[UPDATE: July 2009: The below essay is out of date, and has been superseded by a superior version based on reader feedback. You can read the most recent version here, or, even better, as a chapter in the book Letters From New Orleans, by Rob Walker.

I continue to write about "St. James Infirmary" and related matters at nonotes.wordpress.com. Feedback is still welcome, and you can reach me through that site.]

The Letter From New Orleans is a letter, originating from New Orleans. It varies in length, appears sporadically, and is pointless. The thirteenth installment can be found below.

The Letter has also been a kind of journalistic experiment, and one aspect of the whole Internet-writing thing that I haven't really explored with the series is collaboration. But this installment is in some ways an unfinished piece of writing. It's not so much that I haven't spent a lot of time on the subject of this Letter — I've spent a ridiculous amount of time on it — but rather that there are more facts to be cornered. So I ask you, the reader, to send this Letter link to anyone who might have advice or clues to offer, or who might know someone who does. Basically, I ask you, please, to send it to anyone and everyone who might care, because this increases the possibility that new information or suggestions will emerge.


Letter From New Orleans #13

This particular story begins in November 1998, before E and I had even moved to New Orleans. We were visiting the city with a bunch of friends, sharing a house in Gentilly for Thanksgiving. One night some of us went to Donna's, in the Quarter, where the Hot Eight was playing. They did a version of "St. James Infirmary." I had heard St. James Infirmary a number of times, and liked it quite a bit. But this was the first time I'd really thought about the curious lyrics.

The leader of the Hot Eight was a wild young trumpet player, alleged age 18, with glasses and big, baggy jeans. He seemed to blow with all his strength, with all his savvy, sometimes letting his left hand dangle and arching his body back and forcing out the notes. I got the impression that the Hot Eight might be an unruly bunch in general, one reason being that we saw them a couple of times and there were never eight of them — only six or seven showed up at a time.

Anyway, he sang the opening stanza in a rather subdued and mournful tone, which the other players matched. Those lyrics went like this:

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.

As I say, I'd heard the lyrics before, but now I was thinking about them. Sad song about a man going to see the corpse of his lover. . . . And will she go to heaven or will she go to hell . . . And whatever the answer she "ain't never gonna find another man like me." Wow. That's something. That's beautiful and wrong at the same time.

The music continued, and the way the Hot Eight did it, they eventually came back around and repeated this opening verse. But now the funeral march pace was gone and it was a wailing dance, a celebration, an affirmation—body arched back, left hand dangling, forcing out those notes—SHE AIN'T NEVER GONNA FIND ANOTHER MAN LIKE ME.

* * *

So that stuck with me. After I moved here, and was in a position to hear a lot of the local standards in a lot of settings — outdoor festivals, small clubs, parades, jazz funerals — "St. James Infirmary" became my favorite. I got mildly curious about it one day. I knew there was a very famous Louis Armstrong recording, which I happened to have on some best-of CD reissue. The notes there said it was recorded on December 12, 1928, in Chicago, and listed the writer as J. Primrose. Armstrong did the lyrics pretty much as the Hot Eight were doing them 70 years later. Now I paid more attention to the next verse, which (in Armstrong's rendition) goes:

When I die, I want you to dress me in straight-laced shoes
Box-back coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty- dollar gold piece on my watch chain,
So the boys will know that I died standin' pat.

I liked that, too. It was odd that the singer would abruptly start addressing his own funeral arrangements while looking at his lover's body, but I found it charming somehow. I'm not saying I admire the singer, who seems overly pleased with himself and dishonest besides. But I do admire something in his matter-of-fact, fearless taunting of the fates. That just seems very New Orleans to me.

* * *

I was pleased to discover Sarah Vowell whose work on "This American Life" I have enjoyed, had written about "St. James Infirmary," in an October 6, 1999, piece for Salon. I've since found that a lot of the specifics in that article are off, but she is certainly right in identifying the source of the song's curious pull in that strange moment when the singer turns away from the horror of death and abruptly starts bragging about his own superiority to all other men in this world or any other.

