Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Denton and Haskins influence in a new variation of SJI

I was looking through the Mudcat Cafe site the other day. Mudcat is devoted to the exploration and preservation of traditional songs, and is a valuable resource. One correspondent, Dorothy, recently wrote, "My brother used to sing me a song. The lyrics seem similar to ones I have read in your listings. I used to love him singing it . . . I am still confused as to where my brother would have heard it. I miss him so much, he died of a brain hemorrhage aged 42. This was 31 years ago. I still miss him so much, but my memory of his singing is so vivid I can still hear him." Dorothy included the lyrics to the song, which can be found here.

Those lyrics, Dorothy, are really interesting. It would be good to know how long ago your brother started singing them. They come from all sorts of places - from recorded songs, from the Sandburg versions . . . and even, judging by the second-to-last verse, sort of made up but similar to earlier verses.

The first two verses, though, first appeared in 1930, when the company Denton and Haskins published a version of "St. James Infirmary" to rival the stranglehold Mills Publishing had over the song. On the inside front cover they included traditional versions of the song that had been collected by the poet (and folk song archivist) Carl Sandburg. But what they were selling - or, once Mills launched a cease and desist lawsuit, trying to sell - was a new version of the song, arranged by Claude Austin with additional lyrics by William J. McKenna.

I have never encountered a recording of this version of the song. In fact it died pretty quickly once the legal wrangling ended. Still, there was a brief time when this sheet music was circulating, probably mostly around New York City. Obviously parts of it found their way into your brother's song, which is an example of the many guises "St. James Infirmary" has assumed in its adventurous life.

Lyrics to St. James Infirmary - Denton and Haskins edition

In reference to the posting above, here are the lyrics from the version of "St. James Infirmary" as published (and copyrighted) by the music publisher Denton and Haskins in 1930. (You might find it interesting to compare them with Dorothy's version, found here.)

I'm a gambler, never did refuse a bet
Played for millions in my time
But I've had the biggest loss that I ever met
Tho' I didn't lose a dime
Lady Luck threw me as a pal
When she took my lovin' gal

I went to Saint James Infirmary
My baby there she lay
On a long cold marble table
I looked and turned away

What is my baby's chances?
I asked old Doctor Tarp
He said "By six this evening,
She'll be playing a golden harp"

Back to St. James Infirmary
I saw my baby's face
So white, so drawn and faded
Of her good looks not a trace

I started in a prayin'
Right there upon my knees
"Good-Bye, my lovin' baby"
My heart began to freeze.