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St. James Infirmary



I went down to St. James Infirmary
To see my baby there,
She was lyin' on a long white table,
So sweet, so cool, so fair.

Went up to see the doctor,
"She's very low," he said;
Went back to see my baby
Good God! She's lying there dead.


Cold white table


Listen to a well known version by Louis Armstrong where someone has put film footage to the song:




The source of St. James Infirmary, or St. James Infirmary Blues, is actually an 18th Century English folk song The Unfortunate Rake. The Rake was a sailor who used his money on prostitutes and died of venereal disease.

The website says: 'This l9th century broadside text may not be the grand-daddy of all later versions of the much travelled "Rake" cycle, but it is probably sufficiently close enough to the original ballad to warrant its use as a starting point for an examination of the whole family of related parodies and recensions. Only a handful of texts reported from tradition have been as graphically frank in their commentary on the cause of the young man's demise as that given in this early version.  Later texts have tended to treat the matter obliquely, or have rationalized the situation by having death caused by other, usually more violent, means.'


As I was a-walking down by St. James' Hospital,
I was a-walking down by there one day,
What should I spy but one of my comrades
All wrapped up in flannel though warm was the day.

I asked him what ailed him, I asked him what failed him,
I asked him the cause of all his complaint.
"It's all on account of some handsome young woman,
'Tis she that has caused me to weep and lament."


There are as many interpretations of St James Infirmary Blues as there are of the original tune itself. Here's Arlo Guthrie singing the song with the Burns sisters as a tribute to New Orleans.




There are some immediate discrepancies. In the version we know, it is the woman who has died, but then the man talks about his own future Unfortunate rakedeath. In the tradional song the 'rake' is said to be a sailor but he wants soldiers to carry his coffin. The reference to a 'rake' is also interesting. The word has gone out of current usage and I don't know that there is an equivalent; 'womaniser' is only part of it, 'playboy' is also rarely used, perhaps 'hedonist' or 'hellraiser' is nearer?

Wikipedia is a good source for understanding a definition of the rake: 'A rake, short for rakehell (analogous to "hellraiser"), is a historic term applied to a man who is habituated to immoral conduct, particularly womanising. Often, a rake was also prodigal, wasting his (usually inherited) fortune on gambling, wine, women and song, and incurring lavish debts in the process. Comparable terms are "libertine" and "debauchee".

The Restoration rake was a carefree, witty, sexually irresistible aristocrat whose heyday was during the English Restoration period (1660–1688) at the court of Charles II. They were typified by the "Merry gang" of courtiers, who included as prominent members the Earl of Rochester; George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham; and the Earl of Dorset, who combined riotous living with intellectual pursuits and patronage of the arts. At this time the rake featured as a stock character in Restoration comedy. After the reign of Charles II, and especially after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the cultural perception of the rake took a dive into squalor. The rake became the butt of moralistic tales in which his typical fate was debtor's prison, venereal disease, or, in the case of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, insanity in Bedlam.'


"And had she but told me before she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it in time,
I might have got pills and salts of white mercury,
But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime."


Fife and drum


"Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along."

"Don't muffle your drums and play your fifes merrily,
Play a quick march as you carry me along,
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin,
Saying: There goes an unfortunate lad to his home."


As the site says: 'Only a handful of texts reported from tradition have been as graphically frank in their commentary on the cause of the young man's demise as that given in this early version.' Perhaps that is because the view of sexually transmitted diseases has also changed. Today, H.I.V. / AIDS and Chlamydia are the only infections and diseases that are widely publicised, although there are probably a range of other sexually transmitted infections dealt with by clinics. When I was a lad, we were always warned about the risk of V.D. (venereal disease), and in the 1970s I can recall that there were still patients in psychiatric hospitals suffering the results of tertiary syphilis. Syphilis is still around despite the greater availability of penicillin; during 2015, it caused about 107,000 deaths, down from 202,000 in 1990 but apparently it can still be associated with H.I.V. Apart from physical symptoms (e.g. growths), the neurological symptoms that caused many people to end up in psychiatric hospitals were confusion, disorientation, personality disorder, dementia, mood disturbance and psychosis. With such a range of symptoms it is not surprising that diagnoses were sometimes confused too.

