The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #46310   Message #3889707
Posted By: Brian Peters
22-Nov-17 - 05:36 AM
Thread Name: Origin: Saint James Infirmary Blues
Subject: RE: Origin: Saint James Infirmary Blues
"I can see at most three common features between the St James Infirmary / Gambler's Blues family and the Unfortunate Rake family, and two of those are tenuous. The only strong one is the funeral requests. But we are quite familiar with floating verses that crop up in songs that are otherwise distinct. Drawing the line is tricky with songs that consist mostly of such, but (for example) we don't say that every song with a verse about a rose entwining with a briar must really be a version of Barbara Allen. So the description of the desired funeral could be borrowed and re-used in a song that is otherwise entirely separate, not a descendant.

The "St James" name seems to belong in only a very few "Unfortunate Rake" versions, and again could have been borrowed.

I can see you are a sceptic on this issue, Richard, but I take issue with several of those points.

1. We have at least three 'Unfortunate Lass' (my shorthand title) variants mentioning St James (there's an additional one from Ontario claimed on the Folkways LP), plus Maynard's account (see Lighter above) that this was the usual opening line. If anything, the link between 'St James' and 'Gamblers Blues' is the more tenuous (since it seems to have been added for copyrighting reasons) and might conceivably have arisen independently from a hospital in Orleans. Though that would represent quite a coincidence.

2. There is no comparison here with the 'rose and briar' motif. 'Fair Margaret & Sweet William' and 'Barabra Allen' each has a lengthy and coherent tale to tale, with two stanzas' worth of 'rose/briar' tagged on at the end. The funeral isn't just tagged on to the song in the present case, it is the song.

3. Comparable funeral arrangements crop up in the 'Wild and Wicked Youth' song family, but again in that case they are an addendum to what is a coherent song in its own right.

You mention 'three common features' and believe that all are arguable. But let's leave out 'St. James' for a moment, and compare the essentials of the jazz version with the plot as related in English versions of 'Unfortunate Lass':

1. The narrator visits a hospital

2. There a young woman is seriously ill (and 'cold')

3. A doctor has been summoned, but is unable to help

4. A funeral is planned

5. The coffin is to be accompanied by six mourners of each sex

6. Alcoholic refreshments will be served ('a glass of brown ale' in Adams)

Add to that the elements turning up in the jazz version that are present in the cowboy version (which is indisputably a descendant of the British ballad) such as the 'bar-room' setting and the detail that the male pall bearers are 'gamblers', and also the fact that at least one 'Gamblers Blues' has flowers scattered on the coffin as per the English texts.

There is also the recurring suggestion (albeit subliminal in some cases) that prostitution is involved, which recalls the fate of the Young Sailor back in England.

I don't necessarily see a linear progression from Sailor / Young girl through Cowboy and thence to Gambler. It's more complicated than that, and to me the jazz song looks like a composite (in which, incidentally, the storyline is not coherent) possibly drawing on both strains.

Although we don't have a silver bullet yet, there are more links than I could explain away as coincidences.