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Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues

10 Apr 00 - 08:19 PM (#209922)
Subject: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: GUEST,

I know the New Orleans traditional version. Recently heard a totally different set of lyrics to the melody but in a Celtic style. Does this song go back that far? If anyone has a history of its oriin, it would be appreciated.

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11 Apr 00 - 01:02 PM (#210103)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: JedMarum

I love this song, and have heard a few versions, in fact I have played a few versions over the years.

There has been little discussion on the song here at Mudcat, and I am also interetsed in hearing more about the tune's background. You can take a look at what's been recently said about it here

11 Apr 00 - 09:22 PM (#210370)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: GUEST,MCarten - Micky for short.

I appreciate the response and I'll see if I can get all of the lyrics I heard from the celtic version. The only thing that tipped me off was that the melody lines: "Let her go, let her go, God bless her" were identical. We lived in New Orleans for 6-7 years back in the early 80s and were privileged to still hear some of the real old timers play this often. It wasn't requested much by the tourists but when the musicians played for themselves, it usually came up during a set once a night. So the tune sort of stays with you in a haunting kind of way. Most of the musicians who are all gone now, God rest them, each had slight variations of the basic lyric depending upon who was doing the vocals but followed the general lines about the bar room and old Joe with the blood shot eyes. We do play with the guitarist, Julie on occasion in a celtic pub. When I asked about the number, she said I was only the second person who she knew ever heard of the song and recognized it. She had not heard the New Orleans or blues version, i.e., Josh White. I'm running a CD now taping the Preservation Hall version for her. If I get the lyrics, I'll post them because even these did not seem the same as the Christy Moore lyrics listed in the Mudcat Forum. I'll be in touch.

12 Apr 00 - 06:52 AM (#210533)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: Billy the Bus

Micky for Short,

I'll throw in tuppence worth, from the "bottom of the world".

"St James Infirmary" - it's origin?

I'll take a punt on New Orleans!

The damned Celts are trying to steal everything..;)

Jed - your link didn't lead far.....:)

NOW, if we are going to research the song, may I ask some questions of you who live in, or have visited the area (New Orleans - not Ireland or other Celtic places).

!. St James Infirmary - I'd always assumed there was a St James Hospital in New Orleans. Correct?

2. Joe's Bar Room - "on the corner, by the square"

I assume New Orleans has a corner (and a square)..;)

MCarten, I'm not knockin' ya when you said ..

"in the early 80s and were privileged to still hear some of the real old timers play this often."

KID, you were hearing the KIDs, that learned "St James" from the guy's whowrote it - wish I was with ya'

Now, we won't talk about the modern exponents of StJ - like Louis Armstrong....

Here's a message to the OLD MC'ers...;)

I've got a feeling that KID (Orey)?????? (sp) did a virgin of St James Infirmary, ca 1920?

I KID you knot...;)


12 Apr 00 - 08:52 AM (#210557)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: JedMarum

... well I did say there had been a little discussion on the song here at Mudcat; the link didn;t lead too far!

I would appreciate hearing if/how the song links back to an older Irish song. I guess I wouldn't be surprised; in fact, I'm sure I've heard that comment before.

It's funny, you say it wasn't requested much. I have played that song for years, and although people always seem to respond, and enjoy the song; I've had very few requests for it over the years - and most of those from my musicican friends. It appears that maybe it is a musician's song!

12 Apr 00 - 08:47 PM (#210923)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: Hotspur

I have read that musicologists relate the tune to "Streets of Laredo", which is in turn an American WEstern version of the Irish song "the Rake of Mallow."

As for the New Orleans questions: I don't know about there ever having been a St. James Hospital, but it's certianly possible. The square is probably Jackson Square, home to the fabulous Cafe du Monde and the gateway to the French Quarter.

