Backstory: St. James Infirmary Blues (song)

The first version of St. James Infirmary Blues is thought to have been recorded back in 1928 by Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five.

06 May 2019 | James Porteous | Hawkins Bay Disptach

St. James Infirmary Blues is an American jazz song of uncertain origin. Louis Armstrong made the song famous in his 1928 recording on which Don Redman was credited as composer; later releases gave the name Joe Primrose, a pseudonym of Irving Mills. The melody is 8 bars long, unlike songs in the classic blues genre, where there are 12 bars. It is in a minor key, and has a 4/4 time signature, but has also been played in 3/4. (Wikipedia)



16 April 2017 | CBC Radio

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.

Listen to full interview



History of the Blues: St. James Infirmary

05 April 2015 | Will Dingee | WHRB

Jazz and Blues fans alike will be familiar with the title “St. James Infirmary Blues.” However, this is just one variant of an old song whose history traverses continents and cultures. Tracing the evolution of the tune and lyrics of this standard provides a valuable window into the folk process at work.

The song began in England as a ballad, most often known as “The Unfortunate Rake” but also called “The Unfortunate Lad” or “Trooper Cut Down in his Prime.” It begins with a frame narrative, telling how a soldier encounters one of his comrades dying of venereal disease contracted from a prostitute. In the second half of the song, the dying man proceeds to give his comrade instructions about the arrangements for his funeral.

One version of “The Unfortunate Rake” begins:

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 dying man instructs:

Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,

Six young girls to sing me a song,

And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel

So they don’t smell me as they bear me along.

When this song was carried to America, it naturally took on new, distinctly American valences. In the Old West, it emerged as the cowboy ballad “The Streets of Laredo.” The funeral instructions took on new images, more appropriate to a cowboy.

Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin.

Six dance-hall maidens to bear up my pall.

Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin.

Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.

In the American south of the 1920s and 1930s, the song re-emerged as “St. James Infirmary Blues,” with notable recordings by Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway.

The melody and chord structure were shifted from major to minor. The frame narrative was moved to “Old Joe’s Barroom, by the corner square.” The funeral instructions took on a new swagger. As recorded by Calloway:

Now, when I die, bury me in my straight-leg britches,

Put on a box-back coat and a stetson hat,

Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain,

So you can let all the boys know I died standing pat.

Then get me six crap-shooting pallbearers

Let a chorus girl sing me a song

Put a red-hot jazz band, we raise

Hallelujah as we go along, well.

The song may be better known to blues fans in the version by Blind Willie McTell, called “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues.” McTell’s version, which he claims to have made up “out of three different marches of tunes,” is one of the most involved and elaborate, although it is heavily indebted to an earlier recording by Fess Williams and His Royal Flush Orchestra under the name “Gambler’s Blues” and one by Martha Copeland under the name “Dyin’ Crap-Shooter’s Blues.” Here, the vice that lead to venereal disease in the “Unfortunate Rake” has been exchanged for an addiction to gambling.

This same tune was used by Bob Dylan as the basis of one of his greatest compositions, which was recorded in the 80s but left unreleased for decades because Dylan felt that it was incomplete. In homage to McTell’s “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” the song was titled “Blind Willie McTell.


Seen the arrow on the doorpost

Saying, “This land is condemned

All the way from New Orleans To Jerusalem.”

I traveled through East Texas

Where many martyrs fell

And I know no one can sing the blues Like Blind Willie McTell

Well, I heard the hoot owl singing

As they were taking down the tents

The stars above the barren trees

Were his only audience

Them charcoal gypsy maidens

Can strut their feathers well

But nobody can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

See them big plantations burning

Hear the cracking of the whips

Smell that sweet magnolia blooming

(And) see the ghosts of slavery ships

I can hear them tribes a-moaning

(I can) hear the undertaker’s bell

(Yeah), nobody can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

There’s a woman by the river

With some fine young handsome man

He’s dressed up like a squire

Bootlegged whiskey in his hand

There’s a chain gang on the highway

I can hear them rebels yell

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell Well,

God is in heaven

And we all want what’s his

But power and greed and corruptible seed

Seem to be all that there is

I’m gazing out the window

Of the St. James Hotel

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell

Songwriters: Bob Dylan / Mikael Wieheh


Who Birthed the Blues?

The first known recording of St. James infirmary Blues came in 1927. Then known as “Gambler’s Blues,” the dirge-like tale was recorded by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra.

Recorded in a minor key, its melody featured eight bars as opposed to the standard twelve so common in the blues. These subtle shifts away from the blues signaled a larger shift in the world of popular music. A style now known as jazz was well on its way to dominating the scene, and its brightest star played a huge role in popularizing St. James Infirmary Blues.

But first let’s tackle a thorny issue – the compositional origin of St. James Infirmary Blues. Tracing the song to a single author or set of authors is complicated and the matter hasn’t been fully resolved to this day.

The earliest published version of the song is credited to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter, but given how commonly folk blues songs would float around for years before being officially copyrighted, this hardly settles the matter. The song is sometimes credited to a composer known as Joe Primrose, who would later claim the rights to the song.

