Pete's Blog

St. James Infirmary

I heard somebody play "St. James Infirmary" last night - you know, the old New Orleans slow-drag in A minor with the chorus "Let her go, let her go, God Bless her" - and it reminded me what a great song it is. So I worked up an arrangement and am actually playing it for the first time since I heard over forty years ago by the Limelighters, I think. It's a great melody and a subtle, even fun song to do despite the gloomy subject-matter. That it should last so long and with (relatively) so few changes is a testament to the song's unknown author. Among other subtleties, it's the only tune I know of that uses the device of a narrator within a narrator. #1 goes "down to Old Joe's barroom," where he hears and quotes narrator #2, Big Joe McKennedy, whose eyes are bloodshot red as he talks about going to St. James Infirmary and seeing his baby stretched out on a long white table. It's a device that gives added distance to the song's images and feeling, which paradoxically heightens its power. You can't quite tell who is singing "Let her go" or even why. Could it be that one of these men has killed her? Crucial information is withheld, which adds to the song's mystery. And in all the versions I've heard - with the various titles "St. James Infirmary," "St. James Infirmary Blues," "St. James Hospital," and "Dying Crapshooter's Blues" - the man at the bar is always named Big Joe McKennedy. He may say "she will never find a better man than me" or "she will never find a sweeter man than me" but his name is always the same. I hear you, Big Joe. I know what you mean.

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