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,
Let her go, let her go, God
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
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 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
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
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
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."
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
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
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. . . .