The Sunday Magazine

"St. James Infirmary" -- the elusive history of a timeless song

"St. James Infirmary" has been recorded hundreds of times. It's a song that has endured and shapeshifted over the decades like few others, keeping its DNA intact while continually evolving. Michael Enright talks to Robert Harwood to trace the song's elusive and often contradictory history.
Left: cover of the book 'I Went Down to St. James Infirmary' by Robert Harwood; Right: sleeve art for Louis Armstrong's album 'St. James Infirmary'

Let's take a walk down to St. James Infirmary...

The first version of the timeless song 'St. James Infirmary' — in more or less its current form — is thought to have been recorded back in 1928 by Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five.

The songwriting credit went to Don Redman, the saxophone and clarinet player, a veteran of Fletcher Henderson's band, and an arranger and composer. But the composer of "St. James Infirmary"? That seems unlikely. 

Redman was just one of many songwriters who claimed authorship of "St. James Infirmary." It is indeed a song whose history is full of loose ends and question marks. It seems to have been cobbled together from motifs, bits of melody and scraps of lyrics that swirled around for decades, or even centuries, in songs like "The Unfortunate Rake" or "Gambler's Blues." 

Not to mention the fact that most versions of the song are credited to one Joe Primrose, who was not even an actual person. That's fitting for a song of uncertain provenance, shrouded in apocrypha. 

"St. James Infirmary" has been recorded hundreds of times. Since Louis Armstrong, there have been versions by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, the Doors, Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and Montreal's Misses Satchmo. It was the first song Tony Bennett ever recorded. 

With St. James Infirmary, it seems that there's this space in which it allows the performer to sink into the song and to bring something of themselves, and of the era in which they're singing, out of it.- Robert Harwood

It's the kind of song that singers and musicians have just kind of slipped on, like a suit in a vintage clothing store, for a hundred years or more … a song that seemed to circulate around music halls, jazz clubs, music publishers and recording studios in the early decades of the last century. 

Like so many popular songs, "St. James Infirmary" had a vogue. But unlike most songs, it's never really been out of vogue. It's a song that has endured and shapeshifted over the decades like few others, keeping its DNA intact while continually evolving.

There's a social life to these songs which [is] unsaid and very revelatory.- Robert Harwood

For Robert Harwood, tracing the elusive and often contradictory history of "St. James Infirmary" has been something approaching an obsession. He's a writer, music historian and photographer, and he's the author of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. 

Robert Harwood talked to Michael about the song's origins, versatility and ongoing evolution. 

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 


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