Archive for the ‘Questions (and sometimes answers)’ Category

Reader Nigel Newman, in this comment that you’re unlikely to discover by chance, asks:

This is a shot in the dark. I’m trying to find the lyric of a song that starts … “Went up to the Royal Infirmary; to see Big Willie there”

Internet searches lead inexorably to “St James’ Infirmary,” and I can imagine it’s a folky variation from the same root. Have you come across it?

My answer is: No, I have not.

And thus my question to you, friendly reader, is: Have you come across it?

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In the comments to a recent SJI YouTube roundup, a reader brought to my attention the above video. It’s bit of an a 1993 ice-skating competition; the skaters are Grishuk and Platov. And the music to their program is, of course, “SJI.”

I know nothing about ice-skating, but I thought it was kind of cool.

Anyway, the question is: What version of “SJI” is that? It sounds very familiar to me, but I cannot place it. Anybody?

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In response to some recent-ish posts here about “SJI” and the movies, I got a nice note from reader Maria (writing in from South America, proving once again the global appeal of “SJI”), who pointed out two other films that the song has popped in and that I haven’t mentioned. One is Henry and June. The other is Double Jeopardy, staring Ashley Judd. It’s the latter film that I’m focused on today.

It seems that the version that’s in Double Jeopardy is by the Spirit of New Orleans Brass Band, and Maria wondered if I had any details on how one might acquire a copy of their rendition.

My brief research turned up very little, so I’m throwing it open to you, the no notes reader. What do you know about the Spirit of New Orleans Brass Band?

As far as I can tell, there’s no commercially available sound track to Double Jeopardy. I found some references to the Spirit of New Orleans Brass Band having appeared at Jazz Fest as late as 2004, and I’m guessing that they are local, but they’re not a band I remember having seen or heard anything in particular about while we were in N.O.

I also found some references to at least one CD attributed to the Spirit of New Orleans Brass Band, but it didn’t have “SJI” on the track listing.

I finally, I came upon some references to the passing of one Layton Martens, in 2000, at age 57, indicating that he was the founder, leader, and trombone player for the Spirit of New Orleans Brass Band — and the pricipal cellist for the New Orleans Civic Symphony Orchestra!

Apart from being pretty cool, that suggests to me that this brass band may be one of those that’s gone through multiple personnel changes and lineups, which is not unusual for brass bands in New Orleans.

So that’s what I’ve got. What about you? Know anything?

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Got an interesting reader question, from a jazz singer down in D.C. who apparently prefers to remain anonymous. She asked about versions of “St. James Infirmary” sung by women. There are a handful. First (as she notes) lots of people mention the Janis Joplin version, although that’s one that for whatever reason I’ve not personally gotten hold of. But here are the others that I do know about and have heard:

1. The oldest, perhaps, is Mattie Hite’s “St. Joe’s Infirmary (Those Gambler’s Blues).” It’s very earthy and very bluesy, and might be my favorite vocal rendition by a woman. Recorded in 1930, it appears on a CD with the less-than-imaginative title Female Blues Singers, Volume 9. There are also a number of nice tracks on that disc by a singer named Edmonia Henderson.

2. I think the most recent version with a woman on vocals is the Isobel Campbell/Mark Lanegan take, which I wrote about earlier this year.

3. I would guess that the weirdest version sung by a woman was Lily Tomlin’s performance of the song on Saturday Night Live, in 1975, accompanied by men wearing nurse costumes. Here is a transcript of that inexplicable sketch.

4. “Marvalous” Marva Wright did a version of “SJI” on her 1990 album, Heartbreakin’ Woman. It’s a very melodramatic, blues-soaked take.

5. I’m a fan of Ingrid Lucia and the Flying Neutrinos, who we saw live once or twice back when we lived in N.O. Her rendition of the song appears on the album Live From New Orleans. It’s a fun one for New Orleans music fans because it’s a duet with James Andrews, and they mess around with lyrics in ways that are corny yet pleasing. (I’m pretty sure Andrews and Lucia first met as street musicians.) It’s not a breakthrough version in any way, but it has a nice feeling to it, and inspires nice memories… It’s available on iTunes or, if that’s not your kind of thing, it also happens to be one of the samples available here. See her live if you ever get the chance.

6. Another interesting version with female vocals, and a sort of modern, electronic-ish musical approach, is the one by Snakefarm, on the 1999 album Songs From My Funeral. I’m personally not crazy about it, but some people like it.

7. Finally, there’s Della Reese’s take, from a 1959 album called The Story of The Blues. Of the various women-sung versions, this one does happen to have some notable lyrical adjustments. After locating us in the infirmary, with her man stretched on the table, covered in white, she sings:

Though he treated me mean and lowdown,
Somehow I didn’t care.
My soul is sick and weary,
And I hope we’ll meet again up there.

Empowering? Well, no. But I don’t think that particular lyrical riff appears in any other version I know.

In another, and to me, at least, more satisfying change, she includes but nicely tweaks the funeral-garb request, asking to buried in “the new look, with a velvet coat and a real-gone hat,” as well as a 20-carat diamond ring. Nice.

