Midweek Music Break: “St. James Infirmary”

Laissez les bons temps rouler, eh? And among the songs often regarded as “typical New Orleans,” we have the subject of today’s Midweek Music Break.

No way could I even begin to match the masterful job of documenting its history which Robert W. Harwood undertook with his I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. One hundred ninety pages. Subtitle (all by itself practically a foreword to the book): Investigations in the Shadowy World of Early Jazz-Blues in the Company of Blind Willie McTell, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Irving Mills, Carl Moore, and a Host of Others, and Where Did This Dang Song Come from Anyway?

Briefly, though (and thank you, Wikipedia):

“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”)… “The Unfortunate Rake” is about a sailor who uses his money on prostitutes, and then dies of a venereal disease…

The title is derived from St. James Hospital in London, a religious foundation for the treatment of leprosy.

Doesn’t sound much like an invitation to party, does it? No good times rollin’ here! But then we find these relevant lyrics, almost sketching for us a picture of a completely classic New Orleans funeral march:

“Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don’t smell me as they bear me along.

“Don’t muffle your drums and play your fifes merrily,
Play a quick march as you carry me along,
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin…”

Here’s “The Unfortunate Rake,” in a suitably mournful interpretation by A.L. Lloyd (vocals) and Alf Edwards (concertina) (complete lyrics here):

[Below, click Play button to begin The Unfortunate Rake. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 2:59 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

By the time Louis Armstrong got hold of it, “The Unfortunate Rake” had morphed into a mysterious What exactly is going on here? sort of song. Now it’s no longer the rake, but his woman laid out in the hospital. And the guy? Well, the sound is right. But the words? He’s strangely, awfully damn ready to sing his own praises…

I went down to the 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

When I die Baby in straight-lace shoes
I wanna a boxback coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys’ll know that I died standing flat…

[Below, click Play button to begin St. James Infirmary (Louis Armstrong). This clip is 4:46 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Finally, we have straight-up instrumentals — no need for any of these to retain a single lugubrious scrap of “The Unfortunate Rake.” This is sweetly swinging Allen Toussaint, on the piano:

[Below, click Play button to begin St. James Infirmary (Allen Toussaint). This clip is 3:51 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Send to Kindle


  1. heehee aren’t we jumping the “midweek” gun a little?

    my favorite day of the week is still Wednesday, because it’s still Bookscan day :)

  2. whaddayamean: It seemed in the wrong spirit to postpone a Mardi Gras post until tomorrow, a/k/a Hangover Wednesday. :)

    I think that you actually look forward to Bookscan day — rather than dreading it — probably says a lot about your rightness for your chosen profession. When I was doing tech books, I used to watch Amazon rankings (the closest thing I had to a Bookscan report) obsessively. It eventually became too painful!

  3. I actually love the 18th C. naval roots to this song, but that would be because I’m an amateur collector of such bits and pieces. So many of the sayings and songs that we rely on today, believing we know their origin and meaning, are actually from 18th and 19th C. naval history.

    Take “the bitter end,” for example; it’s not the bitterness of endings that is meant, but the actual name of the end of the rope…the one that might be used to lash out, the one that is paid out to, etc.

    I have more, but you will have to beg ;^)

    Meanwhile, I love Louis more than the piano. The piano just can’t seem to wail mournfully, but I can hear the banshees in every one of Louis’ notes.

    Have I mentioned how fortunate I feel to have these little musicales?

  4. Nance, you may laugh at this: today’s Midweek Music Break was done with you in mind. It felt like none of the last few outings had particularly appealed to you; I figured the best remedy would be to include multiple and very different versions of the same song, hoping that at least one would “take.” :)

    I don’t know, well, squat about nautical matters, let alone nautical jargon. I’m not surprised that so many familiar expressions come from the latter but I do wonder why. (I mean, as opposed to other professional realms of discourse — education, forestry and animal husbandry…)

  5. Thanks, John, for thinking of me. Have I sounded hard to please? For shame; to be easily pleased is the greatest gift one can give to one’s friends.

    I’ve never sailed a thing in my life. In fact, I’ve done few things, but I’ve read about many. It was a surprising and total love affair with Patrick O’Brian that taught me what I know.

    I fell so in love with his prose that I learned the order of sail for a 3-masted ship of the line by rote, I’ve made pilgrimages to see those ships at sail, and I’ve gone to enormous lengths to try to will myself through a wormhole in time. No doubt, it’s for the best that I failed.

    Never let it be said that I cannot obsess skilfully on a worthy subject. Please feel free to provide more.

  6. P.S.
    Now, I wonder what is a “box-back coat.”

  7. Thank you for the Satchmo break.

  8. Nance: If you haven’t already found the answer, check out this discussion on the Wordcraft Q&A forum.

    Lots of good info there, from the OED and H.L. Mencken among other sources!

  9. jules: I’m not 100% a fan of his stuff late in life, when it seemed (to me, anyway) that he was coasting on his personality rather than, y’know, playing music. (OTOH, by that time he’d certainly earned the privilege of coasting, so it’s hard to hold it against him!)

    But his earlier stuff is very very good.

  10. Hey, John, did you ever see the dancing rendition of this song by Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase. It is said to be one of the best dance routines on television ever seen! Just to add to the fullness of the appreciation… :)

  11. cynth: You mean this one?

    :) Yeah — I’d seen it while researching this post. Amazing… and I love Jonah Jones’s trumpet and vocal, too!

  12. Yep, that’s the one! I think he won an Emmy for that, it was always cited as something extraordinary. But then, Astaire was that always (not that I’m prejudiced or anything)!

  13. “…he he he braggin.”

    I like to listen to Louis Armstrong long time.

    And who is the girl dancing with Astaire? Somebody Chase? Great dance moves to wake from the dead and rise off the slab.

Speak Your Mind