I’m not sure when I first heard the song “St. James Infirmary,” but the first version of the song that really resonated with me was when I first saw Doc Watson perform it in concert. Over the years the song’s been recorded by dozens of artists, ranging from Louis Armstrong back in the ’20s to the White Stripes and Rufus Wainwright more recently.
I just came across an article about the new book “I Went Down to St. James Infirmary,” which has the catchy subtitle “Investigations in the shadowy world of early jazz-blues in the company of Blind Willie McTell, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Irving Mills, Carl Moore, and a host of others, and where did this dang song come from anyway?”
Turns out the author, Robert Harwood, earlier wrote a book about the song called “A Rake’s Progress,” but discovered that much of his earlier information was wrong and decided to rewrite the book. Harwood has his own website where you can pick up the book, while his blog contains some really interesting posts regarding artists who covered the song or variants of the song.
And if that’s not enough for you, New Orleans writer Rob Walker, whose book “Letter From New Orleans” addressed the song, has a website that addresses the song as well. Fortunately, these two researchers seem to be on good terms, as Walker recently featured on his blog a two-part interview (here and here) with Harwood.
I’m still digesting all the posts on both blogs, but for the mean time here’s a couple versions.
Cab Calloway and Betty Boop
Bobby “Blue” Bland
And here’s Murfreesboro, Tennessee’s Jake Leg Stompers, featuring my good friend and erstwhile blues photographer Bill Steber on the musical saw. I was there that night, so it was pretty funny to find this turn up on youtube. Soon we won’t have any need for memory…