Sat April 12, 2014
marc on the blues

Musicians Aren’t the Only Stars, Songs Can Be Headliners Too

For possibly three centuries the song “St. James Infirmary” and its antecedents have been widely played and loved. Musicians in a wide variety of genre have interpreted the basic idea under a variety of names.

Sometimes attributed to Joe Primrose, which was one of the pseudonyms of Irving Mills, most musicologists agree that the basic idea for “St. James Infirmary” far precedes Mills and goes back to the 18th century. A popular song variously called "The Unfortunate Rake", "The Unfortunate Lad" and "The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime" told the cautionary tale of a dissolute soldier who frequented prostitutes and died of venereal disease.

By 1928, when Louis Armstrong made it famous in the United States, the song’s subject had changed from a man to a woman and the cause of her demise had become rather obscure, probably for reasons of propriety. The title is most certainly taken from St. James Hospital in London, which is a religious foundation for the treatment of leprosy.

Like nearly all Blues songs, there are numerous variations of it with a myriad of stanzas telling a variety of somewhat related stories. The first verse of Louis Armstrong’s version goes:

I went down to 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.

If you look up “St. James Infirmary Blues” in Wikipedia you’ll find that they list 63 different people known for recording and performing the song. In a verification of Wikipedia’s ‘legendary accuracy and thoroughness,’ I can think of at least a dozen more.

No doubt the song and many variations will continue to wax and wane in popularity well into the future.


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