Vowell's take is that the shift "doesn't make any sense unless you take into account the selfish way the living regard the dead. … [T]he narrator of this song is curiously so stuck up that he feels sorry for his loved one, not because she won't be doing any more breathing, but because she just lost the grace of his presence. It's so petty. And so human." Not only that, the song, "shoots down the idea of love as a true possibility. If you need love in part to know you'll be missed when you're gone, what does it mean if your sweetheart stands over your icy corpse and — instead of wishing to rejoin you on some astral plane — fantasizes about impressing his buddies with a big dumb coin?"

Well, okay, that's intriguing, but also a little harsh, and it's not how I see things. But I couldn't stop thinking about the song. What did it mean? Where did it come from? I began to concoct theories that would perhaps redeem the singer. My most clever interpretation, I think, was that perhaps the singer had killed his lover in a jealous rage. Perhaps she'd been cheating on him, and he caught her in the act. That would explain both his strange insistence on informing her corpse that he's the best man she'll ever have, and also his preoccupation with his own death, perhaps by execution.

Anyway, fast forward a few months and I now own at least 20 versions of "St. James Infirmary," which is a fair indication of the intensity that my interest in the song would eventually reach. I have versions by Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, the Hall Johnson Negro Choir, Red Garland, Harry Connick, Jr., The Animals, Bobby "Blue" Bland, The Ventures, The White Stripes, and Marc Ribot. As Vowel notes, the song is sometimes listed as traditional, but is more often attributed to Joe Primrose or to Irving Mills, "an associate of Duke Ellington."

Actually Joe Primrose is Irving Mills. I eventually confirmed this with EMI Music, the song's publisher. According to EMI, Mills, using the pseudonym Joe Primrose, took the copyright on the song in 1929. Which seemed odd, if it's right that the Armstrong recording was actually made in late 1928.

A lot has been written about (and by)Louis Armstrong, and I certainly have not read it all, but I have looked through many books for clues to how he might have come to record this particular number. I've found nothing solid. I was reading through a book called Storyville, New Orleans, by Al Rose, in particular a passage about the corner of Bienville and Marais streets. (This corner no longer exists; there's a housing project where Storyville used to be.) Jelly Roll Morton hung out at one of the bars on that corner, and across the street stood St. James Methodist Church. "According to a common legend," Rose writes, "the church offered first-aid services and modest hospital facilities and thus became the inspiration for the widely performed St. James Infirmary Blues."


But no. The next line: "Unfortunately, this colorful and imaginative legend is not true; indeed, the song has no connection with New Orleans whatever." After this crushing sentence, Rose moves on to his next topic, without a footnote or a backward glance. But I now have a pretty good idea what he meant, because this particular story really begins, at the very latest, in 1790.

* * *

"St. James Infirmary," it turns out, is an offshoot of an extraordinary song cycle that is the subject of a 1960 Folkways Records release called The Unfortunate Rake: A Study In The Evolution of A Ballad, containing 20 songs and extensive notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein. I have, needless to say, purchased this item. Goldstein writes that the oldest published text from the "Rake" cycle was "collected" in 1848 in County Cork, Ireland, "from a singer who had learned it in Dublin in 1790." The song may have been "in tradition" for years prior to that, but it's obviously impossible to say. (He also says St. James Hospital was in London, and treated lepers.)