13 Apr 00 - 09:16 AM (#211111)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: GUEST,Mike C.

Hopefully, I'm on as a member, we'll see. In deference to Billy the Bus "from Down Under" I'll be using the handle Mike C. instead of Micky! Thanks for the response fo far from: Jed Marum, Billy, and Hotspur. I have heard the link between "Streets of Laredo" and "The Rake of Mallow". The Chieftains did a version of "Cotton Eyed Joe" which went back to a verifiable much older irish tune. The name escapes me at th moment but I'll see if I can get the jacket notes out. This may be another case of a tune evolving when it hit the shores here. As for the New Orleans tune we started with: I am checking the Historic New Orleans Collection for any reference to a St. James Infirmary in the city. The oldest hospital in the city was called "Hotel Dieu". Very French in origin, the present name for the system I believe is Charity Hospital. I don't know of any hospital there in the present with link to the St. James name. The word "Infirmary" strikes me as being more "British" in origin than American in usage. So perhaps there may be a strand to follow there. The reference to the Square, I had assumed at the time to be Jackson Squre situated in the hart of the Quarter in front of St. Louis Cathedral. There are presently no bars on the Square itself. Most of the buildings there were merchant and dry goods stores in the past due to the proximity of the wharf right off the Square. These were way to pricey or a neighborhood drinking establishment referred to in the song. Most of these are kept to the sides streets around the Square. Today, almost all are now on or just off the strip on Bourbon Street which only runs three to four city blocks.

13 Apr 00 - 12:25 PM (#211208)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: JedMarum

St James may be a very simple reference either a left over from an older song, or simply a doctor's office located on St. James Street, Ave, neighborhood ... if St James was a popular local reference it may have been used to describe the doctor's office in that area. I am not sure any written trace will be left behind.

The story sounds like one based upon reflection of a real event. The singer heard his friend tell the tale in a bar room, the friend tells of his grief, of his love for her ("she'll never find a man sweeter then me"), and of his wish to go out of this life with no debt. All normal human responses, it seem to me, when coping with the loss of a loved one.

13 Apr 00 - 12:28 PM (#211211)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: Malcolm Douglas

The Unfortunate Rake seems to have originated in Dublin around the 1790s; it later became popular in England and Scotland, and subsequently spread to the New World. The song was frequently adapted to suit different places and circumstances, and sung to a number of tunes; versions include The Unfortunate Lad (or Lass), The Young Sailor/Girl Cut Down in His/Her Prime, and many others. A Lyric Search of the DT for #350 will get you 26 examples. Of particular interest would be:

THE BAD GIRL'S LAMENT -a version from Canada, which names St James Hospital.


THE UNFORTUNATE RAKE - a 19th century broadside text which again names St. James Hospital.

The Traditional Ballad Index has some useful references, too; try St James Infirmary and Bad Girl's Lament

None of this would suggest that St James Infirmary does not belong to New Orleans, but it would certainly be a waste of time looking there for a hospital of that name!

The "Celtic" feel of the version mentioned earlier would be a result of the arrangement, I should imagine; though available evidence does point to an Irish origin, the family of songs that sprang from it rapidly moved beyond so narrow a classification. Incidentally, I'm not at all convinced that there's any relation between the tune of Streets of Laredo and Rakes of Mallow; anybody care to comment further on that?


12 Apr 02 - 11:55 PM (#688954)
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)


It was down in old Joe's bar-room
On a corner by 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 crowd 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,
An' only six of 'em comin' back.

O, when I die, just bury me
In a box-back coat and hat,
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain
To let the Lord know I'm standin' 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,
Then I've got those gambler's blues.

Coll. Henry McCarthy, Univ. Alabama, and included in Sandburg, Carl, 1927, The American Songbag, pp. 228-231, with music. This version is more satisfactory than the one in the DT Under St. James Infirmary, and tells a unified story.

A shortened version in in thread 46314, Coal-black
The song was very popular in 1928-1930, and was recorded by Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and the Savoy Five, and the Ten Black Pennies among others. All of these are shortened versions of the song given above, with a few word changes. Cab Calloway: "...bury me in my straight-leg britches, Put on a box-back coat and a Stetson hat." Louis Armstrong: "Bury me in my straight-lace shoes."

13 Apr 02 - 12:06 AM (#688959)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmy Blues
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)

Thread 13778 has a couple of chord sets. St. James

13 Apr 02 - 12:52 AM (#688972)
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)


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.

This version also in Carl Sandburg, 1927, The American Songbag, pp. 228-231. Contributed to Sandburg by Jake Zeitlin, Ft. Worth, TX, and Jack Haggerty, Los Angeles, CA. Same music as the version above.