I am not aware of many jazz or popular songs that deal with sexually transmitted diseases, other than perhaps H.I.V. Readers will no doubt let me know otherwise, but you might like to watch this video of Rachel Bloom's Jazz Fever which features Rachel with Seth Green, Rebekka Johnson, John Milhiser and Zach Reino: 'Pick out a musician, buy him a gin, then I take him home for a delicious night of sin. Now I've got a sore ....'





Mercuric Chloride



'Salts of white mercury' in the lines of the traditional song also point to the disease being syphilis. 'Elemental mercury was known to the ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Hindus. Mercuric chloride was used to disinfect wounds by Arab physicians in the Middle Ages. It continued to be used by Arab doctors into the twentieth century, until modern medicine deemed it unsafe for use. Syphilis was frequently treated with mercuric chloride before the advent of antibiotics. It was inhaled, ingested, injected, and applied topically. Both mercuric-chloride treatment for syphilis and poisoning during the course of treatment was so common that the latter's symptoms were often confused with those of syphilis. This use of "salts of white mercury" is referred to in the English-language folk song "The Unfortunate Rake".' (Wikipedia).





The only other song I can recall is Rod Stewart's Three Times Loser from the 1975 Atlantic Crossing album. In some ways the infection treated lightly except for the line that says: '... my friends say its here to stay'.





The form of the song has appeared in other popular tunes that, as says, avoid the graphic commentary of the cause and vary the setting. Take The Streets of Loredo as sung by Marty Robbins:





Returning to St. James Infirmary Blues:

I went down to old Joe's barroom,
On the corner by the square
They were serving the drinks as usual,
And the usual crowd was there.

On my left stood old Joe McKennedy,
And his eyes were bloodshot red;
He turned to the crowd around him,
These are the words he said:

There is the question of whether St. James Infirmary actually existed, and the general consensus is that it was located in Liverpool. In a 1970's BBC interview, apparently B.B. King stated that the song had originated in Liverpool and was taken to the southern states of America, where it changed from a maudlin Victorian ballad to a blues. He claimed it is the oldest blues song. "St. James Hospital was a very old hospital on Tollemache Road in Birkenhead (across the river from Liverpool) in the 1970's when I was there, and it doesn't seem to exist any more. It used to be known as the "Fever Hospital" located next to the main cemetery. It had moved up the hill from Livingstone Street at some point in the 19th century." Information online shows that there was such a St. James Hospital in Birkenhead and there is a short, rather strange short video that purports to show the remains of the Birkenhead Fever Hospital and that says the site was cleared in 2007:




St James Infirmary book


Over the years the origins of the song have been discussed and disputed. Rob Walker in the New Orleans publication Gambit has done a lot of research and come up with a lot of interesting information about the song. His research also reveals the link to The Unfortunate Rake: '.... Kenneth S. Goldstein writes that the oldest published text from the "Rake" cycle was "collected" in 1848 in County Cork, Ireland, "from a singer who had learned it in Dublin in 1790." The song may have been "in tradition" for years prior to that, but it's obviously impossible to say. (He also notes that St. James Hospital was in London, and treated lepers).'

Rob Walker isn't the only researcher and books have been written about the song. I haven't read Robert W. Harland's well reviewed book, I Went Down To St James Infirmary, but it is now in its second edition and is described as: 'Infused with humor and supported by meticulous research, this ground breaking book explores the turbulent and mysterious history of one of the most important and influential songs of the twentieth century. I Went Down to St. James Infirmary looks at the people and the times in which “St. James Infirmary” achieved its initial popularity and explores what happens to a traditional song when it becomes a piece of merchandise.' (A paperback copy came out in 2015).




