Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Carl Sandburg version - What did it sound like?


In recent posts we have seen that bits of the "St. James Infirmary" lyric can be found in songs from as far back as 1902. The earliest evidence of the written music, though, is from Carl Sandburg's 1927 collection of American folk songs, The American Songbag.

By 1929 - after Louis Armstrong became the third person to record the song (preceded by Fess Williams and Buell Kazee) the song had crystallized into a bluesy melody with a fox trot rhythm. But what did it sound like to the people who sent the song to Carl Sandburg?

This afternoon, with my digital reorder in hand, I asked Bill to play the Sandburg version on an electric keyboard. What I have posted here is only sixteen seconds long, but the song is basically that sixteen seconds repeated over and over again, perhaps with variations. Some think of it as repeated choruses, others as "one little rhythmic verse and a series of endless words." So, there is enough music in these few seconds to let us know how the entire song sounded to Sandburg and his song-collecting collaborators.

To hear this sample of the music for Sandburg's version of the song from "The American Songbag" click on: Those Gambler's Blues. And . . . Bill, many thanks for doing this!