Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

St. James Infirmary on Bob Dylan's XM Theme Time Radio Hour

Back in May, 2006, Bob Dylan launched a weekly radio program on XM satellite radio. When Pam and I caught wind of the program, months before the first show aired, we bought an XM receiver. We weren't disappointed. Theme Time Radio can be something of a bonanza for aficionados of early American popular music. While the show leans towards music of the 40s and 50s, Mr. Dylan talks about and plays a considerable amount of music from earlier decades. There aren't many radio programs that can feature Jack Teagarden, Tom Waits, Charlie Poole, Percy Mayfield, Hank Snow, and ZZ Top on the same bill while maintaining a sense of continuity.

It's Dylan's talking that keeps things flowing. Good as his selections are, his patter is often the best thing about the program. He can be thoughtful, serious, self-mocking, sarcastic . . . often very funny. Always reverent. I think of Bob Dylan as one the the great exponents, and authorities, on early American popular music. So it was with some excitement that we listened as his February 20th broadcast veered into a discussion of "St. James Infirmary." The theme for this show was "Doctors" and Dylan said, "One place you’re going to find a lot of doctors is St. James Infirmary. This song’s history is convoluted and fascinating. Louis Armstrong recorded it as early as nineteen and twenty-eight, but it goes back much further. According to one study it got its start as a ballad called 'The Unfortunate Rake'..."

"According to one study," Dylan said. That was wonderful to hear, because most discussions of the song take the assumption of a direct relationship between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Unfortunate Rake" as established fact. That one study was probably A.L Lloyds 1947 article Background to St. James Infirmary Blues. (You can read more about it by accessing this link and searching for the section titled "Tracing a Ballad," a little more than half way down the page.) Far from factual, a direct connection between the two songs is more a tenuous assumption.

A few seconds later, however, Dylan referred to a 1934 song by James "Iron Head" Baker as "the real link between the folk ballad and the pop tune, ‘The Unfortunate Rake’ and ‘St. James Infirmary.’" I suspect this reflects some sloppiness on the part of his research staff, who used Kenneth Goldstein's liner notes to a 1960 Folkways record called "The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad" - on which Alan Lomax himself sings the song, "St. James Hospital" - as their primary reference. John Lomax recorded the song (for a while the convict James "Iron Head" Baker served as John's substitute for the recently disaffected Leadbelly) and Alan touted it as a link between the two songs. Actually listening to the songs, however, does not bear this out. One gets the impression that Alan wanted to find a missing link between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Infortunate Rake, " but this is not it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Book availability

I was excited to hear that the book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, has finally been printed, and will be available within the week. There were some problems with the printing of the cover, and that caused the most recent delay. I wish to thank those of you who have - as long as two years ago - expressed interest in purchasing the book, and to reassure you that I shall be sending you an email as soon as I possibly can.

I spent about five years researching and writing this book. In the course of exploring the usual questions - the relationship between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Unfortunate Rake," for instance - other issues begged for attention. I found out, to my dismay, that Blind Willie McTell (with all his claims to the contrary) did not compose "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," that great homage to "St. James Infirmary." The fellow who did has been so ignored by music historians that the date and place of his birth have been (until now) unknown. In fact, many of the key players in the SJI drama have been pretty well forgotten. Phil Baxter, Carl "The Deacon" Moore . . . even Irving Mills, aka Joe Primrose, has never had a respectable biography written. The one in this book might be the most complete overview to date of his early life.

Some of the characters who appear in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary are shown in the picture here. Clicking on it should give you a larger image. I started this painting/collage many years ago (thank you, Albert Gleizes), modified it for the cover of the first incarnation of this SJI project - a small book titled A Rake's Progress - and have, in celebration, modified it further here. Many thanks to all who have helped along the way!