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.
“St. James Infirmary,” performed by Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
“St. James Infirmary,” performed by Marva Wright.
“St. James Infirmary,” performed by Ingrid Lucia & The Flying Neutrinos (with James Andrews)
“St. James Infirmary,” performed by Della Reese
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