St James' Infirmary
Where did it originate?

 

  • 09/06/12 - Whilst updating this page, the TV was on in the background, it was Jools Holland on a programme called London Calling. It was a journey through the streets, landmarks, pubs, music halls, and rock 'n' roll venues of London, and the programme also included shots of the 100 club in its heyday. I was amazed to hear that St James' Infirmary Blues actually started it's life in 18th Century London before it arrived in Virginia, and was in fact about St James' Infirmary Hospital in London, which treated syphilis! Check out http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00tl5yr if you don't believe me.


10/06/12 -

Good Morning Fred, just to add a little spice to the legend, I always understood that St James' Infirmary referred to is the one in Leeds. I can't think who told me that, I expect it was one of my Yorkshire acquaintances.

Pete Vickers


13/06/12 - Dear Fred,

No less an authority than Tony Davis once assured me that the original St James Infirmary was in Liverpool, on or close to the site where the Anglican Cathedral now stands. He said it with such conviction that I've been repeating it as incontrovertible fact for the past twenty-five years or so. It MUST be true!

Allan Wilcox


Hi Fred,

I don't get too much time these days to contribute to Jazznorthwest these days, what with saving the world and the whale and all, but I figured I should crawl out of the woodwork to elucidate folks about the matter of St James' Infirmary.

First of all the song does indeed date from the eighteenth century, but which St James' Infirmary the title refers to is highly uncertain, if indeed the earliest versions refer to any of them.

So far as I know and have always believed it started life as a broadside ballad (Broadsides were single pieces of paper, usually with a song printed on them, and often of approximate A4 size, which were sold around markets, fairs etc., in the days before newsprint became widely accessible) in Ireland called The Unfortunate Rake (Rake = a ne'er do well, usually fairly well heeled who spends all his time drinking and gambling and heartlessly seducing women). From there it assumed a bewildering variety of forms and titles including The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime, When I Was on Horseback, Tom Sherman's Barroom, One Morning in May, Pills of White Mercury and the Streets of Laredo. No I haven't been at the cooking sherry. The song which Marty Robbins, among many others, recorded under that title is indeed related to St James' Infirmary. The point here is that when the song reached the southern US, where they tend to be a bit more puritanical, the bit about the hero dying of syphilis got lost and we are left with the message that he was shot in a gunfight, in some cases as a result of a quarrel over a game of cards. Oddly enough though, the request for a military funeral never seems to have got lost.

Here's a few statistics might give an idea of how widespread the song is.

Folkways Records in America once compiled an entire LP (called The Unfortunate Rake) which consisted of 20 different versions of the song.

Folksong Index, an ongoing online resource which attempts to list every version of every single folksong in English which has ever been published, has an almighty 393 entries for that particular family of songs. http://tinyurl.com/6smtrvf


Interrogating the database, which I've been compiling of my own sound records, I was a bit surprised to find I've got this song listed for no less than 56 different recordings.

That's enough of the thumbnail sketch. If anyone fancies buying me a pint I'll give them the whole history, root and branch, chapter and verse. By the time I've finished though, they might be feeling sorry that they ever asked.

 

BTW., I've attached a couple of recordings which you might find suitably germane.

 

If you can't see music players below, or they won't play, click on the titles to download


St James Infirmary Doc Watson

Lee Tharins Barroom Hedy West

Gambling Bar Room Blues

All the Best,

Fred McCormick.


20/06/12 - Hi Fred

About half an hour ago I thought I’d look up other sources of info. about St James Infirmary Blues. I wish I hadn’t started.

I saw the Jools Holland programme and mentioned the St James Infirmary item to the two blues aficionados whom I play with in a trio over here and they knew all about it.

Below is info from Wikepedia and various other web sites, seemingly all from the same source.

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 derived from St. James Hospital in London, a religious foundation for the treatment of leprosy. It was closed in 1532 when Henry VIII acquired the land to build St. James Palace.

None of that rings true to me........ 18thC folk song; hospital closed in 1532 !!???!! However, I discovered that there was another St James Infirmary built in Wandsworth in 1909 (now part of St George’s) and that there are currently just two St James hospitals in the UK – Leeds and Southsea.

Then I found some words for “The Unfortunate Rake”, a very sad tale indeed but, apart from mentioning the hospital, I can’t see how anyone can say it bears any relationship to St James Infirmary Blues.

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 flannel though warm was the day.

I asked him what ailed him, I asked him what failed him,
I asked him the cause of all his complaint.
"It's all on account of some handsome young woman,
'Tis she that has caused me to weep and lament.

"And had she but told me before she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it in time,
I might have got pills and salts of white mercury,
But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime.

"Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along.

"Don't muffle your drums and play your fifes merrily,
Play a quick march as you carry me along,
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin,
Saying: There goes an unfortunate lad to his home."

Not wishing to leave it there, I also listened to a recording of it on the Folkways website http://tinyurl.com/6m429sn  which convinced me even more that everyone’s just making all this up.

Finally, I discovered that a guy called Rob Walker has written a dissertation on the damned thing. http://tinyurl.com/8ycmhdl

And he starts off in Dublin !!!!!!!

I didn’t bother to read it.

Graham Martindale


23/06/12 -

Just to clarify a couple of questions which Graham Martindale's contribution raise. I don't think St James' Infirmary is so much a version of the Unfortunate Rake family, as a rewrite, possibly by Irving Mills, co-founder of Mills Music. It's interesting to note though that SJI retains a hint of the funeral procession motif, something which is common to every version of the song I've ever come across. Also, unlike most of it's American confreres, there's a strong suggestion  in SJI that the heroine died of VD.

Incidentally, far from being a wind up, Kenneth Goldstein, who compiled the Folkways LP, and was well known as a record producer, as well as an academic, used to teach university students the history of the Unfortunate Rake, as a way of illustrating the oral processes which s
hape and form folk song variants.

I can understand Graham's scepticism, but you would need to take a very sizeable sample of the various versions to appreciate just how widespread this family is. Also, to appreciate the connections between the Unfortunate Rake and St James Infirmary.

For anyone who doesn't want to read the dissertation, there's a copy of the Folkways booklet at http://tinyurl.com/6776bot

Cheers,   Fred McCormick.

 


16/07/18 -

Hi Fred In your 'Page of the Week', it refers to a 'rake' as a 'ne'er do well'. I can recall my Dad back in NI, when he was giving some words of wisdom, telling us young brothers, to steer clear of some of the bxxxxy rakes around town and the women with them. If you check Wikipedia - 'Rake (Stock Character), you will find that rakes were, although charismatic, very unsavoury individuals. So ending up in St.James Infirmary, or any other one, was quite likely. I do, however, like very much Lucian Barbarin's version of SJI with the Dave Donohoe Jazz Band -

Norman Gibson


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