Saturday, November 12, 2011

St. James' Infirmary.

A couple days after my father died I was back in my office and back at my desk. I was still sad but I needed to be busy and I needed to be around some of the people I worked with whom I had grown close to. My partner of the time was a mensch--someone who had the gift of silent companionship and my boss and mentor was as close as I've ever come to working with a father figure. Work is something that when it's working, gives us meaning and after your father dies, that's what you look for, meaning.

I was sitting in my office and listening to the last remaining jazz station in New York, WBGO out of Newark, New Jersey. I called the station and got connected with the disk jockey.

"My father just died," I told him. "I think there's no sadder song than St. James Infirmary. Could you play me the saddest version you have."

"I'm going to play you a few," he answered. And he did. He played the classic by Louis Armstrong, a good (if thin) version by Lou Rawls and something hallucinating by Cab Calloway. Here's Mr. Armstrong's version, with him singing and blowing.

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
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,
But she'll never find a sweet man like me.

There's a great "radio personality" here in New York named Jonathon Schwartz who plays songs from "the American Songbook" on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. These are classics from Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Nelson Riddle, Jerome Kern and more performed by Sinatra, Bennett, Jo Stafford and more.

Just now Schwartz played St. James Infirmary on a V-Disc, performed by a very young, very raw Tony Bennett. V-discs were recordings done for American soldiers during World War II. Because there was a musicians strike in the U.S. at the time, V-discs were recorded but they never went on sale in the States. They were only for our overseas troops. Most of the records never came home and the masters of the recordings weren't treated with any special reverence. So for years it was rare to get a hold of a V-Disc recording--especially a rare one, though now it seems like many are available on iTunes.

I went down to St. James Infirmary
To see my baby there,
She was lyin' on a long white table,
So sweet, so cool, so fair.

Went up to see the doctor,
"She's very low," he said;
Went back to see my baby
Good God! She's lying there dead.

I went down to old Joe's barroom,
On the corner by the square
They were serving the drinks as usual,
And the usual crowd was there.

On my left stood old Joe McKennedy,
And his eyes were bloodshot red;
He turned to the crowd around him,
These are the words he said:

Let her go, let her go, God bless her;
Wherever she may be
She may search the wide world over
And never find a better man than me

Oh, when I die, please bury me
In my ten dollar Stetson hat;
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So my friends'll know I died standin' pat.

Get six gamblers to carry my coffin
Six chorus girls to sing me a song
Put a twenty-piece jazz band on my tail gate
To raise Hell as we go along

Now that's the end of my story
Let's have another round of booze
And if anyone should ask you just tell them
I've got the St. James Infirmary blues

I've looked for the Tony Bennett recording but I couldn't find it. For all its virtues iTunes doesn't have the greatest search mechanism. I'll keep looking for the recording though.

Just as I keep looking for my father.


Unknown said...

When my father died my brother and I went to the place he took us fishing when we were little.
We had a summer place and a row boat in one of the small fishing villages on the west coast of Sweden. Me and my brother spent our summers in that row boat, and in a small sail boat when we were not rowing. Living in a puny one bedroom low ceilinged old fisherman's house without running water. Our father came out over the wekends. He was 6'4" so he looked like a giant in a doll house in that little house. He loved the sea, and fishing. We used to go out in the boat and catch mackerel, using thin black lines, black hooks and silvery pieces of herring for bait. You had to wait until you felt the fish nibbling on the herring bit, and then with a snap of your wrist hook them. They are careful, and good fighters, mackerels. Feel much heavier than they are when you pull them in. The swim from side to side, up and down, trying to get off the hook. Other times we fished for whiting or cod. Very different technique and different bait. We used mussel meat. Cods don't fight, they just seem to stoicly accept their faith. Now and then we fished for sole and other flat fishes. Sometimes we mistakenly got small gray sharks on the hook.
We revisited our childhoods summers that day after my father had died. We rented a rowboat and went out too one of the spots where we used to fish for mackerel. But we didn't fish that day. We just sat there. Dreaming us back to our summers as children. We were happy there. We always took sandwiches and sodas with us when fishing. We could out int he afternoon and not come back before it was dark. Sometiems we went out even before the sun came out and we spent the entire day on the sea.

That day when my father had died we didn't talk, we just sat there for hours, till it got dark. Remembering that nothing is for ever.

I haven't been back there since. It's more than 25 years ago now. My children have never been there.
I want to take them there one day, but I'm afraid it might not even be there any longer. Or it won't look anything like it used to. J├Ârlanda. Google satelite maps show there are now 8 jettys and docks where there used to be only one. Our house was next to a small sandy beach. No trace of it now. Nothing is forever.

Sean Peake said...

My favourite version of the song was by Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden from the town hall recording circa 1949.

Anthony Kalamut said...

I have added this version to my favorites: The Wildcards - St James Infirmary Blues

The Tony Bennett version will be part of an upcoming $500 Box set of TBs complete works.

Robert W. Harwood said...

You are probably aware by now that you can hear this song at:

I think, otherwise, it can only be found on the, oh, $300 or thereabouts, 2011 release of his complete recordings.

george tannenbaum said...

Thanks, Robert. I didn't know that.

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