The disc includes one recording based on lyrics printed on a 19th century broadside. The singer recounts "a-walking down by St. James Hospital" one day and running into a friend, who was "wrapped up in flannel," despite the warm weather. The friend blames his troubles on "a handsome young woman." It seems that he knew this woman rather well, but there was something she didn't tell him, and if only she had, "I might have got the pills and salts of white mercury." This refers to treatment for venereal disease. "Now I'm cut down in the height of my prime," the unfortunate rake explains, proceeding to make requests relating to his funeral ("Get six your soldiers to carry my coffin, six young girls to sing me a song…")

The next several tunes on the disc are variations on this story, with the lyrics rearranged in various ways. One difference is that most are explicit that the young man is a soldier or sailor, and none are any where near so explicit about what exactly his problem is. In fact they're all extremely vague — it's just a young man who is "cut down in his prime" for reasons that' aren't clear. Sometimes, as in "Bad Girl's Lament," the ballad is about the woman, but basically follows the same pattern (an early mention of St. James' Hospital, a closing request for "Six pretty maidens with a bunch of red roses, Six pretty maidens to sing me a song…"). You won't find many of the same words that make up the most typically played version of "St. James Infirmary" today, but this at least is a back story that makes some of the latter's sentiments perfectly logical: The singer makes a jealousy-tinged boast and turns quickly to thoughts of his own death because his "baby" just died of VD. Dig?

The ballad traveled the world. There is a black West Indian version from the 19th century. And there's one from Kentucky (dated to 1915) that seems to have been adapted to refer to a specific local scandal involving a former policeman involved in a brothel-based slaying that led to his own execution. Another version of the ballad traveled west with pioneers as "The Cowboy's Lament." It's basically the same story again, but the linen-wrapped fellow is a cowboy spied on a Laredo street. ("Get sixteen cowboys to carry my coffin, Get sixteen pretty ladies to bear up my pall…"). Sometimes the request is for a bunch of gamblers to carry the coffin.

Alan Lomax appears on this Folkways disc — singing. He contributes a "Negro version" of the ballad that he and his father collected in 1934 from prisoner in Sugar Land, Texas. It's called "St. James Hospital." Here it's worth noting that up to this point on the disc, none of the versions has the melody of the modern "St. James Infirmary." (It's also worth nothing that Lomax is not much of a singer.) Instead they use the melody of the song we know today as "Streets of Laredo," which has been recorded by Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Arlo Guthrie, and many others. Apparently the "Rake" cycle splits in two directions, one leading to Laredo, the other to St. James' Infirmary. The tune Lomax sings links the English folk song to the jazz standard.

* * *

This raised more questions, and trying to answer them has been an interesting — if ultimately frustrating — process. We live in a moment of very intense documentation. Every cultural event — hell, every wedding — is captured on video, in photographs, written up in web logs and emails. The historians of the future will have an embarrassment of riches to work with, no matter how trivial their inquiries may be. And I sometimes wonder if they'll have much left to inquire about, given how few secrets are left in our real-time culture. It's startling to look back less than 100 years in search of answers, only to confront the alien idea of the unknowable.

We know that Irving Mills was born in New York, the son of immigrants from Odessa, Russia. As young men, he and his brother Jack worked as "song pluggers" (promoters), and in about 1920 they set up their own music-publishing firm. At the time, such firms made money by selling sheet music. Live performances and even recordings were basically seen as a way of promoting such sales. Jazz was commercially popular; Mills Music also sold novelty rags and blues. They would buy songs from musician-writers for a flat fee, and own them outright. They once bought all rights to 21 Fats Waller songs for $500.

The forward-looking Mills did a pretty good job getting involved with new technologies like radio, and was apparently a pioneer in sending free recordings to publications to garner publicity. (Recording sales overtook sheet music in the mid 1930s.) He also started working as an agent, most famously for Duke Ellington, under an arrangement that allowed him to take partial writing credit on dozens of early Ellington tunes, many of which he probably did not contribute to at all. For this reason, Mills is generally recalled as a bit of a scoundrel; just about every time I've read some passing mention of him in liner notes or jazz books, it's dismissive at best. There's so much more to say about Mills, but seeing as how he had little to do with New Orleans, I'll move on.

