St. James Infirmary; Jazz, but spooky

Given that it’s October, I’ve been wanting to listen to music that feels spooky and eerie. The only issue is that I’ve been on a Louis Armstrong kick recently. You’d think these two wouldn’t overlap, and so far as I can tell, there isn’t much common ground… but there is his song “St. James Infirmary.”

Like all Blues/Jazz/Dixieland music, the song doesn’t seem to belong to one person. Louis recorded his version in 1928, and that certainly helped make the song better known. The song actually does seem to be best known for a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon where the song was sung by Cab Calloway. Since then, it’s been covered by a whole gamut of people like Hugh Laurie and the White Stripes.

But forget all of those, I’m not here to talk about them, I’m here to talk about Louis Armstrong’s original. Which, just out of these four, manages to be the most unique – it’s comparatively somber and eerie, which makes it particularly appropriate for this time of year.

The lyrics of this song focus on dark subject matter; the narrator of the song goes to the infirmary where his lover’s body has just been pronounced dead:

I went down to St. James Infirmary
Saw my baby there
She was stretched out on a long white table
So cold, so sweet, so fair

Let her go, let her go!
God bless her wherever she may be
She can look this wide world over
But she’ll never find a sweet man like me
(Eh-haha! Braggin’…)

When I die bury me in straight lace shoes
I want a box-back coat and a Stetson hat
(John B., that is)
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys will know that I died standin’ pat

It’s just three short verses, but there’s a lot to them. The strength of this song is that it actually conveys a story – and that can be hard to do in songs under 5 minutes long.

The song presents itself as a mournful dirge, but the more you listen to it it comes across as a bit menacing. The first verse laments the loss of the narrator’s loved one, it’s straight-forward. But what really jumps out about the song is the second verse, where after finding out his girl is dead, the narrator says that she’ll “never find a sweet man like [him]” – and that’s followed up with an incredibly charming laugh from Louis as he says “Braggin’…” as a charismatic way of acknowledging that that is a weird thought to have after the death of a lover. The third verse then talks about how when the narrator dies, he hopes that his friends will remember him as a man of status.

For all you English Lit nerds out there, this is the 1920’s jazz equivalent of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” It’s never openly stated that the narrator of this song killed his girl, but it’s pretty clearly implied. The whole song does a great job of simultaneously giving the sense that the narrator wants to eulogize his girl and to convey some kind of threat.

And having a song about killing a spouse is weirdly common… Off the top of my head, there’s “Delilah” by Tom Jones and “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” by the Killers. I would expect that there’s more, but you get the point. It’s easy to write songs about murdering your spouse, but it’s (apparently) hard to do it as subtly as Louis does here. He never exactly says what killed his lover, we’re just made to infer that from the tone of the song and the lyrics.

And again, that’s where Louis’ version has more to it than the one by Cab Calloway or the White Stripes. It’s eerie, it’s spooky, where the other songs are just a bit more upbeat. In the lyrics of this song alone, there are the starts of a story. But the way Louis sings it, it’s a bit more complex and unsettling. It gives me the creeps – in the absolute best way.

 

  • What’s your favorite spooky song to listen to at this time of year?

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