The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #46310   Message #3889106
Posted By: Brian Peters
18-Nov-17 - 08:20 AM
Thread Name: Origin: Saint James Infirmary Blues
Subject: RE: Origin: Saint James Infirmary Blues
**Lengthy post alert** I've whiled away the entire morning on this...

"versions of what became known as the jazz standard were widespread prior to the release and copyrighting by Irving Mills of that version, and in saying that I was relying on the research of Harwood."

Karen's timely reminder of the Harwood research led me back to the Walker article posted by Stewie on August 9
That has led me down some interesting pathways, and shown me that I was quite wrong in suggesting that the Armstrong hit was a one-off rewrite. As luck would have it, someone gave me a copy of Snadburg at a pub music session a few weeks back, so I had two of the key versions sitting on my shelf all along.

There are two versions of 'Gambler's Blues' that predate the Armstrong / Irving Mills recording in Sandburg's 'American Songbag' (1927). Here they are:

Given by Henry McCarthy of the University of Alabama

It was down in old Joe?s bar-room
On a corner of the square
The drinks were served as usual
And a goodly crowd was there

On my left stood Joe McKenny
His eyes bloodshot and red
He gazed at the crowds around him
And these are the words he said

As I passed by the old infirmary
I saw my sweetheart there
All stretched out on a table
So pale, so cold, so fair

Sixteen coal-black horses
All hitched to a rubber-tired hack
Carried seven girls to the graveyard
And only six of 'em coming back

Oh when I die just bury me
In a box-black coat and hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
To let the Lord know I'm standing pat

Six crap shooters as pall bearers
Let a chorus girl sing me a song
With a jazz band on my hearse
To raise hell as we go along

And now you?ve heard my story
I?ll take another shot of booze
If anybody happens to ask you
Tell them I've got those gambler's blues

Given by Jake Zetlin and Jack Hagerty of Forth Worth and Los Angeles

Went down to St. Joe's infirmary
To see my woman there
She was layin' on the table
So white, so cold so fair

Went up to see the doctor
She?s very low, he said
Went back to see my woman
Good God, she's layin' there dead
[spoken] She's dead!

Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
There?ll never be another like her
There?ll never be another for me

I may be killed on the ocean
I may be killed by a cannonball
But let me tell you buddy
That a woman was the cause of it all

Seventeen girls to the graveyard
Seventeen girls to sing her a song
Seventeen girls to the graveyard
Only sixteen of 'em comin' back

O sixteen coal-black horses
To carry me when I'm gone
O flowers on the coffin
While the burial's carried on

Sandburg prints one tune for both texts, which is substantially the same as Armstrong's.

NB: Jacob Israel Zeitlin (1902-1987) was a bookseller, poet and book reviewer in Ft. Worth, Texas before moving to Los Angeles (1925). Make of that what you will.

There?s another pre-Armstrong recording on Youtube, by
Fess Williams and His Royal Flush Orchestra (1927)

There's also a version recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in 1930, which is not a cover of Armstrong and may well predate it.

What do these alternative versions of 'Gambler's Blues' tell us?

First, that the text is quite variable between all the versions. Sandburg's A and B have a lot of differences between them, in terms of the substance of the stanzas, as well as details.

The 'let her go' stanza in the Armstrong hit, which contributors above have struggled to rationalise, makes a lot more sense in Sandburg B ('there'll never be another for me').
Sandburg B mentions 'flowers on the coffin', which harks back to the roses or lavender in English texts.
The name of the bar owner could be 'Old Joe', 'My old friend Joe', or 'Big Kid'. Fess Williams' subsidiary narrator is 'my old friend Sam Jackson', instead of 'Joe McKenny'.

Crucially, in not one of them is the hospital called 'St. James Infirmary'. It is, variously, 'the old infirmary', 'St Joe's Infirmary', 'the infirmary' and 'the big infirmary'.

The more I look at the history of this song, the more impossible it becomes to divorce it from 'Streets of Laredo' and 'Dying Cowboy'. There are five variants of this in Cox's 'Folksongs of the South', all from 1916/17. None of them mentions a hospital, but they are clearly related to 'Unfortunate Lad' by the verse describing beating of drums and playing of fifes. Otherwise, there are several added stanzas, describing letters to the cowboy's mother, and a glass of cold water. Then there is the following:

Once in my saddle I used to go dashing,
Once in my saddle I used to ride gay;
But I just took up drinking and then to card-playing,
Got shot by a gambler, and dying to-day

Compare that with Mary Doran's Irish version (1952), mentioned by Jim Carroll above:

When I was on horseback wasn't I pretty?
When I was on horseback wasn't I gay?
O wasn't I pretty when I entered Cork City
When I met with my downfall on the fourteenth of May?

Two out of the five cowboy versions in Cox set the action in a bar-room, either Tom Sherman's or McFinegan's.

I?ve only just realised that MacKenzie was collecting in Nova Scotia much earlier than I'd thought (pre-1910 as far as I can work out). His book contains a 'Bad Girl's Lament' very similar to the British texts and with a 'St James' reference, and a 'Dying Cowboy' very much like the ones in Cox.

I'm sure there are many more versions out there - what we really need is Richie Matteson on the case. However, it seems to me that we can conclude that a strain resembling 'Unfortunate Lad', with the location 'St James' hospital' was circulating in both the US South and Nova Scotia after 1900 and before 1920 (though the fact Sharp found it only once suggests it wasn't very common).

A related, but distinct strain, 'Dying Cowboy' or whatever, was already well established before 1920, retaining the funeral (and the 'saddle' verse) but often relocating the action to a bar-room. I have seen an online claim that this dates back to 1855 but can't find documentation. Anyone?

A third strain, 'Gambler's Blues' was established by the 1920s, incorporating alternative funeral details and, in some cases, setting the action in a bar-room as per 'Dying Cowboy'.

Just to confuse things further, Ironhead Baker's 'St James Hospital', recorded by the Lomaxes in 1933, looks more like 'Unfortunate Lad' than anything else, but includes bits of 'Dying Cowboy (e.g.the 'Once in my saddle I used to go dashing' stanza), and a list of mourners ('six young gamblers to carry my coffin, sixteen young whore-gals to sing me a song') that looks like an unexpurgated version of Armstrong.

As far as the location 'St James Hospital' goes, the above suggests that the links with 'Unfortunate Lad' are considerably stronger than with 'Gambler's Blues', though I accept that we have nothing concrete apart from Tom Lenihan (and nothing predating 1900) to show that 'St James' was part of the song in the British Isles.