The Sunday Magazine

Listeners respond to St. James Infirmary

Listeners respond to last week's exploration of the origins of St. James Infirmary by sending us their favourite renditions of the classic song.
Some of our listeners' favourite renditions of 'St. James Infirmary'

The song "St. James Infirmary" sounds as old as the blues itself, and yet, utterly contemporary. 

It's a lament for a dead lover, and a self-aggrandizing funeral fantasy. Many people claim to have written it, but the songwriter most widely credited with writing it didn't even exist. 

Last week on the program, Michael talked to the music historian Robert Harwood. His fascination with the song, and its elusive origins, led him to write a book called I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

He talked on the show about the fact that hundreds of musicians have performed and recorded the song, and we played several examples on the show last week.

Since the program aired, many of you have sent us your favourite renditions.

From A.J. Averett in La Mesa, California:

"Many thanks to Robert Harwood and you for your segment on 'St. James Infirmary.' The Louis Armstrong recording you opened with is almost certainly THE classic recording, though I was first introduced to the song by one of the very first records I acquired as a boy, "BMOC", recorded in 1960 by The Brothers Four — four fraternity brothers at the University of Washington in Seattle."

From Lisa Adamuik in Calgary:

"In 2015, I heard Jon Batiste and Stay Human perform 'St. James Infirmary' at a concert in Calgary. The introduction was a deadly, blinding rain storm depicted by sound and image behind the performers on stage, which I assumed was meant to depict Hurricane Katrina. It made me think about culpability, partly because Batiste was born in Kenner, Louisiana — just outside New Orleans. 

The moving blues rendition was sung by the charismatic Batiste, and concluded by a long, wailing saxophone solo that mesmerized all of us. I was deeply moved. From then on that song, which was hitherto unknown to me, became a beautiful message of terrible loss, and I will never forget it."

From Lissa Donner of Winnipeg wrote to let us know about a traditional folk song called "The Young Girl Cut Down in Her Prime," which she argues is the origin of St. James Infirmary. "I'm sure that the wonderful CBC record library has a copy of Frankie Armstrong singing this song. It would be grand to hear it," she writes. 

"The Young Girl Cut Down in her Prime" has similarities to another old English folk song called "The Unfortunate Rake," which has long been connected to "St. James Infirmary" — and to the American folk song, "The Streets of Laredo."

Here is a cover of that Frankie Armstrong album. 

Sleeve image for the album 'Lovely on the Water' by Frankie Armstrong. (Topic Records Ltd.)

Listeners in Canada can hear the song below:

From Steve Frankel of Thetis Island, B.C.:

"My father was a huge jazz and blues fan. He belonged to the Jazztone Society Record Club, back in the 1950s -1960s. Ahhh, those marvelous 33 1/3 LP's! One of my father's Jazztone albums has, in my humble opinion, the best-ever version of the St. James Infirmary. The vocal is performed by Emmett Berry, a well-known horn player, albeit not known for his vocals. I believe his recording of St. James Infirmary was one of the very rare times he actually sang. He not only sings on this rendition, but also plays the trumpet... It would be well worth your time — and that of music lovers everywhere — to give a listen to this haunting classic sung by Mr. Berry."

Listeners in Canada can hear the song below: