Showing posts with label The Unfortunate Rake. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Unfortunate Rake. Show all posts

Friday, August 2, 2019

Richard Jenkins on The Unfortunate Rake, Folklore, and St. James Infirmary

Logo for The Folklore Society
London, England
The British folklorist, Richard Jenkins, first sent me an email in 2008, in which he asked, "Where, in the whole saga, would you place 'Gambling Blues,' recorded on 16 Jan 1928 by Buell Kazee, from Eastern Kentucky?" That was an important question, and led me to a reevaluation of the chronology of SJI recordings.

I was glad to hear that, earlier this year, he was chosen to deliver the annual Katharine Briggs memorial lecture for the revered Folklore Society in London, England.

Jenkins' lecture focused on the song The Unfortunate Rake, tackling it from at least three perspectives. The one most pertinent to this site: Is there a relationship between The Unfortunate Rake and St. James Infirmary? Jenkins said,"As far as I know, Harwood was the first to question the link between St. James and The Rake." He's right. And, as he suggested, this was not an easy thing to do. When the authorities, the folklorists and scholars, have settled on an explanation, who dares to question their conclusions? Jenkins investigated this conundrum.

Which leads to another of Jenkins' approaches to this Rake controversy. Can scholars lose objectivity as a result of their own desires and biases? I wrote in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary that "each folk music researcher has his own motivation for undertaking the work, and this will influence both what he looks for and how he interprets what he finds." In his lecture Jenkins went more broadly into this: "There is also the role of what psychologists call 'confirmation bias': the role of preconceptions in the selection of evidence and the encouragement of unsupported, and often unacknowledged, speculation ... people find what they are looking for and what they already believe in, even if, in extremis, doing so requires fraud or invention." His elaboration on this theme is engrossing.

Jenkins also raised the question of The Unfortunate Rake's title. He explained the history of a song known, historically, as The Unfortunate Lad, and asked why a 20th century researcher might have been tempted to alter the title to something, well, a little more rakish. His discussion about this is both involved and thought provoking.

Jenkins's piece roams over much more territory than I have suggested in these few words. You can read his lecture here: The Unfortunate Rake's Progress. Highly recommended!

Richard Jenkins can be contacted at

PS Further thanks to Dr. Jenkins for saying, during his lecture: "Harwood's is the fullest account of the history of 'St. James Infirmary' and its relationship to other songs that we have." I wish I'd had his lecture as a reference when writing I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.


Here, a bit of fun - The Copperfield Ensemble use the word "infirmary" but, hey, it's the 21st century. Nicely done.

Friday, April 29, 2016

SJI as inspiration for a major 21st century play

"Exhilirating ...  ingenious, impossible to resist!" (San Francisco Chronicle)

"A high energy hallucination ... one of the best musical productions I've ever seen at American Conservatory Theater!" (SF Weekly)

These are just two of many enthusiastic reviews of the musical drama, The Unfortunates. A surrealistic tale of gambling, war, inner (and outer) conflict, disease (inner and outer), the play emerges as a startling metaphor for the strangeness of 21st century life, and the historical flow of events that led us here.

The play's title is derived from the old British song, "The Unfortunate Rake," which - according to popular myth - traveled the ocean and eventually transformed into "St. James Infirmary." I am convinced that the connection between the two songs is more tenuous than has been generally assumed, and that SJI was more firmly rooted in American bedrock. But songs do travel strange paths. They influence each other. They immigrate and emigrate and evolve, the song of today standing squarely on the shoulders of its predecessors. And so SJI serves as a suitable metaphor. Big Joe ("In the corner stood Big Joe McKinney...") is the main character, although it is a strong ensemble production.

You can find a comprehensive overview here (as a pdf): "Insight into the play, the playwrights, and the production" of The Unfortunates.

Below, you can watch four of the five creators of The Unfortunates discuss their play, including its intimate connection to the historical movement of song, and the centrality of "St. James Infirmary" to the genesis and shape of the production.

(Double-click on these videos to see them in their proper dimensions.)

