Bluesman James Booker and the History of the St. James Infirmary Blues
An alcoholic and a heroin addict throughout his adult life, James Booker died when he was 43 years old in a wheelchair inside a New Orleans hospital. Blues historian Keith Shadwick states he was still a prominent local figure at his death and “mourned among Jazz fans,” despite his final days, which Shadwick describes as a man “deteriorating on every level” (245).* But amongst blues enthusiasts, there’s no question about Booker’s status: when he had it, he had it. One biography entry names him: “One of the most exciting, mercurial players in a long line of legendary piano professors,” claiming him alongside with Professor Longhair as one of the central New Orleans blues icons. You’ve probably heard him even without knowing it, since he recorded a good deal of Fats Domino’s piano tracks when Fats was busy touring.
James Booker was the son of a Baptist preacher and grew up playing Chopin and Bach, and he kept playing in the classical style, but he mixed it with his own gospel-influenced, barroom blues tangled it into something else entirely. You never know which way he’s going to lead you on any track. He’ll be singing about how he wants his cocaine and his heroine on the side over some hard hitting straight forward number like “Junco Partner.” But on the album’s next track, “Black Minute Waltz,” you hear a concert classical pianist–no vocals, just a recital. After the elegant performance, a crazed preacher comes on the microphone, and he’s definitely stoned: “You may not believe me, but this song was written by a dude named Leadbelly [maniacal laughter]. And Leadbelly and little Booker both had the pleasure of partying on the Ponderosa [more maniacal laughter]. You know what I mean, you dig?” I’m not sure what kind of answer he’s expecting from that question, but then I realize, he isn’t expecting anything from anybody, and then he goes into a beautiful version of “Goodnight Irene.” He did all the standards, but like you haven’t heard them.
When you know he died waiting to be helped at a hospital, his version of “St. James Infirmary Blues” becomes more haunting. (For my article on T.W. Hill’s reworking of the classic, click here.) Whether you know this or not, the song still stands on its own feet. Booker’s posthumous release of his version on 1993’s Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah, recorded at the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans, sometime in the late 70s.
Some form of the song stretches back at least to 16th century England, the title referencing the St. James Hospital in London, “a religious foundation for the treatment of leprosy.” The hospital shut its doors in 1532, when Henry VIII bought the property to build the St. James Palace. Since then the song has lived a strange life. Countless versions have been recorded by artists ranging from Cab Calloway to Bing Crosby to Van Morrison to The White Stripes. Louis Armstrong’s 1928 version remains the standard, however. As it should be. It’s certainly a unique recording from Ol’ Pops. It sounds like a slow funeral march through downtown when he sings it, and he punctuates the end with strange, bitter laughter–an oddity from the usually jovial Armstrong. According to Wikipedia, (by the way, it’s okay for people to admit that they use Wikipedia by now, right? Let’s end the charade; we’re all guilty here) the earlier forms of the ballad went on to become an 18th century traditional English folk song called ‘The Unfortunate Rake’ “about a sailor who uses his money on prostitutes, and then dies of a venereal disease.” “The Streets of Laredo” is another famous American interpretations of the story. The general theme of the song throughout its many manifestations is the story of judgment: “a youth ‘cut down in his prime’ (occasionally ‘her prime’) as a result of some morally questionable actions.” In the American stories, it’s booze and gambling.
The alignments between Booker’s performance and his biography are too many to be coincidental. The fatalism in the performance is too palpable for that; he knows he’s going to be cut down too. Booker found himself in the lonely hospital death he sang about, and that he was chasing down for reasons he didn’t understand.
*Shadwick, Keith. Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues. London: Quintet, 2001. Print.
Originally published on American cultural studies blog, A Missing America :