Here is a more recent video of St James Infirmary from the Hot Sardines playing their version of the song:




The lyrics to the song vary greatly. Rob Walker points out that St James Infirmary is sometimes attributed to Joe Primrose or Irving Mills: 'Actually Joe Primrose is Irving Mills. I eventually confirmed this with EMI Music, the song's publisher. According to EMI, Mills, using the pseudonym Joe Primrose, took the copyright on the song in 1929. This seemed odd, if it's right that the Armstrong recording was actually made in late 1928. A knowledgeable reader has suggested that Mills probably published the song in 1928 and deposited the copyright the following year; publishers, my correspondent added, often sent artists advance copies of their tunes.' Rob Walker's detailed article can be read if you click here.


Let her go, let her go, God bless her;
Wherever she may be
She may search the wide world over
And never find a better man than me

Oh, when I die, please bury me
In my ten dollar Stetson hat;
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So my friends'll know I died standin' pat.


Robert Harwood writes: 'New Orleans, of course, is famous for its funerals. Bold clothing marked both the gambler and the pimp as men who stood outside the normal rules of society, and served as primary indicators of their status. Given the continuous quest to impress colleagues and competition, the insistence on flashy attire in the coffin seems almost reasonable. Louis Armstrong was a prolific writer but he mentioned St James Infirmary only once, and that was in relation to the Stetson hat. While still a young man in New Orleans, he had dressed in his best clothes to play in the funeral of a member of his club, the Tammany Social Aid and Pleasure Club. “I had on a brand new Stetson hat (like the one in St James Infirmary), my fine black suit and new patent leather shoes. Believe me, I was a sharp cat’. Unfortunately his girlfriend Daisy saw him chatting with a young woman whom he ‘used to sweetheart’ and came after him with a razor. Wisely Louis ran away – but in doing so his hat fell off. Daisy cut it to ribbons.’

The more one looks, the more one finds different versions of The Unfortunate Rake and of various St James Infirmaries, but the general consensus seems to be that it started with The Unfortunate Rake and was then varied as the folk song travelled. Ironically there is a St James Infirmary in San Franciso which is part of the organisation NSWP a global network of sex work projects covering North America and the Caribbean working with 'current, former and transitioning sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations, their primary partners and their adolescent children'. (click here) - the Rake would no doubt have approved!

Here is a final video of Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue playing St James Infirmary in 2011 with a great trumpet introduction and touches of Cab Calloway:




Get six gamblers to carry my coffin
Six chorus girls to sing me a song
Put a twenty-piece jazz band on my tail gate
To raise Hell as we go along

Now that's the end of my story
Let's have another round of booze
And if anyone should ask you just tell them
I've got the St. James Infirmary blues.


New Orleans funeral




Chris Batey writes about our article on St James Infirmary : 'Great article and couldn't get the song out of my head. Weirdly my dad used to talk about St James  hospital in Birkenhead north end as it was close to where he was born. In an echo of the song's possible roots there was a sexual disease clinic there in 1917 - I read about it on the hospital archive website.'

Paul Adams of Fellside Recordings (who issue both Folk and Jazz recordings) says: 'Variants of the song crop up all over England and Ireland under different names (Soldier/Sailor Cut Down In His Prime, Locke Hospital, etc). There’s a West Country version which could also claim to be how it got to America (via Bristol and the slavers). In America it went two ways: into Jazz as St. James Infirmary and also taking on a new lease of life as a folksong, The Streets Of Laredo, Lee Tharin’s Bar Room, Tom Sherman’s Bar Room, Jones’s Saloon). Sometimes it’s handy doing Folk music and Jazz! There’s a fine version of Lee Tharin’s Bar Room sung by Hedy West on a Fellside CD.'

Julie Tippetts writes: 'Very interesting article......I wonder if you ever saw the 1988 BBC play The Luddites ..... I have found it on youtube and you might be interested in it because the music used, by Edward Williams, is based on an interpretation of the same, and similar songs .... I recorded these with Edward for the play (click here).' [The song comes in towards the end at around 47 minutes].


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More Tracks Unwrapped:

When You Wish Upon A Star
I'm In The Seventh Heaven
Laird Baird
Milneburg Joys

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