Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Friday, August 28, 2009

On the Trail of "Let Her Go, God Bless Her"

Just when I thought we were done with tracking the "Let her go, God bless her" lyric from St. James Infirmary, correspondent Richard Matteson sent me a number of emails. Thanks to Richard I have purchased a copy of the 1902 Harvard University Songs. It arrived in the mail today.

In an introductory note the compiler E.F. DuBois wrote that he "has tried to make a collection of songs that are actually sung at Harvard, by the Glee Club, by the crowds at the football games, and by the undergraduates and graduates." The result is a collection of twenty-seven songs starting with "Fair Harvard" and ending with "The Marseillaise." Sprinkled in between are titles such as "The Levee Song," "Jolly Boating Weather," "Bring the Wagon Home, John," and "The Mulligan Musketeers."

"She's Gone, Let Her Go," with its chorus that is so familiar from SJI, appears on page 72. The melody is utterly ordinary, a kind of parlor ditty that one could imagine being sung by hearty fellows in argyle sweaters, gathered around a piano with drinks in their hands. The lyric is the same as that identified in a March 21st entry on this blog, from the 1909 Harvard song book. The fact that it has appeared in at least two of these books, and that it is joined by only twenty-six others in this 1902 book, attests to its popularity at the time - at least among students at Harvard.

If you click on the music sheet here, you should view a larger copy that is easier to read.

While in "St. James Infirmary" this lyric gives the song a sinister quality, here it is as if the singer is saying about a woman who has left him, "It's your loss, Toots." Regardless of the fickleness of love, the singer remains constant: "There may be a change in the weather . . . but there'll never be a change in me." One can get the impression that this verse was indiscriminately, to use modern terminology, cut and pasted into SJI - and that the sinister shadow it casts is little more than a careless mistake. Had "St. James Infirmary" waited another ten years for its first recording, perhaps this verse would have dropped away, or been altered.

Of course, the 1902 date of this song does not help in tracking the birth of "St. James Infirmary." In that case, even circumstantial evidence does not take us much further back than, say, 1916.

Many thanks to Richard for this. (Mr. Matteson has a number of interesting areas on the web, including a series of entries on different versions of SJI - one of those pages can be found here: St. James Infirmary - Version 4 Jimmie Rodgers 1930.)