A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Welcome to our new series highlighting the music we have here at Thomas Ford Memorial Library. Each week of 2013 we will discuss one of our favorite songs from the collection. Classical or Country, Hip-Hop or Heavy Metal, we’ll be blogging for every taste.
It’s not easy to pin this song down, it has an untraceable number of variations, and a long origin story that might go as far back as 18th century England. The version of the song that arrived in Chicago in 1928 is attributed to Irving Mills, who was a prominent music publisher and a Duke Ellington associate, writing under the pseudonym Jack Primrose. It was recorded at one of Louis Armstrong’s last Hot Seven sessions in the city.
The song starts with a hint of the funeral march about it, but it’s more than that. The tone of Armstrong’s trumpet here is very nearly a parody of sadness. It reminds me of a silent film star conveying heartbreak with clasped hands and watery eyes. There’s a short piano solo from Earl “Fatha” Hines, and then Louis breaks into the starkly beautiful first verse in as clear and direct a voice as he ever sang with: “I went down to St. James Infirmary/Saw my baby there/Stretched out on a long white table/So cold, so sweet, so fair.”
It’s a dramatic opening to say the least. The funeral march, the minor key, the weeping trumpet… You’re expecting something dark but romanticized, and then those words “stretched” and “table” and “cold”—they’re like a punch in the gut instead.
But there’s no time to recover: “Let her go, let her go, God bless her/Wherever she may be/She can search this wide world over/She’ll never find a sweet man like me.” It’s a quick twist that leaves you a bit baffled. But Louis doesn’t let up. Seems it’s not about heartbreak at all: “When I die I want you to dress me in straight lace shoes/Boxback coat and a Stetson hat/Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain/So the boys’ll know that I died standing pat.”
And that’s it. The full lyrics attributed to Irving Mills are much longer, and make a more coherent story, but Armstrong cuts them down to just twelve lines—six about loss, six about vanity. We’re treated to a few creative restatements of the melody—including another weeping solo by trombonist Fred Robinson—and then I guess we’re just left to gather our thoughts.
This song’s been with me since my early teens, when I first discovered Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens in a library’s vinyl collection. But, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, and no matter what expectations I bring to it, I always find it surprising. I think it’s one of the cleverest performances in Jazz.
Review by Matthew