Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Old Time Gambler's Song" - St. James Infirmary in 1926.

At the suggestion of John Garst (see yesterday's post) I searched for a copy of Songs of the Cowboys. The original edition, by Jack Thorp, was published in 1908. It was a mere 50 pages long, consisting of 23 cowboy songs. That edition contained a version of "Cow Boy's Lament" (aka "Streets of Laredo") that I had not encountered before:

My curse let it rest, let it rest on the fair one
Who drove me from friends that I loved and from home
Who told me she loved me, just to deceive me
My curse rest upon her, wherever she roam.

In this 'new' (1966) edition, Austin and Alta Fife elaborated on the original book, providing commentary and additional variations for each of the songs Thorp published. This edition is almost 350 pages long.

Within the chapter on "Cow Boy's Lament" is a song that I don't think really belongs there, but which is of great interest to me. By this time it had become a common assumption that there was a direct link between "The Unfortunate Rake," "Streets of Laredo," and "St. James Infirmary." And so we find a song called "Old Time Gambler's Song," with a lyric very close to - and very different from - the "St. James Infirmary" that has been popular from 1928 to the present.

One thing that intrigues me about "St. James Infirmary" is the relative rarity of alternate versions. I think this was one of the effects of Irving Mills securing copyright for the song. Because of legal restrictions, and of the immense popularity of the early recorded version, those alternate variations fell into disuse. This song was sent by Terence McKay to Robert Winslow Gordon in a letter dated April 5, 1926. Gordon was a song collector who would, two years later, found the American Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

Of the versions of SJI that we know, several refer to dying on the ocean, being killed by a cannonball. This song offers a more reasonable "I may die out on the ocean, be shot down in a gambling house brawl." The rest of the lyric is equally interesting.

Lyrics to "Old Time Gambler's Song"


I dreamed I went down to St. James Infirmary
Thought I saw my baby lying there;
Laid out on a clean white table,
So pale and yet so fair.

If she's gone, let her go, God bless her,
For she's mine wherever she may be;
You may search this wide world over
You'll never find another pal such as she

I may die out on the ocean
Be shot down in a gambling house brawl;
But if you follow me to the end of my story
You'll find a blonde was the cause of it all

When I die just bury me in a box back suit,
Blue shirt, roller hat, pair of shoes with toes so tall;
Put whiskey in my coffin, deck of cards in my hand;
Don't let them weep and wail, don't let them moan at all.

Put marihuana  in my coffin,
Smoke it as you carry me along;
Take even rolling crap shooters for pall bearers,
Coke sniffers to sing my funeral song.

Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch charm
So the boys'll all know I'm standing pat;
Put ice on my feet, for in that place where I'm going
I won't even be cool with that.

Just carve it on my tombstone
In letters bold and black,
"Here lies an old time gambler,
Pray God won't you please bring him back!"
Inquiries into the early years of SJI