"St. James Infirmary Blues" is an American folksong of anonymous origin, though sometimes credited to the songwriter Joe Primrose (a pseudonym for Irving Mills). Louis Armstrong made it famous in his influential 1928 recording.
"St. James Infirmary" 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 said to derive from St. James Hospital in London, a religious foundation for treatment of leprosy. There is some difficulty in this, since it closed in 1532 whenHenry VIII acquired the land to build St. James Palace. Another possibility is the Infirmary section of the St James Workhouse, which the St James Parish opened in 1725 on Poland Street, Piccadilly, and which continued well into the nineteenth century. This St James Infirmary was contemporaneous with the advent of the song.
- 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 a flannel though warm was the day.
- —"The Unfortunate Rake" (trad.)
Variations typically feature a narrator telling the story of a young man "cut down in his prime" (occasionally, a young woman "cut down in her prime") as a result of morally questionable behavior. For example, when the song moved to America, gambling and alcohol became common causes of the youth's death. There are numerous versions of the song throughout the English-speaking world. It evolved into other American standards such as "The Streets of Laredo." The song "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" has been described as a descendant of "The Unfortunate Rake", and thus a 'direct relative' of "St James Infirmary Blues". Blind Willie McTellrecorded a version for Alan Lomax in 1940, and claimed to have begun writing the song around 1929. However, the song was first recorded as "Gambler's Blues" in 1927 by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra.
The tune of the earlier versions of the song, including the "Bard of Armagh" and the "Unfortunate Rake", is in a major key and is similar to that of the "Streets of Laredo". The jazz version, as played by Louis Armstrong, is in a minor key and appears to have been influenced by the chord structures prevalent in Latin American music, particularly the Tango.
Like most such folksongs, there is much variation in the lyrics from one version to another. This is the first stanza as sung by Louis Armstrong on a 1928 Odeon Records release:
- I went down to St. James Infirmary,
- Saw my baby there,
- Stretched out on a long white table,
- So cold, so sweet, so bare.
- 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.
The song was popular during the jazz era, and by 1930 at least eighteen different versions had been released by various artists. The Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded the song multiple times using pseudonyms such as "The Ten Black Berries", "The Harlem Hot Chocolates" and "The Jungle Band", whilst Cab Calloway performs a version in the 1933 Betty Boopanimated film Snow White, providing both vocals and dance moves for Koko the clown.
In 1961, Blues singer Bobby "Blue" Bland released a version of "Saint James Infirmary" on the flip side of his No. 2 R&B hit "Don't Cry No More" (Duke 340) and included it in his album Two Steps From The Blues.
In 1966, Lou Rawls featured the song on his hit Capitol album, "Lou Rawls Live".
Canadian Brass created a nostalgic yet iconic version of this old Folk Song on their "Basin Street Blues" CD recorded for Sony/CBS in 1984. It becomes a languid, sad and virtuosic trombone solo played by co-founder of the ensemble, Eugene Watts.
The James Solberg Band recorded a 'blues' version on their 1995 CD on the Atomic Theory label 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean'.
More recently, The White Stripes covered the song on their self-titled debut album, as did Van Morrison on his 2003 album What's Wrong with This Picture?, and actorHugh Laurie on his 2011 album Let Them Talk. Isobel Campbell has also recorded a version of the song. In 2002 Jorma Kaukonen did a version for his Blue Country Heart album, on which he titles the song "Those Gambler's Blues", and credits it to Jimmie Rodgers.