In the spirit of the current season as well as my current studies of folk history and fairy tales, I am happy to share an excerpt from one of my all-time favorite pieces of animation. Presenting: Cab Calloway as Koko the Clown singing “St. James Infirmary,” in Fleischer Studio’s 1933 Snow White.
I’ve never been a “fan” of the Betty Boop character, but her part in this piece (and really, the plot itself) is beside the point. The story here is merely a vehicle for Roland Crandall & Fleisher Studios to showcase their skills, including using rotoscope to transform Cab Calloway into Koko the Clown/Ghost Koko. Every viewing offers new details, especially the underworld background behind Ghost Koko as he sails along.
I’ve included the entire 7 minute film here and it’s well worth a watch, but to get straight to Calloway’s singing and Koko’s ghost you can skip to 4:18.
The story behind St. James Infirmary, like most folk songs, is dark and strange. The most well-known version may be the 1928 Louis Armstrong recording- so much so that people seem to think it’s the original. In reality, like many folk/blues songs, the “origin” is lost to time (or to the very nature of folk music). Here are the lyrics in the Armstrong version along with some from Calloway’s. The narrator here tells us of one Joe McGuinny who has seen the body of his “baby” at St. James Infirmary, which causes him to drunkenly contemplate his own mortality:
It was down in Old Joe’s barroom,
On the corner by the square,
Drinks were being served as usual,
And a goodly crowd was there.
When up stepped old Joe McGuinny
His eyes were bloodshot red;
As he poured himself more whiskey,
This is what he said:
I went down to the St. James Infirmary
I saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a cold white table,
So sweet, so cold, so fair.
So Let her go, let her go, God bless her;
Wherever she may be
She may search this wide world over
but she’ll never find a sweet man like me.
When I die, want you to dress me in straight laced shoes
(Calloway: “…straight-legged britches”)
A box back coat and a Stetson hat;
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys know I died standin’ pat.
There are sixteen cold black horses,
Hitched to her rubber tired hack;
There are seven women goin’ to that graveyard,
and only six of ’em are coming back.
(Calloway: “Then get me six crap-shooting pallbearers,
Let a chorus girl sing me a song,
Put a red-hot jazz band, we raise
Hallelujah as we go along.”)
Now that you’ve heard my story,
pour me one more shot of booze;
And if anyone comes askin’ about me,
Tell ’em I got, Saint James Infirmary blues.
My attempts to trace the origin of the song turned up the following timeline. (Note: This song has been recorded hundreds of times and this is by no means even an attempt at an exhaustive list.) See the re/source list at the end of this post for more information and the names of those who did the real heavy lifting.
1725- The St. James Parish in England opens the St. James Workhouse, which includes an infirmary section. The workhouse and infirmary function well into the 19th century.
1770- The first recorded use of “lock hospital,” referring to “the lock” in Southwark, London, where persons with venereal diseases were treated.
18th century- Around about this time, a song called “The Buck’s Elegy” evolves into “The Unfortunate Rake” and makes the rounds as an Irish folk tune. It is also called “The Unfortunate Lad,” “The Trooper Cut Down in His Prime,” or “The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime.” The subject of the song is a young soldier who purchases the company of prostitutes and dies of venereal disease. In the late 18th century the lyrics include reference to the “lock hospital.” Lyrics from “The Unfortunate Rake” leave no doubt as to the topic of venereal disease:
Had she but told me before she disordered me
Had she but told me of it in time
I might have got pills and salts of white mercury
But now I’m cut down in the height of my prime.
1850- One version of “The Unfortunate Rake” begins with the lyrics:
As I was walking down by the Lock Hospital,
As I was walking one morning of late,
Who did I spy but my own dear comrade,
Wrapp’d up in flannel, so hard was his fate.
Another begins thusly:
As I was a-walking down by St. James Hospital,
I was a-walking down by there one day.
What should I spy but one of my comrades
All wrapped up in a flannel though warm was the day.
Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don’t smell me as they bear me along.
Around about this time, the sex of the subject begins to switch back and forth depending on the song, and sometimes within the same song. This is also when, in some versions, the downfall of the subject is not brought on by promiscuity but by gambling or drink.
Early 1900’s- Sometime in the jump to the US, the lyrics takes on a more American flavor. “The Streets of Laredo” features lines such as:
Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin.
Six dance-hall maidens to bear up my pall.
Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin.
Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.
1918- Cecil Sharp documents a song called “The Dying Cowboy,” which opens with the lines:
As I went down by St James Hospital one morning,
So early one morning, it was early one day,
I found my son, my own son
Wrapped up in white linen, as cold as the clay.
1924- “Charleston Cabin” is recorded by Whitney Kaufman’s Original Pennsylvania Serenaders and bears a melody similar to Louis Armstrong’s 1928 “St. James Infirmary Blues.”
1925- Moore & Baxter publish a version of “Gambler’s Blues.”
1927- Carl Sandburg includes lyrics of two versions “Those Gambler’s Blues” in his book The American Songbag.
1927- Possible descendant “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” is released.
1928- Louis Armstrong releases his version, “St. James Infirmary Blues.”
1929- Joe Primrose aka Irving Mills copyrights several versions of “St. James Infirmary Blues.” He goes on to win court cases based on these copyrights, arguing that others can’t offer documented proof of the existence of the song before this. (I really don’t know much about this situation, but: given the difficulty in tracing so many early American folk songs, this seems a dubious claim and reminds me of patent trolling, but anyway.)
1933- Cab Calloway records his version for the Snow White film.
1940- Blind Willie McTell records a version of “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” and claims he started writing his version in 1929 “out of three different marches of tunes.”
So there you have it, in a nutshell! Saint James Infirmary is definitely about one death, often about two, one or more of which has been brought on by some vice, which is probably related to sex and/or gambling. This timeline and its lack of clarity is pretty typical of folk music histories. If you’re interested in more on the topic, check out the sources below. And have a safe and happy halloween!
Dingee, Will. “History of the Blues: St. James Infirmary.” The Blues Hangover, WHRB :: Harvard Radio Broadcasting, 5 Apr. 2015.
Harwood, Robert W. I Went down to St. James Infirmary: Investigations into the Shadowy World of Early Jazz-Blues in the Company of Blind Willie McTell, Louis Armstrong, Don Redman, Irving Mills, Carl Moore, and a Host of Others, and Where Did This Dang Song Come from Anyway? Harland Press, 2015.
Honigmann, David. “The Life of a Song: ‘St James Infirmary’.” Financial Times, Financial Times, 19 June 2015.
Lomax, Alan, et al. The Folk Songs of North America: in the English Language. Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975.
Polony, Antal. “The St. James Infirmary Blues.” SevenPonds Blog, 20 Jan. 2012.
“‘St. James Infirmary’ — the Elusive History of a Timeless Song | CBC Radio.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 18 Apr. 2017.
Thompson, Augustine. “True Origins of Halloween – Pagan Druid or Christian?” Crossroads Initiative, 29 Oct. 2018.
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “’So Sweet, So Cold, So Fair’: The Ghost of Koko the Clown and the History of a Syphilis Ballad.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press, 31 October 2018.