In 1927, the poet Carl Sandburg published a book called American Songbag, a collection of 280 songs (music and lyrics and very short explanatory introductions) from "all regions of America." About 100 of these he describes as "strictly folk songs," never before published. "Though meant to be sung, [the book] can be read as a glorious anthology of the songs that men have sung in the making of America." One of the songs is called "Those Gambler's Blues." Two sets of lyrics are given for the melody, one collected from someone at the University of Alabama, the other given by two sources, one in Los Angeles and one in Fort Worth. There's no mention of a composer, which rather strongly implies that this is one of the folk songs with no known author, which these days we would see credited to "Traditional." The lyrics contain much of what we hear as "St. James Infirmary" today; the melody (I confirmed with a friend who reads music) is basically the same.

The only recording I've been able to find that pre-dates Armstrong's is a performance by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra, made February 25, 1927 in New York City. On the CD version, the song is listed as "Gambler's Blues," and, maddeningly, the writer credit is "Moore-Baxter." This might refer to songwriters Fleecie Moore & Danny Baxter, but that's just a guess, and to tell the truth I haven't been able to get a shred of information on this score, and I've never seen a reference anywhere else to "Moore-Baxter" as the composer. Even more maddeningly, I also came across a single stray reference to Don Redman as the song's writer. I don't know what to make of these outliers. They're unsourced. Maybe they are mistakes.

The jazz reference books I've seen that address the question of the songs authorship tend to offer no specific name, but say that it dates back to 1910, or the late 1890s, etc. In other words they don't help.

Again it's worth noting how the world has changed. Can you imagine someone today getting away with taking credit for writing song that had actually been published in a collection — one compiled by a famous poet — two years earlier? Anyway, I don't know where Irving Mills heard the tune. I don't know why he used the name Joe Primrose in claiming it, as he never seems to have used that pseudonym again. I can tell you that the Harlem Hot Chocolates recorded a version in New York in March 1930, with a singer identified as Sunny Smith. This was actually Duke Ellington's band, with Mills, under another pseudonym, on vocals. He's not a great singer, but he's better than Alan Lomax.

* * *

Now, I'm generally skeptical of music writing that focuses on analyzing lyrics, and I deplore attempts to treat lyrics like poetry. However, I am obviously very interested in that one lyrical passage — the one in which the singer suddenly shifts from lamenting his lover's death to bragging that: "She can search this whole world over; she'll never find another man like me."

There's a lot of tweaking and futzing and rearranging of lyrics in various recorded versions of "St. James Infirmary" that I've heard. In the "Rake" songs the singer was a third-party narrator, relating a tale he heard from the stricken man himself. The oldest "Rake" songs basically ignore the woman, who is merely an undifferentiated "flash girl," not the unfortunate protagonist's true love.

This is even true of "Gambler's Blues." In the most prevalent version, the narrator is in a bar and hears the tale of woe from Big Joe McKennedy (or something similar), who is just back from having visited his lover's corpse at St. James' Infirmary. (This is how Eric Burden did it, old school blues poseur that he is, in what I have to admit would be a great rendition if not for the backup singers going "oh-ooh-whoa" over and over.) But this scene gazing at the woman's lifeless body is an addition to the storyline of the "Rake" songs, and suggests that the deceased was, in fact, the singer's true love, or at least main squeeze, not an ill-advised fling. Most of the more modern jazz versions (Armstrong forward) omit the narrator device altogether and make it a first-person story.

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. In one of the lyric sets he 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 altogether from Fess Williams' version from 1927 take, which skips straight from the image of the dead woman to the narrator discussing his own funeral. The version that Mills (as Sunny Smith) sang in 1930 basically has it both ways: After seeing his baby on that long white table, he first "wish[es] it was me instead," and then throws in the "search this whole world over" verse right afterward. Another version that Mills was involved with, recorded by Mills Merry Makers in January 1930, has Charlie Teagarden (younger brother of Jack) on vocals, and delivers a take that works so hard to get the verb tense right that it sounds like grammar teacher delivered it: "She could have looked this wide world all over, never she'd never have found a sweet man like me." (Emphasis added.) It's actually a nicely done vocal, but that reading of the line is ridiculous, and completely misses the mysticism and the nastiness of the eternal vengeance implied by saying that even in the afterlife she'll never find such a man. It also waters down the sense that the singer affirming his own life with a kind of proud desperation. Which to me is the whole point.

