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St.James Infirmary   …. another history of the blues

Listen  to this first ….. from Louis Armstrong

louis

St.James Infirmary

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and now from Blind Willie McTell

blind willie mctell

Dying crapshooters’ blues

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As a quiz question…..could there be any connection with Henry VIII?

145-Henry-VIII-s

Well yes and no….

The links are described in Wikipedia:

“St. James Infirmary Blues” 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.

The title is said to derive from St. James Hospital in London, a religious foundation for treatment of leprosy. 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.)

The St James workhouse..

Westminster2workhouse


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. It evolved into other American standards such as “The Streets of Laredo”.

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:

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.

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Lets listen to another jazz version by Cab Calloway (with a bit of cartoon humour) :

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Compare with trombonist Jack Teagarden’s soulful version:

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A great ‘traditional’ version from Snooks Eaglin from Folkways records 1959:

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Lets listen to a few more versions and see how the song has evolved:

First Bobby Bland:

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one of my favourites – from Van the Man -really brings the sense of drama and mix of jazz and blues versions -Live in Montreaux 2003

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And getting back to the roots -an acoustic version from  Arlo Guthrie:

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A good version from guitar maestro Eric Clapton along with band leader Doctor John

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and a gritty version from Joe Cocker and Leon Russell:

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and back to the roots with an acoustic version from Dave Van Ronk – remember the other title – ” Gambler’s blues”

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a soulful/psychedelic rendition form Eric Burden and the Animals:

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I think you realise now how a ‘traditional ‘ song can inspire so many musicians -over centuries!

Some more recent adaptations:

And a great live jazz version from Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue

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Vive la France-  Camélia Jordana in 2011

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and what about Jools Holland -and guess who ….  Tom Jones!

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and the White stripes

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2013 – from the Hot Sardines….a very jazzy touch again

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and a more traditional piano version from Hugh Laurie:

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