[Part 1 is here.]
Q: Anybody who starts looking into “SJI” these days will before too long encounter the theory that connects it back to “The Unfortunate Rake.” But the link wouldn’t be obvious to anybody who simply heard “The Unfortunate Rake” and “SJI” back to back.
I’m pretty sure that in my case, when I first got interested in the tune, my curiosity led me to the 1960 Folkways disc that starts out with that old folk song and charts its musical descendents, most obviously “Streets of Laredo”; it includes “SJI” among the descendents – with none other than Alan Lomax singing a rendition called “St. James Hospital” and claiming in the liner notes that it “provides the link between the folk ballad and the pop tune.”
But to my ears, at least, this assertion doesn’t hold up when you actually listen to the original version of what sings, and then listen to the “St. James Infirmary” that we’re all familiar with.
Not to put you on the spot, but was Lomax just being sloppy, or what?
Was Alan Lomax being sloppy? I don’t know — he was certainly being hopeful. The version he sings, called “St. James Hospital,” is reasonably close to James “Iron Head” Baker’s rendition, the one that he and his father, John Lomax, recorded in 1933 at the State Prison Farm in Sugarland, Texas. But it does not, as Alan suggested, resemble “St. James Infirmary” and certainly does not provide a missing link between SJI and “The Unfortunate Rake.” It is similar to “Bad Girl’s Lament” which is one of those songs that exists in the space between “The Unfortunate Rake” and “Streets of Laredo.”
Lomax was not the first person to link SJI with “The Unfortunate Rake.” The English folklorist A.L. Lloyd wrote an article on the connection between the two songs in 1947. That article appeared in the now defunct music magazine Keynote. When he wrote this article, “St. James Infirmary” was already an immensely popular and often recorded song. I find it intriguing that, despite the smokescreen that Irving Mills surrounded SJI with, Lloyd knew it as a traditional ballad. But it’s not like connecting “Streets of Laredo” to “The Unfortunate Rake.” That’s an obvious relationship.
With “St. James Infirmary” we have the St. James name and a (quite different) list of funeral requests. That might be enough to suggest a casual relationship, but certainly not enough to show a direct connection. Abb Niles, a lawyer (good friend to W.C. Handy) and music writer (with an intense attraction to American music folklore), recognized as early as 1930 that SJI was “cowboy stuff if I know my cowboys, and built upon such whiskered Americana as ‘Wild Bill Jones’ and ‘The Cowboy’s Lament.'” “The Cowboy’s Lament,” of course, is none other than “Streets of Laredo.” Niles did not jump on Laredo as being a reference point for Infirmary — he was essentially saying that all these songs share a kind of je ne sais quoi quality.
Anyway, Lloyd seems to be the one who put the idea out there, and Lomax tried to run with it. Why he took the notion seriously, why he claimed he’d found the missing link — or why he thought there could be a missing link at all — is beyond me. But it has become common currency, that this 1933 “St. James Hospital” is — as even Bob Dylan, repeating Lomax’s claim, said on his Theme Time Radio show — “the real link between the folk ballad and the pop tune.” One just has to listen to the two tunes to recognize that this is not the case. But Lomax made the claim and the words were inscribed with his authority.
Music folklorists have provided an immeasurable service, but they are not always pure in their intentions. Often they are looking to crystallize a notion they privately subscribe to (such as, oh, that the Mississippi Delta was the birthplace of the blues, or that traditional songs evolve as an unbroken chain) and I suspect Alan Lomax had some sort of personal investment that drove him to make his claim about “St. James Hospital.”
Some people also relate “The House of the Rising Sun” to “The Unfortunate Rake.” That’s even more of a stretch. It was Alan Lomax who ensured the survival of “Rising Sun” when he recorded it in 1937 during a trip through Kentucky. The singer, Georgia Turner, was tracked down by Ted Anthony, who describes his adventures in Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song.
Here’s a kind of interesting side-light: Alan Lomax was eighteen and travelling with his father in 1933-1934, when they first encountered Iron Head Baker. Lomax, as you know, collected field recordings, trying to discover the songs we sang before the intervention of record players and radio — which, Lomax thought, threatened to homogenize everything, cause the old songs to be displaced and forgotten. This was their first trip with a newly designed “portable” recording device that used durable aluminum disks. (Previously, they had used fragile wax cylinders and a hand-wound, spring-driven motor.) This new machine, complete with speakers, batteries, and a microphone, fit in the trunk of their car. It weighed a mere three hundred pounds.
During the early part of their trip — driving all day, sleeping in fields and on beaches at night — they found themselves in the Central State Prison Farm near Sugarland, Texas. John was convinced there were untouched songs to be found in the prison systems where, he believed, convicts remained segregated from the malign influences of city life, the polluting airs of the radio — and where their songs hearkened back, unchanged, to the early days of American folk song. In Sugarland they recorded, among others, James “Iron Head” Baker and Moses “Clear Rock” Platt. It was here that Baker presented them with “St. James Hospital.”
Later on the same trip they were at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, and there met Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly. John Lomax (arguably) helped free Leadbelly from the prison and toured with him (Leadbelly acting as chauffeur), presenting him as an example of primitive purity. Leadbelly had a massive store of remembered and created songs and could hold audiences transfixed with his performances. Eventually Leadbelly rebelled against the expectations and constraints put upon him by John Lomax. John returned to Texas, and took on “Iron Head” Baker as Leadbelly’s replacement. [Related 1936 Time Magazine brief here.]
Baker soon defected, as well. Neither could long tolerate being treated as primitives.
Get your own copy of I Went Down To St. James Infirmary right here. Mr. Harwood’s blog is here.
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