Tag Archives: gospel

The Best Songs: St. James Infirmary blues

George E. Lee's Novelty Singing orchestra
George E. Lee’s Novelty Singing orchestra

“One place you’re going to find a lot of doctors is St. James Infirmary. This song’s history is convoluted and fascinating. Louis Armstrong recorded it as early as nineteen and twenty-eight, but it goes back much further. According to one study it got its start as a ballad called ‘The Unfortunate Rake’…”
– Bob Dylan (Theme Time Radio Hour, Doctors)

The Best Songs: St. James Infirmary blues

“St. James Infirmary Blues” is an American folksong of anonymous origin, though sometimes credited to the songwriter Joe Primrose (a pseudonym for Irving Mills). Louis Armstrong made it famous in his influential 1928 recording.

There are hundreds of recordings and it has been difficult to choose my favourites. I’ve tried to pick some for their historic significance and some just because they are so incredibly good.

“St. James Infirmary” is based on an 18th-century traditional English folk song called “The Unfortunate Rake” (also known as “The Unfortunate Lad” or “The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime”), about a soldier who uses his money on prostitutes, and then dies of a venereal disease.

My first pick is an a cappella version of The Unfortunate Rake done by  Ian McShane from the TV-series Deadwood (we can also clearly hear the melody that became Streets of Laredo):

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The Best Songs: Just a Closer Walk With Thee

Just a Closer Walk with Thee is a traditional gospel song that has been covered by many artists. Performed as either an instrumental or vocal, “A Closer Walk” is perhaps the most frequently played number in the hymn and dirge section of traditional New Orleans jazz funerals.

Rebirth Brass Band – A Closer Walk With Thee:

The ‘jazz funeral’ starts off sombre. On its way to the cemetery, the brass band plays soulful, sad funeral hymns called ‘dirges’,  it should be something that reminds mourners of life’s ups and downs. The slow tune lasts until the procession reaches its final destination, at which point they ‘cut the body loose’ – send the hearse off into the cemetery.

I really love this song and have “dug up” a few examples of great artists doing their version of this old tune.

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The Best Songs: Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes by Blind Willie Johnson

Drawn by the legendary Robert Crumb
The Best Songs: Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes by Blind Willie Johnson

Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Bach, Beethoven and Blind Willie Johnson was included on the golden record that was sent into deep space in 1977 as part of the Voyager missions. What potential alien life forms might make of Johnson humming along to his slide guitar on “Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground)” is anyone’s guess. The track moves me in a way that’s hard to explain, it’s the sound of pure emotion.

Steve Martin, the actor, once told a story about the golden record: “the first message from extraterrestrials has been received… ‘Send more Blind Willie Johnson’.”

Today we will give you more Blind Willie Johnson, we will present the fantastic,  “Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes” (audio only):

“Blind” Willie Johnson (January 22, 1897 – September 18, 1945) was an American singer and guitarist, whose music straddled the border between blues and spirituals.

While the lyrics of all of his songs were religious, his music drew from both sacred and blues traditions. His music is distinguished by his powerful bass thumb-picking and gravelly false-bass voice, with occasional use of a tenor voice.

Johnson was not born blind, and, although it is not known how he lost his sight, Angeline Johnson told Samuel Charters that when Willie was seven his father beat his stepmother after catching her going out with another man. The stepmother then picked up a handful of lye and threw it, not at Willie’s father, but into the face of young Willie.

Johnson made 30 commercial recordings (29 songs) in five separate sessions for Columbia Records from 1927–1930.

“Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes” is sung along with an as-yet-unidentified female singer. They complement each other, he sings in a gruffy voice, she shimmers above with a high pitched soft style of singing.
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The Best Songs: Sometimes I feel like a motherless child

The Negro spiritual, Motherless Child Blues is a Negro Spiritual that turned into “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” (or simply “Motherless Child”) .

The song dates back to the era of slavery in the United States when it was common practice to sell children of slaves away from their parents. An early performance of the song dates back as far as the 1870s by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Like many traditional songs, it has many variations and has been recorded many times.

The song is clearly an expression of pain and despair as it conveys the hopelessness of a child who has been torn from his or her parents. Under one interpretation, the repetitive singing of the word “sometimes” offers a measure of hope, as it suggests that at least “sometimes” I do not feel like a motherless child.

Although the plaintive words can be interpreted literally, they were much more likely metaphoric. The “motherless child” could be a slave separated from and yearning for his African homeland, a slave suffering “a long ways from home”—home being heaven—or most likely both. (- wikipedia)

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October 26: The late Mahalia Jackson was born in 1911

Mahalia Jackson Sings

“I was there when all my favourites came up. My alltime favourite was a gospel singer…what was her name? Oh yeah, Mahalia Jackson. Oh I love her.”
Charles Bradley (Johannasvisions, 2012)

Blues are the songs of despair, but gospel songs are the songs of hope.
~Mahalia Jackson

I close my eyes when I sing so I can feel the song better.
~Mahalia Jackson

Amazing Graze:

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