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“I went down to St. James Infirmary / Saw my baby there”*…

One of the greatest of American songs is “St. James Infirmary,” and it is also one of the most mysterious, with a cloudy and complicated history. Despite the credit on the record pictured above to Don Redman, no one knows who wrote the song, and its lyrics are endlessly variable. Here’s how Louis Armstrong sang it:

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. 

When I die, want you to dress me, straight-lace shoes,

Box-back coat and a Stetson hat.

Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain, 

So the boys’ll know that I died standin’ pat. 

He first recorded the song in 1928, and then re-recorded it in 1959. (That second link says that it’s the 1928 version, but it isn’t: it’s from Armstrong’s outstanding 1959 album Satchmo Plays King Oliver.) The funeral-march pace of the later recording fits the lyrics’ mood better, I think, that the speedier early version. And Armstrong’s vocal on that later version is one of his very finest. 

Wynton Marsalis’s staggering song “The Death of Jazz,” from his 1989 album The Majesty of the Blues, is musically so close to Armstrong’s 1959 recording of “St. James Infirmary” that it’s almost a cover. Listening to the two songs back-to-back is an education in the resources of the blues tradition – and of certain folk traditions that pre-date the blues. 

The Wikipedia page for “St. James Infirmary” traces its history quite effectively, following the various dim paths back to England and Ireland. I’d give a lot to know where this unsettling masterpiece of American music really came from – if such a question can be answered at all.

As the blues became jazz: an appreciation of an American classic, from Alan Jacobs (@ayjay)

* “St. James Infirmary”

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As we note that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, we might recall that it was on this date in 1951 that guitarist Willie Kizart, playing with Ike Turner’s band at a session in Memphis produced by the (later famous) Sam Phillips, recorded what most believe is the first recorded example of electric guitar distortion. The legend of how the sound emerged holds that Kizart’s amplifier was damaged when the band was driving from Mississippi to Memphis. On arriving and discovering the problem, Kizart stuffed the amplifier with wadded newspapers to hold the cone in place– and unintentionally created a distorted sound. Phillips liked it and used it (though when he sold the rights to Chess records, he credited “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats,” who were actually “Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm”).

The song that they recorded, “Rocket 88,” is considered by many to have been the first rock and roll record– for which it has earned berths in he Blues Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Singles.

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