Complicating matters further is the claim by music historians, that the song was based on an 18th century English folk song called ‘The Unfortunate Rake.’

The Blues Crossing the Atlantic

The controversy over the authorship of St. James Infirmary Blues did nothing to slow the song’s progress. Louis Armstrong, by then a rising star in jazz, made a recording in 1928 that brought the tune to greater prominence. And yet, for all its well-travelled path from 18th century England to 20th century New Orleans, its resemblance to the original remained striking.

This blues classic played a giant role in establishing Louis Armstrong as a national treasure.

A version of ‘The Unfortunate Rake” has reputedly passed through Appalachia in intact state:

As I was walking down by the Lock Hospital,
As I was walking one morning of late,
Who did I spy but my own dear comrade,
Wrapp’d up in flannel, so hard was his fate.

Louis Armstrong’s version makes lyrical changes, but remains true to the song’s spirit. The original song, after all, lamented the passing of a ‘rake’ (a person of dubious moral habits) and a ‘lock hospital’ was a hospital that treated venereal diseases. Similarly, the lamented figure of Armstrong’s version seems to a prostitute.

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, so sweet, so fair.
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.

Keeping St. James’ blues alive

Perhaps more than any other traditional folk song, St. James Infirmary Blues has transcended genre, landing on America’s shores as an Appalachian folk song before transitioning to the blues and skyrocketing to commercial success in the early world of Jazz.

But the song’s journey hasn’t ended yet. It’s been covered by such wide-ranging talents as Lou Rawls, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker and The White Stripes. This tale of sadness seems to speak to a highly universal need in humanity – compassion for those often left out of the cultural mainstream.

When asked about The White Stripes cover of the song, Jack White claims to have been introduced to it from a Betty Boop cartoon.

Cab Calloway performs this version in the 1933 Betty Boop animated film Snow White, providing both vocals and dance moves for Koko the clown.

St James’ Infirmary

Cab Calloway

Folks, I’m goin’ down to St. James Infirmary
See my baby there;
She’s stretched out on a long, white table
She’s so sweet, so cold, so fair

Let it go, let it go, god bless her
Wherever she may be
She will search this wide world over
But she’ll never find another sweet man like me

When I die, bury me in my straight-leg britches
Put on a box-back coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So you can let all the boys know I died standing pat

An’ give me six crap shooting pall bearers
Let a chorus girl sing me a song
Put a red hot jazz band at the top of my head
So we can raise Hallelujah as we go along

Folks, now that you have heard my story
Say, boy, hand me another shot of that booze;
If anyone should ask you
You just tell ’em I’ve got those St. James Infirmary blues

 St. James Infirmary - Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Tabbed by:Travis

This is an old jazz tune done by Louis Armstrong in the 20's, this is Ramblin  Jack 
folk version with Dave Van Ronk, a fine duet and a great tune.


Am             E         Am
It was down in Old Joe's bar-room,
              F      E      E7
on the corner by the square,
    Am    E            Am
the usual crowd was assembled
    F          E        Am
and big Joe Mckenny was there.

Am              E     Am
He was standing at my shoulder,
              F         E    E7
his eyes were bloodshot red,
   Am            E     Am
he turned to the crowd around him
              F    E        Am
these are the very words he said...wad he say Jack?

Am                 E           Am
I went down to the St. James Infirmary
         F    E      E7
I saw my baby there,
        Am             E          Am
she was layed out on a cold white table,
   F        E         Am
so cold, so white, so fair.


Am                  E       Am
Let her go, let her go, god bless her
         F       E    E7
wherever she may be,
        Am          E          Am
she may search this wide world over,
             F            E        Am
she'll never find a sweet man like me.


Am          E      Am
When I die, bury me,
              F       E     E7
in a high top Stetson hat,
      Am        E         Am
put a 20 dollar goldpiece on my watch chain,
   F           E             Am
so god know I died standing pat.

Am           E                Am
I want 6 crapshooters for pallbearers,
             F         E     E7
chorus gonna sing me a song,
      Am        E            Am
put a jazz band on my hearse wagon,
      F        E      Am
raise hell, as I roll along.


Am                  E       Am
Let her go, let her go, god bless her
         F       E    E7
wherever she may be,
        Am          E          Am
she may search this wide world over,
             F            E        Am
she'll never find a sweet man like me.


Am            E            Am
Roll out your rubber tired carriage
              F        E      E7
roll out your old time hack,
Am     E            Am
12 men going to the graveyard and,
F  E      Am
11 coming back

Am            E       Am
Now that I've told my story,
                  F       E      E7
I'll take another shot of booze,
       Am            E         Am
and if anyone should happen to ask me,
  F          E         Am
I got those, gambler's blues.


Am                  E       Am
Let her go, let her go, god bless her
         F       E    E7
wherever she may be,
        Am          E          Am
she may search this wide world over,
             F            E        Am
she'll never find a sweet man like me.


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