Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Friday, April 16, 2010

A bit of a departure - Josh Ritter, Stagger Lee, Delia, etc.

This is a bit of a departure - an article that has no real connection to St. James Infirmary. Unless, that is, you see murder ballads like "Stagger Lee" (aka "Stackalee," etc.) and "Delia" as connected to SJI via their hallowed positions in the pantheon of American roots music.

Josh Ritter has just released a CD, So Runs the World Away. I have to admit that I am a big fan of Ritter, and was delighted, excited to hear a piece on that album titled "Folk Bloodbath." He's done, I think, something remarkable here. As Ritter acknowledges in the liner notes, he started with a tune Mississippi John Hurt recorded in 1928, "Louis Collins." That's the basic melody, and the refrain. Ritter incorporates references to "Delia," "Stagger Lee," and even "Barbara Allen" in building a contemporary and charming song, pulling references from those songs lyrics.

Comparing the original tunes, it sounds like Mississippi John Hurt, in the grand folk tradition, might have incorporated bits of "Delia" when he wrote "Louis Collins." Hurt's reference to funereal red dresses is transmuted into red suits and ox-blood Stetsons in the Ritter song.

There are some interesting plot changes; the fellow who shot Delia enters Ritter's song this way:

The judge was a mean one, his name was 'Hanging Billy Lyons,' He said, "You always been a bad man, Stag, I'm gonna hang you this time." And the angels laid him away.

By the end of the song, Louis Collins, Delia, and Stagger Lee are all dead, as they were (albeit separately) in their earlier incarnations. The closing lines are a treat; I won't reveal them here.

This kind of creative referencing is of the sort that is difficult with copyright-protected songs. Back when "St. James Infirmary" was owned and protected by Irving Mills, nothing remotely approaching this could have been done with it. In fact, SJI might just be coming into its own in this century. You might want to check out NO Notes for some, uhm, notes about more modern versions.