“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):
The title is said to derive from St. James Hospital in London, a religious foundation for treatment of leprosy. (“Infirmary” is sometimes used to name a hospital, such as the Mobile Infirmary Medical Center in Mobile, Alabama). There is some difficulty in this, since it closed in 1532 when Henry VIII acquired the land to build St. James Palace. Another possibility is the Infirmary section of the St James Workhouse, which the St James Parish opened in 1725 on Poland Street, Piccadilly, and which continued well into the nineteenth century. This St James Infirmary was contemporaneous with the advent of the song.
- 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 a flannel though warm was the day.
- —”The Unfortunate Rake” (trad.)
Variations typically feature a narrator telling the story of a young man “cut down in his prime” (occasionally, a young woman “cut down in her prime”) as a result of morally questionable behavior. For example, when the song moved to America, gambling and alcohol became common causes of the youth’s death. There are numerous versions of the song throughout the English-speaking world. The song “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” has been described as a descendant of “The Unfortunate Rake”, and thus a ‘direct relative’ of “St James Infirmary Blues”. Blind Willie McTell recorded a version for Alan Lomax in 1940,and claimed to have begun writing the song around 1929. However, the song was first recorded as “Gambler’s Blues” in 1927 by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra:
The tune of the earlier versions of the song, including the “Bard of Armagh” and the “Unfortunate Rake”, is in a major key and is similar to that of the “Streets of Laredo”. The jazz version, as played by Louis Armstrong, is in a minor key and appears to have been influenced by the chord structures prevalent in Latin American music, particularly the Tango.
Like most such folksongs, there is much variation in the lyrics from one version to another. This is the first stanza as sung by Louis Armstrong on a 1928 Odeon Records release:
- 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.
Louis Armstrong – St. James Infirmary (1928 version), maybe the best version of the song:
Here is another very fine version from 1928:
George E. Lee’s Novelty Singing orchestra (see photo at the top of the post) – St. James Infirmary Blues
In 1933 it was included in a Betty Boop cartoon, performed by Coco the clown (Cab Calloway):
There are hundreds of takes on this classic song, I have chosen 4 favourite contemporary versions. I hope you like them.
Van Morrison at Montreux in 2003 does a fantastic St. James Infirmary:
Eric Clapton with Dr. John – St. James Infirmary:
Bobby “Blue” Bland – St. James Infirmary:
Jack White with Jools Holland – St. James Infirmary (with interview):
Lyrics for the most common version of 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.
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:
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.
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