Briefly Noted: ‘I Went Down to St. James Infirmary’
“I Went Down to St. James Infirmary: Investigations in the shadowy world of early jazz-blues in the company of Blind Willie McTell, Louis Armstrong, … where did this dang song come from anyway?,” by Robert W. Hardwood, (Harland Press: Second Revised Edition, November 9, 2015), 268 pages with extensive notes and appendices
Oh, I went down to St. James Infirmary
Saw my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table
So cold, so still, so fair.
Rather grim, don’t you think? So why did this gambler’s song that became popular between World War I and World War II attract my attention long before I finished high school, and why has it attracted the attention of a long list of recording stars over the years that extend into this century, and why has it lasted so long even though people have puzzled over the juxtaposition of verses and the song’s actual meaning since whoever wrote it, wrote it?
Perhaps the melody haunts us. Or maybe it’s the association with New Orleans jazz funerals. Or maybe it’s because it’s so similar to a host of other songs including “The Unfortunate Rake,” “Streets of Laredo,” “She’s Gone, Let Her Go,” “Gamblers Blues,” and “Dyin’ Crap Shooter’s Blues.”
If you’ve been around for a while and/or are a fan of early blues and jazz recordings, then the version of this song you know is its first recording in 1928 by Louis Armstrong for OKeh records. He performed that song on “The Ed Sullivan show” as late as 1964 at a time when the Beatles were taking that variety program and America by storm.
The song’s authorship has been in dispute from days when corporations found there was money to be made in the sales of sheet music, and then in recordings. The song was copyrighted by Mills Music Company in spite of all its variations and links to songs in the public domain. The question with copyright comes down to “Is this new” or is “This new version of something old that has been changed enough to warrant copyright protection for the version or the arrangement?”
When Mills copyrighted the song in 1929, their claim was that the song, and most especially the title, were new. Ultimately this was contested by a rival company, but that company lost because they had only the testimony of people claimed to have heard it or sung it prior to 1929. The rival had no documentary evidence.
Harwood, who often runs a bit far afield in this book from its primary subject has–as he says–been obsessive about the song and its history for years. The result is a wonderful piece of work here, especially for blues and jazz aficionados, for even those “far afield” sections are represent a revealing and insightful look at the evolution of sheet music and the record industry out of the oral tradition of songs passed from singer to singer for local performance purposes only. Everything was more or less shared and borrowed from and swapped and changed ad hoc until sheet music producers and record labels had an investment to protect.
If you like the blues, you may well come under the spell of this book in the same way many of us came under the spell of the old song and never quite escaped our enchantment,
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” both of which pay homage of the blues songs of their 1950s era. One character in “Eulalie and Washerwoman” even makes up some new words to “St. James Infirmary.” She was drunk at the time, so that probably explains it.