Whilst updating this page, the TV
was on in the background, it was Jools Holland on a programme
called London Calling. It was a journey through the streets,
landmarks, pubs, music halls, and rock 'n' roll venues of
London, and the programme also included shots of the 100 club in
its heyday. I was amazed to hear that St James' Infirmary Blues
actually started it's life in 18th Century London before it
arrived in Virginia, and was in fact about St James' Infirmary
Hospital in London, which treated syphilis! Check out
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00tl5yr if you don't
Morning Fred, just to add a little spice to the legend, I always understood that
St James' Infirmary referred to is the one in Leeds. I can't think who told me
that, I expect it was one of my Yorkshire acquaintances.
13/06/12 - Dear
less an authority than Tony Davis once assured me that the original St James
Infirmary was in Liverpool, on or close to the site where the Anglican
Cathedral now stands. He said it with such conviction that I've been
repeating it as incontrovertible fact for the past twenty-five years or so.
It MUST be true!
I don't get too much time these days to contribute to Jazznorthwest
these days, what with saving the world and the whale and all, but I
figured I should crawl out of the woodwork to elucidate folks about
the matter of St James' Infirmary.
First of all the song does indeed date from the eighteenth century,
but which St James' Infirmary the title refers to is highly
uncertain, if indeed the earliest versions refer to any of them.
So far as I know and have always believed it started life as a
broadside ballad (Broadsides were single pieces of paper, usually
with a song printed on them, and often of approximate A4 size, which
were sold around markets, fairs etc., in the days before newsprint
became widely accessible) in Ireland called The Unfortunate Rake
(Rake = a ne'er do well, usually fairly well heeled who spends all
his time drinking and gambling and heartlessly seducing women). From
there it assumed a bewildering variety of forms and titles including
The Sailor Cut Down in His Prime, When I Was on Horseback, Tom
Sherman's Barroom, One Morning in May, Pills of White Mercury and
the Streets of Laredo. No I haven't been at the cooking sherry. The
song which Marty Robbins, among many others, recorded under that
title is indeed related to St James' Infirmary. The point here is
that when the song reached the southern US, where they tend to be a
bit more puritanical, the bit about the hero dying of syphilis got
lost and we are left with the message that he was shot in a
gunfight, in some cases as a result of a quarrel over a game of
cards. Oddly enough though, the request for a military funeral never
seems to have got lost.
Here's a few statistics might give an idea of how widespread the
Folkways Records in America once compiled an entire LP (called The
Unfortunate Rake) which consisted of 20 different versions of the
Folksong Index, an ongoing online resource which attempts to list
every version of every single folksong in English which has ever
been published, has an almighty 393 entries for that particular
family of songs.
Interrogating the database, which I've been compiling of my own
sound records, I was a bit surprised to find I've got this song
listed for no less than 56 different recordings.
That's enough of the thumbnail sketch. If anyone fancies buying me a
pint I'll give them the whole history, root and branch, chapter and
verse. By the time I've finished though, they might be feeling sorry
that they ever asked.
BTW., I've attached a couple of recordings which you might find
If you can't see music players
below, or they won't play, click on the titles to download
About half an
hour ago I thought I’d look up other sources of info. about St James Infirmary
Blues. I wish I hadn’t started.
I saw the Jools
Holland programme and mentioned the St James Infirmary item to the two blues
aficionados whom I play with in a trio over here and they knew all about it.
Below is info
from Wikepedia and various other web sites, seemingly all from the same source.
St. James Infirmary Blues is based on an 18th century
traditional English folk song called "The Unfortunate Rake" (also known as "The
Unfortunate Lad" or "The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime"), about a soldier who
uses his money on
and then dies of a
The title is derived from St. James Hospital in
religious foundation for the treatment of
was closed in 1532 when
acquired the land to build
St. James Palace.
None of that rings true to me........ 18thC
folk song; hospital closed in 1532 !!???!! However, I discovered
that there was another St James Infirmary built in Wandsworth in
1909 (now part of St George’s) and that there are currently just two
St James hospitals in the UK – Leeds and Southsea.
Then I found some words for “The Unfortunate
Rake”, a very sad tale indeed but, apart from mentioning the
hospital, I can’t see how anyone can say it bears any relationship
to St James Infirmary Blues.
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 flannel though warm was the day.
I asked him what ailed him, I asked him what
I asked him the cause of all his complaint.
"It's all on account of some handsome young woman,
'Tis she that has caused me to weep and lament.
"And had she but told me before she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it in time,
I might have got pills and salts of white mercury,
But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime.
"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.
"Don't muffle your drums and play your fifes
Play a quick march as you carry me along,
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin,
Saying: There goes an unfortunate lad to his home."
Not wishing to leave it
there, I also listened to a recording of it on the Folkways
which convinced me even more that everyone’s just making all this up.
Just to clarify a
couple of questions which Graham Martindale's contribution raise. I
don't think St James' Infirmary is so much a version of the
Unfortunate Rake family, as a rewrite, possibly by Irving Mills,
co-founder of Mills Music. It's interesting to note though that SJI
retains a hint of the funeral procession motif, something which is
common to every version of the song I've ever come across. Also,
unlike most of it's American confreres, there's a strong suggestion
in SJI that the heroine died of VD.
Incidentally, far from being a wind up, Kenneth Goldstein, who
compiled the Folkways LP, and was well known as a record producer,
as well as an academic, used to teach university students the
history of the Unfortunate Rake, as a way of illustrating the oral
processes which shape
and form folk song variants.
I can understand Graham's scepticism, but you would need to take a
very sizeable sample of the various versions to appreciate just how
widespread this family is. Also, to appreciate the connections
between the Unfortunate Rake and St James Infirmary.
Hi Fred In your
'Page of the Week', it refers to a 'rake' as a 'ne'er do well'. I
can recall my Dad back in NI, when he was giving some words of
wisdom, telling us young brothers, to steer clear of some of the
bxxxxy rakes around town and the women with them. If you check
Wikipedia - 'Rake (Stock Character), you will find that rakes were,
although charismatic, very unsavoury individuals. So ending up in
St.James Infirmary, or any other one, was quite likely. I do,
however, like very much Lucian Barbarin's version of SJI with the
Dave Donohoe Jazz Band -