* * *

In New Orleans, the lyrics are pretty much always performed the way Armstrong did them. The most recent recorded version I know of is on last year's The Marsalis Family, with patriarch Ellis and all four of his musician sons. Harry Connick sings — and uses the lyrics that Armstrong did.

How did the song come to Mills' attention? Did he hear the Armstrong recording? The Fess Williams? Some other recording? Where did Armstrong pick it up? Was it being played in New Orleans when he was growing up, hanging around Storyville? The Teagarden brothers were New Orleanians — is there a clue in their connection to Mills?

I don't know, I don't know. Maybe I never will. Still, that recording of Armstrong delivering what I think of as the key line does not have a precedent that I am aware of. But perhaps this is the way he had heard it performed in New Orleans, before he left for Chicago in 1922. I have no proof of that whatsoever, of course, but I think it is still too soon to say that the song has "no connection with New Orleans whatever." Because every time I hear some local brass band playing the tune, I always say to myself: "No connection with New Orleans? That just can't be right."

June 2003

Thanks to the following individuals for help, feedback, interest, or in several cases the simple willingness to put up with obscure questions from a total stranger: Cynthia Joyce, John Hornsby, Morris Hodara (and here I'd like to plug The Duke Ellington Society, Box 31, Church Street Station, New York City 10008), David Hajdu, John Hasse, Tom Morgan, Gene Anderson, Tom Piazza, Bruce Raeburn, and Michael White.

POSTSCRIPT June 27, 2003:

My initial call for feedback, information, and tips on this story has yielded some interesting results. For example, I have been told of several other versions of the song. One that I'm pretty curious to track down, but haven't yet, is "Touro Infirmary," recorded by Dr. John. Another is by a band called Snakefarm.

One reader noted that near the end of Robert Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, which happens to be set in New Orleans, the protagonist pays a visit to a morgue in a scene that seems very likely to have been inspired by "St. James Infirmary." So if any of you know Robert Stone, ask him about this.

Finally, yet another reader has directed me to Bob Dylan: Song and Dance Man III, by Michael Gray. Actually this unbelievably generous individual has sent me a chapter of the book that is relevant to my efforts. It concerns the song "Blind Willie McTell," and it introduced to me several important leads, which I am in the process of pursuing now. I won't go on about it here, but there's work to be done that involves more on blues variations on the song, on the historic interplay between black and white folk music, and on African-American cowboys.

In a quick note on the experiment with "viral reporting," I gather the link has been sent around a bit, but most of the response I've gotten has been directly from Letter From New Orleans subscribers. And I'm amused to point out that the best tip, on the book cited above, came from somebody who apparently lives in or near my neighborhood. So there's the power of the Internet for you. Anyway, so far the project does not seem to be spreading quite as quickly as, say, a scatological Flash joke, but I'm preparing to redouble my efforts by bothering more people directly. We'll see what happens -- although I imagine it will be a number of months before I can really revisit this story in any substantial way.

And finally, something else I learned from the early feedback is that I made a mistake. I wrote: "The Teagarden brothers were New Orleanians — is there a clue in their connection to Mills?" Actually, the Teagarden brothers were Texans. So I have had that sentence removed. And I've had a stern talk with my research and fact-checking staff. I also offered my own resignation, but so far I have refused to accept it.

Anyway. I am still anxiously craving more feedback, more information, and more tips. Please send them. Please forward the link to anyone who might know something, who might know someone who might know something, or who might know someone who knows someone who knows something. I want to know. . . .