SONG: St James’ Infirmary
ARTIST: Armstrong and his Hot Five
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St James Infirmary was made famous by Louis Armstrong, but no one knows for sure the origins of this song or the author. A man named Joe Primrose is often credited with the song, holding the copyright for it in 1929. The song is thought to have roots in a 19th century folk song called “The Unfortunate Rake”, about a soldier who spends all his money on prostitutes, catches a venereal disease and dies – the connection between the two songs being made by A.L. Lloyd in 1947. Lloyd goes into quite a bit of detail and history regarding where an actual St James Infirmary may have been located, based on geographical and historical clues. Another music historian thinks the song may have Jewish-American roots as an early publication of the sheet music has it in the Ukrainian Dorian mode, and apparently Jewish influences in the Cab Calloway version. Whatever the origin, the message of the song remains pretty consistent – gambling, women and wine will be your unwinding!
Louis Daniel Armstrong was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 4th 1901. After his father abandoned the family (Armstrong’s mother was just 16 years old when she gave birth to him), a local Jewish family took in Louis and helped raise him, treating him as a family member (Louis wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life). He pretty much grew up running around the streets of New Orleans, getting into a bit of trouble and learning to sing and play cornet by ear.
As a teenager Louis started playing in a band on a riverboat, where he learned to read music, thanks to a task master bandleader who insisted everyone in the band sightread. He also learned about music arrangements and took his knowledge north to Chicago, until 1925 where he formed the band Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – Armstrong on trumpet/cornet, his wife Lil on piano, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Johnny St Cyr on banjo. Over the span of a year the group released 24 records. Band members remember this year with Armstrong fondly, as Louis was laid back and tried to feature everyone equally as much as possible. The band gained a lot of popularity and more and more people were turned on to this new kind of jazz and Louis was helping popularize. The band changed their name when Louis and Lil separated, although in 1927 Louis put together his Hot Seven and released nine more records.
As I’m sure there will be more Louis songs in the list, we’ll leave his extensive biography here for now!
St James Infirmary morphed into other American classics, including The Streets of Laredo (Cowboy’s Lament).
What a great song and example of early jazz! It’s unmistakably Louis playing trumpet (and singing, obviously). I love that the trombone/background vocals makes it sound like a dirge. We don’t see a lot of bands with this makeup of instruments, and it’s cool and sultry sounding, even in the absence of a drummer. I also love love love a good dixieland-style clarinet solo, and this song has it! And Armstrong’s trumpet skills cannot be denied in this – clock the final high note, tremolo and everything!
Love it! So many good things to say about this song. Definitely early Louis at his very best. And, like the 1,001 book says “not a note is wasted”. It’s definitely a prime example of well thought-out simplicity. When Louis giggles in the middle and says “bragging” I grin every time. This guy has more feeling in his first note than Sinatra has in a whole album! The piano is awesome, trombone and clarinet combination is cool, and moody, and weird, and the drums are understated. I think the cymbals sound like trash can lids, though. Might be the recording quality. Or might be trash can lids!
Average mark out of 10:
*A mark of 8/10 or higher means this is definitely worth buying!
Other notable versions of this song:
Cab Calloway animated with Betty Boop!
A cool, modern/classical interpretation with Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble!
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
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