I had forgotten about this book until I received an email from Philip Nel. Philip is working on early cartoons by Crockett Johnson, the author of Harold and the Purple Crayon.
In the 1940s, Johnson created a brilliant comic strip featuring another young boy called Barnaby. Barnaby ran from April 1942 to February 1952. Nel has been co-editing the Barnaby cartoons. He is now working on the fifth and final volume.
What does this have to do with St. James Infirmary?
Well, in the July 30, 1951 cartoon Barnaby's rather inept and blustery fairy Godfather recited a variation of the opening lines of the song SJI:
"'Twas a balmy summer evening and a goodly crowd was there!
It well-nigh filled Joe's barroom, on the corner of the square."
Nel had recognized this as similar to the opening lines of many (or most) Gambling Blues/St. James Infirmary iterations. He wrote me, asking if I had encountered this lyric before. "No. It's new to me."
It presented a puzzle.
I searched more deeply and found that these are the opening lines of an 1887 poem by the poet, playwright, actor, and movie executive Hugh Antoine d'Arcy (1843-1925). The Face on the Barroom Floor (or The Face on the Floor, etc.) is a poem which became immensely popular in the early 20th century. People read poetry back then, and even attended poetic recitations for which they had to pay.
D'Arcy himself recited it in front of paying crowds. Charlie Chaplin made a short comedic silent film of the same name in 1917. Hank Snow recorded it as late as 1968. Joe Cocker's stage manager Sherman "Smitty" Jones recited it from memory during a break from the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1971. Charles Manson, who was once an ambitious singer/songwriter, recorded a recitation. Composer Henry Mollicone wrote a 1978 opera of the same name, based on the poem. The list goes on.
Despite its immense popularity I hadn't come across the poem until Nel brought it to my attention.
Famous as it was, The Face on the Barroom Floor would not have been considered "serious" poetry. It is a kind of pop-poem. It tells an emotional tale that would resonate and excite, in the days before the easy-to-access entertainments of our era. It's the story of a homeless man, impoverished, poorly dressed, who wandered into a bar, and of whom a bar patron said (reflecting one of the discriminations of the time): "I wouldn't touch him with a fork, he's filthy as a Turk."
For the price of a few drinks the man told his story of woe. He was once a successful portrait painter who fell in love with a woman "with a form like the Milo Venus, too beautiful to live; / With eyes that would beat the Koh-i-noor, and a wealth of chestnut hair." She, however, became distracted by a fair-haired dreamy-eyed youth he was painting, and she ran away with him. The artist fell into disarray and now, in this bar of attentive listeners and ever reinforced by drink, he offered to draw the face of his beloved on the floor with chalk the bar used to record baseball scores. In the final lines of the poem:
Another drink, and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began,
To sketch a face that might well buy the soul of any man.
Then, as he placed another lock upon that shapely head
With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture — dead!
This is an exciting find. This poem from 1887 supports the notion that St. James Infirmary was created from myriad sources: a couple of lines taken from The Face on the Barroom Floor, bits from a number of old songs like Let Her Go, God Bless Her, or Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her, or She's Gone, Let Her Go, and so on, interwoven with imaginative lyrics from which emerged a new story.
|"Face Upon the Floor"|
Engraving by John Held Jr. 1925
(John Held Jr. also illustrated the coffin
scene from the song St. James Infirmary.)
knelt with char askan at sketch
of one might bestir the soul of
any man: then a truant memory lock
..in accent low, "Madgelene" thou
mistook one! struggles to rise and
with cry as phantom of dread..
leaps as in her arms forgiven; and
fell on the picture dead.
Titus recited it for a record series "Voices From The Past," on his 90th birthday.
These expressions of The Face on the Barroom Floor illustrate a common, dynamic aspect of creativity. Nothing arises from a vacuum. Everything depends upon what came before. The Face on the Barroom Floor lent a couple of lines to St. James Infirmary. In the same way, Bugs Bunny would not have existed without Mickey Mouse. Before Mickey there was Felix the Cat (of whom animator Otto Messmer credited the influence of Charlie Chaplin). Before Felix there was Krazy Kat. And before Krazy Kat all sorts of newspaper cartoons - all the way back to drawings on cave walls.
Love and theft. Imitation and flattery. St. James Infirmary.