In a second radio monologue, “I Went Down To St. James Infirmary” zeroes in on one line of “SJI” — a line that’s always interested me quite a bit Check out the highly interesting and informative monologue here.
Archive for the ‘Lyric deconstruction’ Category
Doug Schulkind, who in addition to being the proprietor of the astonishing Give The Drummer Some WFMU show & 24-7 online steaming station is a consistently invaluable source of SJI-ness, passed along another fascinating variation not long ago. Actually it probably was fairly long ago now. But never mind.
The tune at hand is “Full Time Lover,” by Frankie Lee. I don’t know much about Lee, but here’s a site with a bio-sketch and something of a discography. It notes in passing that “Full Time Lover” got some regional attention (Lee is from Texas), I gather in the 1960s. It’s a bluesy soul scorcher, entertaining enough on its own — the opening organ riff and slow-drip drumming are kinda hot — but maybe not the sort of thing I’d spend much time on normally. The lyric starts out “Oh, well I got me a full time lover,” and so on, repeated per the standards of the form. “She used to be my part time girl, but she’s my full time lover now.” So yeah.
But then Lee wails: “There’s one thing I want to say right now!” And:
I went down to St. James Infirmary
Asked was my baby there.
He said “No sir.”
I said, “Well, she must be somewhere.”
There’s a horn riff under this, which repeats while he zags off onto two more verses about finding his baby, who decides to come home. Later he declares that he’s happy about that.
This obviously has very little to do with “SJI,” but it’s pretty fascinating nonetheless — a real cut-and-paste moment, just tossing in the line about going down to St. James Infirmary, and proceeding to move things in an amusing different direction. He went down to St. James Infirmary — and his baby wasn’t there! Of all the variations I’ve come upon, that one somehow strikes me as the most hilariously subversive bait-and-switch version yet!
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. (more…)
This very comprehensive writeup on Sister Wynona Carr included a line that intrigued me. Discussing a recording session in Philadelphia in 1949 (or thereabouts), Tony Cummings writes:
The session showed her ability to transform blues into gospel. “St James Infirmary” became “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler” while “I Heard The News (Jesus Is Coming Again)” was a Christian take on Roy Brown’s and Wynonie Harris’ 1948 smash “Good Rockin’ Tonight”.
Well, I had to hear that “SJI” variation. And luckily it wasn’t hard to do so: “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler” was available as an MP3 on Amazon. Details momentarily, but the quick assessment is: Pretty great stuff!
I had never heard of Wynona Carr before. According to Cummings’ writeup, she was born in 1924, in Cleveland, where her earliest public music performances were in area Baptist churches and the like. In her early 20s she formed a gospel group and toured regionally. Soon she got on the radar of a “Jewish atheist” record man named Art Rupe, who had a gospel R&B label called Specialty. One of his groups was The Pilgrim Travelers, whose star apparently is the person who heard Carr and brought her to Rupe’s attention. Rupe is the one who dubbed her “Sister” Wynona Carr, in an intentional echo of Sister Rosetta Tharp. (Carr disliked this, but it stuck.)
“I’m a Pilgrim Traveler” is from her second recording session, and inserts a radically different set of lyrics over an “SJI”-like melody. This isn’t the only time that’s happened (Josh White’s “Free And Equal Blues” comes to mind, among others), and is in-line with the song’s folk/traditional history as a thing that’s been rewritten, re-imagined, pasted together from disparate parts, etc. (See I Went Down To St. James Infirmary for the definitive take on the formulation of the song we know and the complexities of the folk tradition bumping up against modern copyright law.) That said, in this case the lyrics really don’t riff on, or reference, “SJI” at all, and I guess I can’t immediately think of another example where that’s the case. Maybe you can?
I’ll get to those lyrics in a second, but what grabbed me about “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler” is really its sound. Carr has an extremely charismatic voice, and the arrangement is spare and somewhat dark, particularly compared to some of the more jumpy R&B sound of some of her other early recordings. Both she and the musicians on the session — the guitarist is wonderful — seem quite comfortable fast or slow, swingy or somber. “I’m a Pilgrim Traveler,” which starts with some very spooky “ooh-ooh”-ing from Carr, actually has the sonic tone of some of the more melodramatic readings of “SJI,” the ones that underscore the tragedy of its story. But the lyric is basically a declaration faith, albeit a somewhat weary one. Carr announces that she’s a pilgrim traveler “on the long road home,” who leans on the Lord to help her live in “a heavenly way,” avoiding the “rut of sin” on life’s highway, so she can “make it in” (to heaven, one assumes). Full lyrics after the jump.
I suppose with some imagination, one could consider this a kind of alternate reading of a response to tragedy, maybe almost an answer song, if you stretch it. In “SJI” the narrator walks away from his lover’s corpse and quickly toggles to self-affirmation: She’ll never find another like me; and I’ll look great at my funeral; and so on. In “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler,” one might say we have a narrator who (while not mentioning a specific tragedy) seems less interested in responding to struggle or sorrow by way of braggadocio, than in turning herself over to faith and humility. (“I know I’ll make it if He holds my hand.”)
As Cummings notes, Carr also does a version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” with totally different, gospel lyrics. And several of her originals are absolutely fascinating exercises in grafting a Christian worldview onto various manifestations of pop culture, often for no obvious reason: “15 Rounds For Jesus” and “The Ball Game” do this with sports, and the astonishingly good “Dragnet For Jesus” references the detective series. For the rest of Carr’s story, check out Cummings’ piece. Great stuff.
I’ve always thought Christmas parties are supposed to be cheery affairs but I’ve just been to a couple where the cabaret acts seemingly wanted us to weep into our wine. Both female, of an age when they have their whole lives before them, as they say.
Somebody should have told them. You just don’t choose St James Infirmary, one of the doomiest songs ever written, as a party piece.
Hm, well. This passage of course made me think about the way the song is generally performed in second-lines — including jazz funerals — in New Orleans. Musically the tone starts out quite somber, but by the end it’s turned a corner into territory that’s raucous and frankly celebratory: Affirmation of life in the face of tragedy. It’s usually quite a danceable racket. And this, as I’ve said elsewhere, reflects the compelling thing to me they lyrics to “SJI” as it’s most frequently performed: A doomy opening that toggles to a pretty jarring declaration by the narrator that his deceased lover will never find a man like him, and then a consideration of his own future passing that is more preening than grim.
Having said all that, it’s still an odd choice for a Christmas party.
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.
Literally since January I’ve had a half-written post about the Louvin Brothers’ “SJI” variation “Let Her Go, God Bless Her,” in my “drafts” folder. And yet I never find time to write it. Been that kind of year.
Anyway, our friend Robert W. Harwood has meanwhile stepped up with a post about that very song. Check it out here; the post draws some connections to other recent topics (e.g., the “let her go” lyric), too.