Notice that the hospital is St. Joseph's. There is no evidence to connect the song with New Orleans. There is no evidence to connect the song with the Black musical genre. Although the song is from before 1927, its lack in other collections is noticeable. A copyright was taken out in 1928, but the song was already in print at the time by Sandburg, and his contributors obviously collected from different sources. The song apparently came from England or Ireland; older versions are known there (see post in this thread by Malcolm Douglas). How it was picked up and developed into an American "gutter song," as Sandburg called it, is unknown. Sandburg was unaware of its occurrence outside of the United States.

13 Apr 02 - 01:19 AM (#688976)
From: Dicho (Frank Staplin)


I went down to the Royal Mail bar room
Not too far from the centre of town
Well, the drinks they were served as usual
And thr usual crowd was around.

On my left stood Joe McKennedy
His eyes were blood shot and red,
And he turned to the crowd around him
And these were the very words he said:

"I went down to Leicester Royal Infirmary,
Saw my baby lying there;
She was stretched out on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold, and so bare.
(Drums to emphasize this line)

Oh, let her go, let her go, God bless me
Yes, wherever she may be
'Cause you can search this wide world over
And you'll never find a loving man like me.

Oh, when I die, won't you bury me
In a high-topped Stetson hat;
Put a gold chain in my watch fob
So the gang know that I died standing pat.

I want six gamblers to be my pall barers (sic!)
I want six women to sing me a song
We'll put a jazz band on my hearse wagon
And we'll raise hell as we go along.

Now that you've heard my story
Won't you take another shot of booze
And if anybody thinks to ask me
I'll tell them I've got those gambling blues.

Found on Google, unattributed. Probably by some English musician. I doubt that a "High topped Stetson" (whatever that is) fits his English locale. Centre is spelled in the English way. Does this represent the return of the song to England in debased form?
Gambling blues

07 Oct 02 - 02:16 AM (#798115)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: Joe Offer

Somebody sent me a list of songs and threads that are related to "St James Infirmary." The list is far too long to use with our grouping system, but I thought I'd post it here.
-Joe Offer-

It is arguable whether the following should all be cross-referenced as one big group, or broken up into 2 or 3 groups. I'll leave it up to you to decide. Two groups already exist: (1) Streets of Laredo/Pills of White Mercury; and (2) St. James Infirmary (see footnotes)

    00241 Lyr Req: The Pills of White Mercury
    00890 Pills of White Mercury
    03172** Tune request: St. James Infirmary
    03918* ...all wrapped in white linen.
    06346 unfortunate rake
    13778** Tab request 'St. James Infirmary'
    14919* Streets of Laredo
    14941* Lyr Add: Pills of White Mercury
    16016 Wrap me up in my tarpaulin jacket????
    20068 Tune Req: St. James Infirmary
    20256** Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
    20413 Lyr Add: Tom Sherman's Barroom
    22885 Penguin: The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime
    24143** Lyr Req: st james infirmary (request only)
    26976** Lyr/Chords Req: St. James Infirmary
    30298** Chords Req: St. James Infirmary
    36109 BS: St. Jude's Infirmary (Parody for Spaw)
    42215 Lyr/Chords Req: Pills of White Mercury, Old B
    46310** History of Saint James Infirmary Blues?
    46314 Lyr Req: 16 Coal Black Horses, a funeral dirge
    48964** St. James infirmary
    *Already cross-referenced: Streets of Laredo group
    **Already cross-referenced: St. James Infirmary group
Here are the groups:

24 May 05 - 03:06 AM (#1491741)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: GUEST,Patrick

Check out this Betty Boop Cartoon.
It has a special part with a character, voice Cab Calloway, singing Saint James Infirmary Blues.

04 Feb 06 - 03:30 PM (#1661506)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: GUEST,Dylan

I read somewhere, in a reference to the Irish version, that the narrators stiff white baby was the victim of syphilis, making the narrator the next to die and possibly the murderer of her, though obviously unintentional and guilt stricken. And that St. James was just a type of cheap county hospital where the poor got bad news, "the St. James infirmary blues".
-Just a thought.

04 Feb 06 - 05:34 PM (#1661659)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: GUEST,Scotus (minus cookie)

and of course Dylan (Bob of that ilk) used the St James Infirmary tune for his excellent song 'Blind Willie McTell'.


