ambiguous, to emerge.
Somebody, somewhere, decided to stick with something apparently nonsensical. But something that is, ultimately, so wrong that it’s right.