"Bold and bizarre ... diverse and electrifying!" (
"Richly imagined, slightly surreal ... a high octane mashup of music and modern-day myth." (San Francisco Examiner)
"Red-hot! Gospel, hip-hop and blues light this funky steampunk fantasy ... electrifies from start to finish." (Bay Area News Group)

Here is a trailer for an early version of the play, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (like Bob Dylan, they change things as they go along):

"A wonderfully demented antiwar parable steeped in Louis Armstrong's classic 'St. James Infirmary,' this is a surreal 90-minute frolic from the cabaret to the gallows and back. ... The healing power of music is a blessing for us as well as The Unfortunates." (The Mercury News)

"St. James Infirmary" continues to inspire, over a century later.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hugh Laurie and SJI

Last year Hugh Laurie - a very talented fellow best known for his portrayal of House on the Fox television series - released a CD called "Let Them Talk" on Warner Brothers Records. The first song on this CD is "St. James Infirmary" and clocks in at 6:23. I have to tell you that I really like this rendition - Laurie's piano playing is superb, and he respects the deep history of the song in his vocalizations. In fact, this song alone is worth the price of the CD. No kidding.

Every now and again one can bump into Hugh Laurie on YouTube, playing and talking about the song. For instance, in this YouTube snippet Laurie declares that "St. James Infirmary" was "based on a much older English folk song in which the St. James of the Infirmary is actually what is now St. James' Palace in London where the queen eats cucumber sandwiches. I find that interesting; almost no one else in the world knows."

That's too bad. It is most unlikely that the St. James of the song had anything to do with St. James' Palace, although that - along with its (erroneous) connection with the song "The Unfortunate Rake" - have hung around the neck of "St. James Infirmary" like a dead albatross for decades. In the case of St. James' Palace, the culprit is possibly the Wikipedia entry on "St. James Infirmary Blues" or most likely the liner notes to the Folkways Records disc, "The Unfortunate Rake," which contains about twenty variations of the song. Here is an excerpt from Kenneth S. Goldstein's long and very interesting liner notes:

"It is, perhaps, a bittersweet historical irony that the 'St. James Hospital' which provides the setting for this series of ballads is known today in London as St. James Palace, the home of the 'Court of St. James.' The original St. James Hospital was a religious foundation for the redemption of 'fourteen sisters, maidens, that were leperous, living chastely and honestly in divine service.' Now known as St. James Park, the grounds on which the palace stands was acquired by Henry VIII in 1532. During the whole reign of George III, the royal court was held at St. James."

In fact, the real story of SJI is much more interesting.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A.L. Lloyd and SJI

This interesting illustration accompanied Lloyd's article in Keynote Magazine, 1947.
Well, it feels good to be back on this SJI blog. I have been so busy over the past year renovating the small house Pam and I now live in, here in remote Southern Saskatchewan, that I have had no time to pursue much in the way of other interests. The main house, at a little over 800 square feet, is too small to comfortably accommodate visitors, and so I have worked hard over the summer to turn a shed into a comfortable living area. But winter is descending, the temperature today is -15C (5F), and it is too cold for me to work on further renovations to the small cabin which will eventually serve as our guest house. And so here I am, back at I Went Down To St. James Infirmary, after a pretty long absence.

Correspondent Alan Balfour (thank you Alan!), from the UK, recently wrote a comment on this blog mentioning that he has a copy of the original article that the revered music historian, A.L. Lloyd, wrote for the January, 1947 edition of Keynote: The Music Magazine. Although I had tried, I was never able to find the original article, but did read it through secondary accounts. Alan sent me scans of the original document.

Now, I have to emphasize that this article was a pivotal event in our understanding of the history of "St. James Infirmary." Written twenty years after the song was first recorded (and who knows how many years after it first appeared), A.L. Lloyd crystallized the notion that "St. James Infirmary" was a direct descendent of the much older song "The Unfortunate Rake." According to Lloyd "The Unfortunate Rake" also gave rise to the archetypal cowboy song "Streets of Laredo" (aka "The Cowboy's Lament," etc.) as well as to "St. James Infirmary." Since then the history of SJI has been traced, with nary a doubt, from "The Unfortunate Rake" to "Streets of Laredo" to "Saint James Infirmary."

Re-reading this article I was again struck by Lloyd's peculiar logic, for he concentrates on the relation (which is, I am sure, indisputable) between "The Unfortunate Rake" and "Streets of Laredo." Then, through some process of, uhm, magical thinking, inserts "St. James Infirmary" into the mix with very little in the way of transitional or supportive argument. Even so, this is the moment that SJI became fixed in history as a direct descendent of "The Unfortunate Rake."

But A.L. Lloyd was mistaken.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My interview with Rob Walker on NOnotes

Well, the NOnotes interview has now been posted - in five parts!