15 Mar 12 - 04:15 PM (#3323290)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: GUEST,olddude

here is my version of it such as it is:

09 Jul 18 - 04:34 AM (#3936223)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: KarenH

Hello. This thread lists a 19th century broadside called 'The Unfortunate Rake' as a possible ancestor of St James Infirmary.

After a couple of years spent tracing references to this so-called 19th century broadside back to the early 20th century, I have come to the conclusion that it never existed.

Many sources refer you to a version sung by A L Lloyd. This appears to be a composite. The tune is one used for a fragment collected in Ireland; the words are somewhat like a version printed on several 19th century broadside called 'The Unfortunate Lad', but not identical. The title and other changes, including the omission of a whole verse, seem to be down to Lloyd. In other words, this is, I believe, one of Lloyd's tinkerings.

I don't want to discuss this again here, as it has been gone through on other threads, but there is one thread called 'Help. The Unfortunate Rake' and another called H M Belden, Ballads and Songs - Unfortunate Rake where this topic is discussed.

See esp post at 4.49 on 27/6/2018 on the H M Belden thread, where a history of how, I believe, the Unfortunate Rake belief started out as a tentative guess and them became ensconsed in people's minds as a fact.


10 Jul 18 - 11:20 AM (#3936483)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: leeneia

Syphilis? Could be. Also cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, diabetes, childbirth. Any number of things. We will never know what she died of, esp. since she was a fictional character.

The painter Mary Cassett had a sister who died young (in her twenties or thirties) of kidney disease. Her family had money and access to doctors, but no one could save her. Such was medicine in the 19th C.

10 Jul 18 - 12:30 PM (#3936494)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: GUEST,Kevin W.

It's just fiction, of course, but it's made obvious that he/she is dying from syphilis because of the mention of mercury, salivation, lock hospitals, flash girls etc. in early texts.
The whole point of the song seems to be a warning against catching diseases from whores.
I'm talking about older texts of the "Unfortunate Lad" type, though, in the "St. James' Infirmary Blues" (which has little in common with the Unfortunate Lad) the cause of death isn't specified at all.

It's not even clear why the guy is dying as well in "Infirmary".
We just hear that his girl dies in a hospital and then he starts making requests for his own funeral.

10 Jul 18 - 12:36 PM (#3936495)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: GUEST,Kevin W.

I apologize for writing "whores", I should have written "prostitutes".
It's because the word occurs so often in texts of this song family that it was still on my mind when I wrote that reply without thinking about it.

10 Jul 18 - 02:15 PM (#3936514)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues
From: Lighter

The preferred term in sociology circles is now "sex workers."

10 Jul 18 - 02:38 PM (#3936520)
Subject: RE: Tune Req: St. James Infirmary Blues

Alright, I'm not being offensive on purpose, this political correctness thing can be confusing at times. What was acceptable a few years ago might be offensive now.

01 Oct 19 - 01:57 PM (#4011443)
Subject: Lyr Add: THOSE GAMBLER'S BLUES (Jimmie Rodgers)
From: Jim Dixon

As recorded by Jimmie Rodgers, 1930 (Victor 22554)

Oh, oh, hey, hey—hey, ho, hey.

It was down in Big Kid’s barroom, on a corner beyond the square.
Ev’rybody drinking liquor; the regular crowd was there.

I walked out on the sidewalk, began walking around.
I looked ev’rywhere I thought she’d be, but my baby couldn’t be found.

I passed by the big infirm’ry; I heard my sweetheart moan.
Gee, it hurts me to see you here, ‘cause, you know, you used to be my own.

I goes on out to see the doctor; “Your gal is low,” he said.
I went back to see my baby; good God, she was lying there dead!

Hey, ho, ho, ho; hoo woo-hoo, woo.
Hey, hey, ho, ho, ho, hey, ho, hey.

So I strode on back to the barroom; I drank good whiskey till night,
‘Cause it hurt me so to see my gal lying there so cold, so white.

She’s gone; she’s gone, God bless her; she’s mine wherever she may be.
She has rambled this wide world over, but she never found a pal like me.

Sixteen coal-black horses, all hitched up in line.
In that pretty buggy she’s riding; goodbye, old gal of mine.