St. James Infirmary Blues
"St. James Infirmary Blues", sometimes known as "Gambler's 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" is often said to be 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. The familiar recorded versions (such as Armstrong's) nevertheless bear little relation to the older traditional song.
The title is said to derive from St. James Hospital in London, a religious foundation for treatment of leprosy. ("Infirmary" is sometimes used to name a hospital, such as the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center in Mobile, Alabama). There is some difficulty in this, since it 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, which the St James Parish opened in 1725 on Poland Street, Piccadilly, and which continued well into the nineteenth century. This St James Infirmary was contemporaneous with the advent of the song.
- As I was a-walking down by St. James Hospital,
- I was a-walking down by there one day.
- What should I spy but one of my comrades
- All wrapped up in a flannel though warm was the day.
- —"The Unfortunate Rake" (trad.)
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 song "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" has sometimes been described as a descendant of "The Unfortunate Rake", and thus a 'direct relative' of "St James Infirmary Blues". Blind Willie McTell recorded a version of the former for Alan Lomax in 1940, and claimed to have begun writing the song around 1929.
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. A melody very similar to the Armstrong version can be found in an instrumental composition entitled "Charleston Cabin," which was recorded by Whitey Kaufman's Original Pennsylvania Serenaders in 1924 (three years prior to the earliest recording of "Gambler's Blues").
As with many folksongs, there is much variation in the lyric from one version to another. This is the first stanza as sung by Louis Armstrong on a 1928 Odeon Records release:
- 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.
Some of the versions, such as the one published as "Gambler's Blues" and attributed to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter, frame the above lyric with an initial stanza or stanzas in which a separate narrator goes down to a saloon known as "Joe's barroom" and encounters a customer who then relates the incident about the woman in the infirmary. Later verses commonly include the speaker's request to be buried according to certain instructions, which vary according to the version.
The song was first recorded (as "Gambler's Blues") in 1927 by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra. This version mentions an infirmary, but not by name. The song was popular during the jazz era, and by 1930 at least eighteen different versions had been released by various artists. The Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded the song multiple times using pseudonyms such as "The Ten Black Berries", "The Harlem Hot Chocolates" and "The Jungle Band", whilst Cab Calloway performs a version in the 1933 Betty Boop animated film Snow White, providing both vocals and dance moves for Koko the clown.
In 1961, Bobby "Blue" Bland released a version of "Saint James Infirmary" on the flip side of his No. 2 R&B hit "Don't Cry No More" (Duke 340) and included it in his album Two Steps From The Blues.
Captain Beefheart recorded a version in the late 1960s.
The James Solberg Band recorded a 'blues' version on their 1995 CD on the Atomic Theory label See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.
More recently, The White Stripes covered the song on their self-titled debut album, and Jack White says he and fellow band member, Meg White, were introduced to the song from a Betty Boop cartoon. Van Morrison's take on the song can be found on his 2003 album What's Wrong with This Picture?, and actor Hugh Laurie on his 2011 album Let Them Talk. Isobel Campbell has also recorded a version of the song. In 2002 Jorma Kaukonen did a version for his Blue Country Heart album, on which he titled the song "Those Gambler's Blues", and erroneously credited it to Jimmie Rodgers.
Arlo Guthrie often performs the song (as "The Gambler's Blues"), and it appears on his Live in Sydney album.
In 2013 the song framed the basis of the musical 'The Unfortunates' that debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and also produced a cast album the same year. The musical is influenced by the Cab Calloway version, and was staged as part of the 2015-16 season of the American Conservatory Theater at the Strand Theater in San Francisco.
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