The first part can be found here - mostly discussing "Dyin Crapshooter's Blues"
The second part can be found here - regarding AL Lloyd, John and Alan Lomax, The Unfortunate Rake, Iron Head Baker, Leadbelly . . .
The third part can be found here - regarding how Redman brought the song to Armstrong in Chicago
The fourth part can be found here - legal issues and early recordings
The fifth part can be found here - "St. James Infirmary" goes to court

Rob is, to put it mildly, an SJI enthusiast. His questions were probing, a challenge and a delight to answer.

If you are among the few who find this sort of stuff interesting, there's more in the book!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

St. James Infirmary on Bob Dylan's XM Theme Time Radio Hour

Back in May, 2006, Bob Dylan launched a weekly radio program on XM satellite radio. When Pam and I caught wind of the program, months before the first show aired, we bought an XM receiver. We weren't disappointed. Theme Time Radio can be something of a bonanza for aficionados of early American popular music. While the show leans towards music of the 40s and 50s, Mr. Dylan talks about and plays a considerable amount of music from earlier decades. There aren't many radio programs that can feature Jack Teagarden, Tom Waits, Charlie Poole, Percy Mayfield, Hank Snow, and ZZ Top on the same bill while maintaining a sense of continuity.

It's Dylan's talking that keeps things flowing. Good as his selections are, his patter is often the best thing about the program. He can be thoughtful, serious, self-mocking, sarcastic . . . often very funny. Always reverent. I think of Bob Dylan as one the the great exponents, and authorities, on early American popular music. So it was with some excitement that we listened as his February 20th broadcast veered into a discussion of "St. James Infirmary." The theme for this show was "Doctors" and Dylan said, "One place you’re going to find a lot of doctors is St. James Infirmary. This song’s history is convoluted and fascinating. Louis Armstrong recorded it as early as nineteen and twenty-eight, but it goes back much further. According to one study it got its start as a ballad called 'The Unfortunate Rake'..."

"According to one study," Dylan said. That was wonderful to hear, because most discussions of the song take the assumption of a direct relationship between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Unfortunate Rake" as established fact. That one study was probably A.L Lloyds 1947 article Background to St. James Infirmary Blues. (You can read more about it by accessing this link and searching for the section titled "Tracing a Ballad," a little more than half way down the page.) Far from factual, a direct connection between the two songs is more a tenuous assumption.

A few seconds later, however, Dylan referred to a 1934 song by James "Iron Head" Baker as "the real link between the folk ballad and the pop tune, ‘The Unfortunate Rake’ and ‘St. James Infirmary.’" I suspect this reflects some sloppiness on the part of his research staff, who used Kenneth Goldstein's liner notes to a 1960 Folkways record called "The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad" - on which Alan Lomax himself sings the song, "St. James Hospital" - as their primary reference. John Lomax recorded the song (for a while the convict James "Iron Head" Baker served as John's substitute for the recently disaffected Leadbelly) and Alan touted it as a link between the two songs. Actually listening to the songs, however, does not bear this out. One gets the impression that Alan wanted to find a missing link between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Infortunate Rake, " but this is not it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Book availability

I was excited to hear that the book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, has finally been printed, and will be available within the week. There were some problems with the printing of the cover, and that caused the most recent delay. I wish to thank those of you who have - as long as two years ago - expressed interest in purchasing the book, and to reassure you that I shall be sending you an email as soon as I possibly can.

I spent about five years researching and writing this book. In the course of exploring the usual questions - the relationship between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Unfortunate Rake," for instance - other issues begged for attention. I found out, to my dismay, that Blind Willie McTell (with all his claims to the contrary) did not compose "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," that great homage to "St. James Infirmary." The fellow who did has been so ignored by music historians that the date and place of his birth have been (until now) unknown. In fact, many of the key players in the SJI drama have been pretty well forgotten. Phil Baxter, Carl "The Deacon" Moore . . . even Irving Mills, aka Joe Primrose, has never had a respectable biography written. The one in this book might be the most complete overview to date of his early life.

Some of the characters who appear in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary are shown in the picture here. Clicking on it should give you a larger image. I started this painting/collage many years ago (thank you, Albert Gleizes), modified it for the cover of the first incarnation of this SJI project - a small book titled A Rake's Progress - and have, in celebration, modified it further here. Many thanks to all who have helped along the way!
Inquiries into the early years of SJI