Friday, June 17, 2011

From St. James Infirmary to the Streets of Laredo

In my last post, I talked about how interesting it can be to discover that seemingly unrelated things are really different branches of the same tree. Finding these connections can be intensely satisfying (at least if you're a geek like myself). I get an added jolt sometimes when I realize that the connection I've just recognized has unexpectedly old, deep roots. I got this double-jolt not long ago, after listening to Louis Armstrong's amazing version of St. James Infirmary. (All the songs mentioned in this post are linked to Rhapsody, a subscription music service. You should be able to listen to up to 25 songs for free).

Since I live near New Orleans, I started wondering if the infirmary he was talking about had been a hospital there. But when I looked into it, I was amazed. The original St. James Infirmary (actually called St. James Hospital) was leper colony in London. And get this--it was torn down in 1532, on the order of Henry VIII, to build the St. James Palace. The palace was the main home of the royal family during the 1700's, and is still standing today. This is astounding to me: when he recorded St. James Infirmary in 1928, Satchmo was singing about a place that hadn't existed in nearly 400 years.

Just as unexpectedly, I found that St. James Infirmary has a well-known cousin, which it doesn't resemble at all at first glance: the cowboy song Streets of Laredo. Most Americans with any exposure to folk music will recall the tune from the opening lines:

"As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
as I walked out in Laredo one day.
I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen,
wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay".

The dusty old ballad still packs a punch, but on the surface, it has about as much in common with St. James Infirmary as a west Texas cowboy has with an African-American jazz musician. But the fact is, the two are distant cousins, and their shared ancestor is an Irishman.

The common ancestor of the two songs, it turns out, is an Irish song called The Unfortunate Rake. This song, and its various versions and descendents, seems to be one of the best-documented of all folk songs. In 1960, the folklorist Kenneth Goldstein compiled several of its permutations into an album called The Unfortunate Rake (most of the information in this post comes from the albums excellent liner notes). The first song on the record, the only one called The Unfortunate Rake, is a recording based on the first documented version, which dates from 1790's Ireland. Just as in Streets of Laredo, the narrator walks down the street and comes across a dying man. Here, however, the unfortunate lies not outside of a saloon, but outside of St. James Hospital. He blames his troubles on a "handsome young maiden", and says:

"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."

In other words, he caught a venereal disease from her. Given his condition, it makes sense that he was near a hospital. However, when this song was first documented in the 1700's, the hospital was long gone, and the English royal family was living on the site. So, we have an Irish narrator relating how his friend is dying of a venereal disease on the site of the English royal palace. This is politically touchy stuff, so it may be that the song was more than just a morality tale. An Irishman in 1790 would have been ill-advised to stand outside of St. James Palace and sing it. In any case, this song has none of the bluesy groove of St. James Infirmary. It's one of those Anglo-Celtic dirge-ballads, which sounds sludgy and morose to most modern ears. But the dying man is a rake, after all, and a typically flashy one (some things never change). He wants his friend to help him go out in style with a grand funeral:

"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 merrily,
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."

As the song evolved over time, the dying man kept on dying, but he turned into a soldier, or a sailor, depending on the version. He even changed sex, turning into a young woman whose wild living has caught up with her. In the version often called One Morning In May, the dying woman is singing the song herself, saying "When I was a young girl, I used to seek pleasure". This version has a more driving, haunting rhythm: when I WAS, a YOUNG GIRL, i USED To, seek PLEA-SURE. It's a lot more interesting to listen to than the older dirge, especially if you listen to this version by Feist.

Sometime during its journey from the British Isles to the American west, the song picked up a different (and also more interesting) waltz-like rhythm. The rake/soldier/sailor became a cowboy, and Streets of Laredo was born. Streets of Laredo retains the narrator who finds the dying man in the street. In most versions, the young cowboy is dying of gunshot wounds, although he's been hanging out in places where he could have caught the other afflictions of the sporting life. As in The Unfortunate Rake, he asks a passing stranger for a big funeral:

"Get sixteen cowboys to carry my coffin,
Get sixteen pretty ladies to bear up my pall,"

Streets of Laredo doesn't mention the St. James Hospital, but there is a separate cowboy adaptation of The Unfortunate Rake which does, and is actually called St. James Hospital. This song keeps the dirge tone of the ancestral tune, and, in some versions it calls for a more mournful funeral than the Irish rake's, asking friends to "Beat the drum slowly, and play the fife lowly".

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a song called The Gambler's Blues (sung here by the blessedly un-dorky folk singer Dave Van Ronk) took elements from St. James Hospital, including the hospital, the dying person, the descriptive words white and cold, the call for a grand funeral, and the rakish character. But this is a very different song. The blues had come along by now, and the song sounds more Mississippi River juke joint than old west saloon. The dying person, now a woman again, has finally died, and is laying on the "cold, white table". The rakish character is her old beau, who has gone down to St. James Infirmary pay his respects. Yes, he's sad to see her go, but he's basically unrepentant about his own lifestyle (this is the twentieth century, and you no longer have to talk about tragic ends and repentance when singing about the wild life). Actually, he's a real cad. Standing there looking at his "baby", he reflects that "she'll never find a sweet man like me", and then he starts imagining his funeral, and what he should be wearing to impress his buddies:

"When I die please bury me
In my high topped Stetson hat,
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain,
My gang will know I died standing pat."

This guy isn't just a rake. He's close to being a sociopath. Though this version of the song is more blues than jazz, he also requests that his friends:

"Put a jazz band on my hearse wagon,
Raise hell as I stroll along."

This suggests that this version of the song, or at least this verse, came from New Orleans, which is where Louis Armstrong would have heard it. In Armstrong's version, he drops the first two lines of Gambler's Blues, and starts with "I went down to St. James Infirmary". When he first recorded this song in the late twenties, Louis Armstrong was moving beyond early jazz (which, to my amateur ears, sounds like ragtime played by a brass band). Along with other brilliant innovators, such as Sidney Bechet, he was adding more improvisation and solos, as well as toning down the frenetic feel of early jazz with more bluesy elements.

Louis Armstrong's version of St. James Infirmary is an amazing recording. I would be floored by it even if I had never wonder where St. James Infirmary was. But, by digging into its history, I discovered deeper layers of the song; extending back across centuries, and linking it to Streets of Laredo, another song I find endless fascinating. Even though they sound almost nothing alike, they can both be traced to a song from another continent; a song about a building that hasn't existed since the time of the Tudors. Those are some deep, rich roots.


  1. Wow! What a fascinating story. How interesting that it's been recorded as recently as 2004 by Feist.

  2. Thanks for reading it! I think the Feist song is great, to boot. I'll bet people are recording versions of this 100 years from now.

  3. you might also be interested in the version recorded by the Scottish band Old Blind Dogs, which goes under the title Pills of White Mercury