Wednesday, December 26, 2012

St. James Meditations

Earlier I was re-reading Sarah Vowell's 1999 essay on her continuing awe at the American classic song "St. James Infirmary."

Cab Calloway sang the song in a
Betty Boop spoof of Snow White
This song gave me the shivers then and it gives me the shivers now. Not just because it’s a morgue scene, not just because of the cold body lying there on a table instead of a bed, but because of the chill of the man’s words. Hearing it as a young girl, hearing it before I ever fell in love myself, it frightened me because of the way it 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?

Vowell mentions several versions of the song: Louis Armstrong's, Cab Calloway's, Bobby "Blue" Bland's, even the '90s group Snakefarm's trip-hop version.

Re-reading the Vowell piece reminded me of a piece by Rob Walker in Gambit Weekly, which traced the song back even further. It's a direct descendant of a British folk tune called "The Unfortunate Rake" -- which is about a young man who apparently was dying from venereal disease. Other offspring of "The Unfortunate Rake" include the cowboy ballad "The Streets of Laredo" and Blind Willie McTell's "The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues."

Writes Walker:

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 these exact same words in 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?
A common thread is the wild fantasy of the narrator's grandiose funeral for himself.

Here are a few versions of the song. Like Vowell, I still get the shivers from some of these.

Two of my country heroes singing "Streets of Laredo."

This is one of my favorites: Ian McShane as Al Swearengen  singing "The Unfortunate Rake" in Deadwood.

For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook


  1. Anonymous8:19 PM

    May I point you to best and most comprehensive collection of these songs.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous. I did pick up that collection from eMusic a couple of years ago. It's screaming for an update.


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