St. James Infirmary Blues
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"St. James Infirmary Blues" is an American folksong of anonymous origin, though sometimes credited to the songwriter Joe Primrose (a pseudonym for Irving Mills). Louis Armstrong made it famous in his influential 1928 recording.
Authorship and history
"St. James Infirmary Blues" is based on an 18th century traditional English folk song called "The Unfortunate Rake" (also known as "The Unfortunate Lad" or "The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime"), about a soldier who uses his money on prostitutes, and then dies of a venereal disease. Variations typically feature a narrator telling the story of a young man "cut down in his prime" (occasionally, a young woman "cut down in her prime") as a result of morally questionable behavior. For example, when the song moved to America, gambling and alcohol became common causes of the youth's death. There are numerous versions of the song throughout the English-speaking world. It evolved into other American standards such as "The Streets of Laredo."
The title is said to be derived from St. James Hospital in London, a religious foundation for the treatment of leprosy. There is some difficulty in this since it was closed in 1532 when Henry VIII acquired the land to build St. James Palace. Another possibility is the Infirmary section of the St James Workhouse (http://www.workhouses.org.uk/StJames/ ) which was opened in 1725 by the St James Parish in Poland Street, Piccadilly and continued well into the nineteenth century. This St James Infirmary was contemporaneous with the advent of the song.
The tune of the earlier versions of the song, including the Bard of Armagh and the Unfortunate Rake, is in a major key and is similar to that of the Streets of Laredo. The jazz version, as played by Louis Armstrong, is in a minor key and appears to have been influenced by the chord structures prevalent in Latin American music, particularly the Tango.
Like most such folksongs, there is much variation in the lyrics from one version to another. This is the first stanza as sung by Louis Armstrong:
- I went down to St. James Infirmary,
- Saw my baby there,
- Stretched out on a long white table,
- So cold, so sweet, so fair.
- Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
- Wherever she may be,
- She can look this wide world over,
- But she'll never find a sweet man like me.
- Waltz, Robert B.; David G. Engle (2011). "Bad Girl's Lament, The (St. James' Hospital; The Young Girl Cut Down in her Prime) [Laws Q26]". The Ballad Index. Fresno, California: Fresno State University. Retrieved 1 June 2012.
- Goldstein, Kenneth S. (1960). "The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad". The Unfortunate Rake (St. James Hospital) (booklet). Various artists. New York: Folkways Records. pp. 1-2. http://media.smithsonianfolkways.org/liner_notes/folkways/FW03805.pdf.
- Cindy Clark (2/22/2012). "The White House sings the blues". USA Today. Gannett. Retrieved 6/3/2012.