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St. James Infirmary: Origins and Related Songs

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Bricktown Bob:

--- Quote from: Rivers on November 08, 2007, 05:02:07 AM ---Musically, yes I agree, for a start McTell starts the rap phase with a Dm position, not a C. The general lyrical idea and title are a thorough cop from McTell though. To be pedantic though  ;) it's not St James Infirmary, since that is usually a minor song as well.

--- End quote ---

This probably ought to be in a new topic, since it's not about baseball blues.  I suppose in general it's about sources and inspiration and such, and adapting traditional songs for current needs.

Anyway, start with an English song usually called "The Unfortunate Rake."  In America, that song followed two general lines of descent.  One is "The Cowboy's Lament," more popularly "The Streets of Laredo"; the other is "St James Infirmary."  My point, insofar as I had one, was that, not referring to any particular performance or arrangement, "Dying Crapshooter" and "Dying Cub Fan" both belong to the St James Infirmary line: they are affines, their similarity due to descent from a common ancestor.

Interesting McTell connection.  Robert W. Harwood recently came out with a book, A Rake's Progress, about the evolution of this song.  Asked about the genesis of his interest, he said:

"Around 1992 a friend sent me a tape of previously unreleased Dylan songs. I found out later that these came from Columbia?s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3. (Should any record executives out there feel concerned, rest assured that I later bought the CD.) The song 'Blind Willie McTell' immediately caught my attention. I never tired of listening to it. Some years later I was playing a newly bought compilation CD of jazz vocals, and Lou Rawls came over the speakers singing 'St. James Infirmary.' This was the first time I?d heard 'SJI.' Rawls sings his own introduction, 'When will I ever stop moaning / When will I ever smile / My baby went away and she left me / She?ll be gone for a long, long while' and so on. He then gets into the song proper, and at this point I shot up from my chair, exclaiming aloud 'That?s "Blind Willie McTell"!!!' For some reason that I can?t explain today, I became quite excited. There was nobody else in the room. The Dylan lyrics, 'I?m standing by the window of the old St. James Hotel / and I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell' came to mind, and that started it."

Quote taken from another good source: Rob Walker has been researching "St. James Infirmary" since 1999 and has collected thousands of pages of information about the song, along with dozens of versions: NO Notes

Some versions of "St James Infirmary" are called "Gambler's Blues" (such as Dave Van Ronk's).  Bessie Smith did a song called "Dying Gambler's Blues," but I don't have it and can't find the lyrics and don't know how it relates, if at all, to either "St James Infirmary" or McTell's "Dying Gambler" (which, confusingly, is not a "St James Infirmary" variation).

Although most versions would be considered jazz, I suppose, and usually taken from Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway, there ought to be be many that are blues.

Any takers?  Any thoughts?

Johnm:
Hi Bricktown Bob,
I thought your suggestion that this should be a thread of its own was a good one, so I split it off from the Baseball thread.  I don't have much to add, unfortunately, except that I almost always prefer versions of this song performed by New Orleans musicians--they most often end up having that New Orleans celebratory funeral feel.  I think my favorite version is Snooks Eaglins', for a sung version.
All best,
Johnm

Bunker Hill:

--- Quote from: Bricktown Bob on November 10, 2007, 09:40:54 AM ---Robert W. Harwood recently came out with a book, A Rake's Progress, about the evolution of this song. 
--- End quote ---
I think I'm gonna have to investigate that. In the 1940's song collector A.L. Lloyd spent much time documenting variants of this folksong from informants around the British Isles most of who were in their 70s-80s. These he published in Keynote Music Magazine (January 1947, p. 10-14) as a feature entitled "Background To St James's Infirmary Blues". I guess all this has now been documented by Harwood.

unezrider:
hey bricktown,
i was reading what you had written about dylan's 'blind willie mctell' song, & by god! i had never realized that before. wow. what a cool tune, by the way... (he does it really good live).
& for what it's worth my two favorite versions of 'st. james' are the 1959 version by louis armstrong & his allstars (from the 'satch plays king oliver' cd) & jimmie rodgers' take of it called 'gambling bar room blues'.
-i had read somewhere some time ago, that dylan's 'not dark yet' was musically related to the memphis jug band's 'k.c. moan.' (i still can't hear that one, though.)
-chris

Pan:
Hi there

FWIW Bessie Smiths' Dying Gambler Blues can be heard on the Red Hot jazz site: http://www.redhotjazz.com/bessie.html

I'll leave it to you to decide wether or not it has any resemblance with St. James Infirmary.

Cheers

Pan

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