Friday, May 24, 2013

Going down to St. James Infirmary: Mourning as self-assertion

Spent a lovely evening at the Jazz Kitchen as the Tuesday night shrimp boil resumed its place on the schedule. A neo-trad band dubbed the Red Hot Whiskey Sippers provided the music, and I enjoyed sinking into the environment of "St. James Infirmary Blues" in particular. For bands that feel comfortable accessing this music, the song invites adherence to Lester Young's advice to soloists: "Tell me a story."

That's what trombonist Rich Dole and guitarist Bill Lancton did especially well in their solos. The melody seems to imply a narrative, though the story the words tell (some singers still do the piece, but not on this occasion) is oblique and somewhat mysterious. Another odd thing is that while the tune is blues-saturated, it's not really a blues at all. It's in four-line stanzas in the shape of a ballad, so it seems to call up its own world, through which runs a narrative thread.

The version that brought the song its popularity was recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1929. It's got a slightly jaunty feel that cuts across its mood of lament. As in most musical matters, Armstrong is unerring in choice of tempo and in his vocal and trumpet solos. The world of "St. James Infirmary" presents a sobering view of the conventions of mourning to think about this Memorial Day weekend. Here's what that view seems to be:

Speaker/singer goes to a neighborhood hospital, and his emotional reaction to viewing his loved one's body "stretched out on a long white table" is almost hidden in the terse description "so sweet, so cold, so fair." The next verse quickly transitions from the scene to the mourner's attempt to pull himself together and assert his own unique charms:

Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be;
She can look this wide world over,
She'll never find a sweet man like me.*

In the third and final verse, the lover's thoughts are still on death, but they dwell on his own. He describes the fine clothes he wants to be laid out in and ends with the imperative "Put a 20-dollar gold piece on my watch chain / So the boys'll know I died standing pat."

A well chosen phrase borrowed from poker, "standing pat" means playing the hand you've been dealt. The message is that for this guy, standing pat was a good outlook on life and brought a certain amount of prosperity. It also suggests an integrity that helps mitigate the conceited tone of the second half of the second verse.

Are there any other songs or poems that react to loss of a loved one with such an assertion of ego? It doesn't seem in good taste, but it stands to reason some mourners have felt this way in real life. After all, a serious loss is a threat to one's identity and sense of wholeness. Various coping strategies tend to come into play, including some that aren't fit for polite discourse.

Is it surprising that a need to shore up one's self-esteem would follow a lover's death? So strong is that desire in this song that the dead lover is imagined as searching the world over to find the equivalent of the couple's surviving half  — and failing.  Not a socially acceptable attitude for a mourner, but somehow it rings true. So, a real question for readers: Does anyone know of another song or poem that approaches what "St. James Infirmary Blues" accomplishes so vividly and concisely?

 *In a later recording of the song, Armstrong — dependably at one with his material — inserts after this line in his speaking voice: "Ha-ha — braggin'!"