Here’s another one of those standards that’s been done by just about everyone, ever. Unlike a lot of the others though, it seems like there’s an awful lot to be written about this one—there’s a whole bunch of sites out there specifically dedicated to examining the historical roots of the song, the various versions and any other info about it.
Based on an 18th century English folk song called 'The Unfortunate Rake' which was originally about a sailor who spends a lot of money on prostitues then dies of a disease of the naughty bits, the more modern version (with completely different lyrics) is often credited to “Joe Primrose” (eventually revealed to be a pseudonym of Duke Ellington associate, Irving Mills) even though the first recorded version (in 1927, but called 'Gambler's Blues') was credited to Moore-Baxter and the second to Redman. ”Joe Primrose” just happened to be much savvier on copyright.
(Picture from http://iwentdowntostjamesinfirmary.blogspot.co.uk/)
The title of the song refers to St James Infirmary in London which was a hospital that treated leprosy (and was closed in 1532 when Henry VIII decided he’d much rather put a palace there…why not?). The protagonist in the song is a man who’s just been to the Infirmary and found his ladyfriend a little on the dead side:
"Went down to the St. James Infirmary
I saw my baby there,
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
She’ll never find another sweet man like me.”
Other versions of the song start with another verse before this which basically sets the scene for the singer being in a bar-room, so it’s good to know our narrator is dealing with his grief in a productive way. What’s kind of odd about the lyrics is that the narrator flits between singing about how much he misses the girl (and how she’ll never find another man like him…on mysinglespook.com, I suppose), but also singing about his own death, though we’re never told he’s dying or even ill (perhaps he just doesn’t want to talk about “that rash” any more):
“Now, when I die, I want you to bury me in Edmund Clapp shoes
A box-back suit and a Stetson hat;
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys know I died standin’ pat”
In this version, he’s not asking for so much really, (apart from the snazzy shoes), but in other versions he’s definitely looking for a slightly bigger affair:
"I want six crapshooters to be my pallbearers
Three pretty women to sing a song
Stick a jazz band on my hearse wagon
Raise hell as I stroll along”
Fair enough. Though, I think Lionel Hampton's taken ownership of the whole “I don't want much when I die only, you know, ALL THIS STUFF" thing.
If you’ve heard 'St James Infirmary' before, in all likelihood, it was probably Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording as that’s the most famous one.
But there’s some other great versions too. Check out this one by Jack Teagarden (I love his voice and phrasing)
I just love watching Fred Astaire dance to it, though it seems to get a little more “jazz-hands” than is in the spirit of the song towards the end…
But you can’t beat Cab Calloway for delivery:
He doesn’t include that bar-room verse here, but that’s definitely got to be where Cab’s narrator must’ve been with a performance like that.
If you’re interested in the history of the song, make sure you take a look at these, they’re very comprehensive:
NO Notes - Rob Walker
Honey, Where You Been So Long - Over 100 different recordings of the song
I Went Down To St James Infirmary - Robert W Harwood
Jazz Standards - St James Infirmary
The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong - 80 Years of St James Infirmary
Your grandparents have something they’d like to tell you. In fact, your great-grandparents do too. Sure, they might seem like the very pillars of grace and virtue and good moral standing now, but just listen to the lyrics of this song and then try and work out how they can possibly be offended by half the stuff that gets ‘Parental Advisory’ stickers now. Lucille Bogan was dropping F-bombs all over the place back in the 1930s!
Lucille Bogan began her career singing vaudeville songs for Okeh Records in 1923, but by 1930 her songs had lyrics far more concerned with sex and boozing. She started recording as Bessie Jackson in 1933, recording some more straight-forward blues songs with pianist Walter Roland, but amongst her last recordings with him in 1935 was this exquisitely filthy version of 'Shave 'Em Dry'. I think it’s time to show you some sample lyrics, so here you go, including the bit that the Rolling Stones borrowed for 'Start Me Up':
"I got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb,
I got somethin’ ‘tween my legs ‘ll make a dead man come,
Oooh daddy-baby, won’t you shave ‘em dry, oooh!
Won’t you grind me baby, grind me till I cry.”
Now is that really the kind of language that you’d expect from someone who looks like they could’ve hung out with your grandma? I think not.
Lucille Bogan: The Lil’ Kim of the 1930s. Legend. And, if you’d like to read on, then check out Cracked’s list of '7 Songs From Your Grandpa's Day That Would Make Eminem Blush'