Speaking of seasonal melancholy and death, one of our favorite oldies is a song based on an anonymously penned English folk piece. “St. James Infirmary Blues” is an adaptation of a song called “The Unfortunate Rake” about a sailor cut down in his prime after carousing with prostitutes and contracting venereal diseases. Ew. The American derivative is also about premature death, but this time it’s about a man bemoaning the passing of his love to a bunch of drunks in a bar room. So sad, so cold, so bleak.
There have been many variations of the song. In 1928, Louis Armstrong made a haunting rendition of it (as “St. James Infirmary”) in a New Orleans dirge kind of way.
In the 1930’s, Cab Calloway did the song too and the version of his that we liked best was in a weird Betty Boop cartoon. Cab is animated in the cartoon as Koko the Clown as he bemoans the supposed death of Betty Boop (as Snow White). It’s a melancholy wail of sadness that grips us so. Freaky little piece of cartooning. Loved it. Do you notice the smooth and authentic motion of Koko’s movements? Uncanny right? Yeah, the cartoonists were good back then but not that good. Using a technology called rotoscoping, Cab’s performance was filmed and then traced over by the artists to create the incredibly fluid sequences. We think it creates an ever more eerie spookiness.
Like a lot of folk songs that bang around (such as another favorite, “Whisky in the Jar”), many artists will throw their hats into the ring and put their own spin on a song. It’s appropriate that the White Stripes did their own version of “St. James Infirmary Blues” and we think it’s rather good. Jack White has a strong bluesy kind of vibe going on and for us the White Stripes are a perfect band for an updated version of the song. The power of the blues is that it is stripped down to the bare bones of the instruments and the singer. Nothing but raw emotion without any of the frou-frou elements of other pop genres. Mmm.
Here are the lyrics to the Cab Callaway version:
Folks, I’m goin’ down to St. James Infirmary,
See my baby there;
She’s stretched out on a long, white table,
She’s so sweet, so cold, so fair.
Let her go, let her go, oh bless her,
Wherever she may be,
She will search this wide world over,
But she’ll never find another sweet man like me.
Now, when I die, bury me in my straight-leg britches,
Put on a box-back coat and a stetson hat,
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain,
So you can let all the boys know I died standing pat.
An’ give me six crap shooting pall bearers,
Let a chorus girl sing me a song.
Put a red hot jazz band at the top of my head
So we can raise Hallelujah as we go along.
Folks, now that you have heard my story,
Say, boy, hand me another shot of that booze;
If anyone should ask you,
Tell ’em I’ve got those St. James Infirmary blues.