Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Brushing the borders of anarchy: SJI in today's New Orleans. Wow!

Michael Ward-Bergeman, a musician about whom I have previously written on this blog, will soon be moving to New Orleans, and he sent me a link to a current New Orleans performance of "St. James Infirmary." Of course SJI has long been associated with New Orleans, and one might be tempted to consider the song a kind of city anthem. The only time Louis Armstrong mentioned the song in his writings was in relation to a funeral in New Orleans. A member of his club, the Tammany Social Club, had died and Louis was one of the pall bearers. This was around 1917 (he mentioned that "Livery Stable Blues" had just been released) so Louis would have been about sixteen.

He wrote: "The funeral left from the corner of Liberty and Perdido Streets. All the members had to wear black or real dark suits, and I had been lucky enough to get my black broadcloth suit out of pawn in time for the funeral. In those days we did a good bit of pawning. As soon as a guy got broke the first thing he thought of was the pawn shop. All out of pawn that day. I looked like a million dollars. . . . It had been raining all morning; the gutters were full of water and the streets real muddy. I had on a brand new Stetson hat (like the one in St. James Infirmary), my fine black suit, and patent leather shoes. Believe me, I was a sharp cat."

In Louis' case the funeral didn't go quite as planned. His girlfriend Daisy saw him chatting with another girl, and in a jealous rage chased him down the street with a razor. His Stetson fell off, and she cut it to ribbons. (From Armstrong's "Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans," 1954)

Which might be a round-about way of introducing this contemporary version of "St. James Infirmary." But even before Louis' time, SJI had been played at New Orleans funerals, and the singer we are about to encounter works within this venerable tradition, being employed in his off-hours at a New Orleans funeral parlor.

Malcolm "Sticks" Morris is the lead vocalist, and also plays a fine bass drum and cymbal on this song. The group is called the New Creations Brass Band, and they can be found on this Facebook Page. Their musicianship is a wonder. The percussive drive here threatens, at all times, to turn the song into a runaway train, but the group is tight and incredibly energetic, and somehow everything holds together. Well, of course it holds together; this is a rehearsed and polished performance, and its effect is deliberate. There are nods to the 1930s Cab Calloway with the call and response and the hi-de-hos. But this 2013 interpretation is its own creature, lurching down the streets, scraping against buildings, staggering through the lyrics, blasting clouds out of the sky, before finally succumbing to the (inevitable) funeral march, but never giving up the ghost.

This is a "St. James Infirmary" for the 21st century. Wow! As you will soon hear, this song just keeps getting better.

I recommend turning up the volume for this. At 192 kbps and clocking in at 6:22, here is the New Creations Brass Band and St. James Infirmary Remix. (Many thanks for your permission to post this!!)

The New Creations Brass Band have a new CD coming out - as soon as I hear more, I shall let you know where to find it.