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Ramblin' Man - St. James Infirmary
“St. James Infirmary,” performed by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan

Marva Wright - Heartbreakin' Woman - St.James Infirmary
“St. James Infirmary,” performed by Marva Wright.

Ingrid Lucia & The Flying Neutrinos - Live from New Orleans - St. James Infirmary
“St. James Infirmary,” performed by Ingrid Lucia & The Flying Neutrinos (with James Andrews)

Della Reese - The Story of the Blues - St. James Infirmary (LP Version)
“St. James Infirmary,” performed by Della Reese

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Extremely dedicated readers of this site may recall a December 2005 post wherein I did my best to answer a question from reader Klaas T. of Amsterdam. He was looking for an old Snooks Eaglin version, and I was able to point him to the 1959 Folkways record, Snooks Eaglin: New Orleans Street Singer. At the time, all I’d heard of that version was the sample available on the Folkways site.

Turns out that this same recording appears on a new CD called Classic African-American Ballads, which I recently bought and which deserves a moment of consideration. As scholar Barry Lee Pearson explains in the CD booklet, the point of the compilation is “to reacquaint the listener with a relatively neglected body of African-American folksong.” He draws a distinction between these “story songs” and the blues, and defines the ballad in this context as “a song that tells a story, comes in short verses (with or without a refrain), and is song to a short, repeated melody.”

Most of the selections are African-American compositions; “St. James Infirmary” is one of four that are “adopted from British traditions.” (The others are “The Gallis Pole,” “Mouse on the Hill,” and “Stewball.”) Pearson writes that the heyday of the African-American ballad was the period from 1885 to 1925, an era of black migration from the rural South to cities from St. Louis to New York. One of his most interesting observations is this:

Many black ballads, as products of these urban environments, provide glimpses of African-American city life at the turn of the century, but that view is generally from the bottom up, having little to do with the middle class or upper class. In fact, the songs were the bane of the uplift movement because they portrayed lower-class street life and celebrated violence, anti-police sentiments, black-on-black crime, and saloon culture involving pimps, prostitutes, and other characters similar to those celebrated in today’s gangster rap.

He goes on to explain other factors that led to the neglect of these ballads as a particular form: many were covered and reworked by white singers, and many scholars were put off by “the lack of a cohesive chronological storyline … misread[ing] improvisation as forgetfulness or confusion.” But in Pearson’s view, one of the great traits of these ballads is the way individual singers altered them — and of course that’s one of the themes I bang away at endlessly with “St. James Infirmary.”

Pearson also has very interesting notes on many of the individual selections. His bit on “SJI” doesn’t have anything that I haven’t covered in the thousands of words of I’ve spilled on the subject, but it’s interesting to see parallels with other tunes. It’s quite a good collection. But my favorite point is Pearson’s comparison of these ballads to contemporary rap:

Looking back one hundred years, we see a form that is remarkably familiar: urban music that combines storytelling and improvisation, focusing on themes of street culture, protest, and violence.

Pearson discussed the CD on NPR not long ago.

Also, the Snooks collection that I cited back in December has since made its way into the land of iTunes, so his version is now available there. It’s a good one.

Snooks Eaglin - New Orleans Street Singer - Saint James Infirmary
“St. James Infirmary,” by Snooks Eaglin

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A while ago, Klaas T., of Amsterdam, wrote to ask:

I have been looking for years for a version of St. James Infirmary that I remember having heard on an album by Snooks Eaglin. It was anacousticc version played by just Snooks. Do you know this version that may have been recorded in the fifties, or even earlier?

At the time I didn’t know, but now I believe that version must be the one on this Smithsonian Folkways recording, made in 1959, New Orleans Street Singer Snooks Eaglin.

Separately, Kimberly O., of Minnesota, wrote with the following:

I used to live in New Orleans. WWOZ many years ago played a version of St. James that was haunting and heartbreaking — and relatively long. That version had extended the part in which the singer makes specifications about his own funeral arrangements. It also may have suggested that it was watching a lover pass that made one question their own mortality (of course, this was only suggestive – I am no poet or lyricist!) Unfortunately, I had missed it when the DJ listed the artist who was covering the song and when I called back a few days later to find out who it was no one at the station had any idea of whom they had played. I started searching for that version those many years ago and haven’t stopped.

I suggested perhaps it was a roughly eight-minute version by Kermit Ruffins, from a 1998 CD of his. But this suggestion proved inconclusive.

UPDATE: The proprietor of Home of the Groove suggests: “I believe that was done by the late Danny Barker. There are actually two CD versions by Danny: a studio version on “Save the Bones” on Orleans Records, and a live version on (his wife) Blue Lu Barker’s “Blue Lu Live at the New Orleans Jazz Festival,” also on Orleans. Danny’s take on the song on both CDs is humorous. I recommend either.” I’ve heard the studio version, which is pretty nice, and a favorite of several readers who have written to me in the past, but I don’t personally know the live version. (Thanks, Dan!)

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