Friday, March 31, 2006

Josh White's "Free and Equal Blues"

Following up on the recent-ish entry about Dr. John's re-invention of "St. James Infirmary" as "Touro Infirmary," here's another example of the song getting a full lyrical makeover. Andy Bach wrote in to tell me about a version I didn't know, performed by Josh White. It's a protest-style take, retitled "The Free and Equal Blues." It begins like so:

I went down to that St. James Infirmary, and I saw some plasma there,
I ups and asks the doctor man, "Now was the donor dark or fair?"
The doctor laughed a great big laugh, and he puffed it right in my face,
He said, "A molecule is a molecule, son, and the damn thing has no race."

And that was news, yes that was news,
That was very, very, very special news.
'Cause ever since that day we’ve had those free and equal blues.

Full lyrics (and an informative essay about White originally published in Living Blues Magazine) can be found here. That's the site of writer and musician Elija Wald, and it is filled with all kinds of book and music projects he's had a hand in. One of those books, actually, is the biography Josh White: Society Blues. Clearly a guy who knows what he's talking about.

All I've heard of this Josh White version is the 30-second sample available on a page for this Folkways CD. At some point I'll buy this, but there are presently some budget strictures in place on this, uh, research project of mine. Anyway, per Wald's essay, this song was evidently recorded in the mid 1940s. "A favorite song of this period was 'Free and Equal Blues,'" Wald writes, "with music by Earl Robinson and lyrics by Yip Harburg (lyricist of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' 'It’s Only a Paper Moon,' and 'April in Paris,' among hundreds of other songs). Originally recorded by Robinson with Dooley Wilson, the piano playing 'Sam' in Casablanca, the song became one of Josh’s big crowd-pleasers. It was perfectly suited to his style, being a take-off of another song he had been instrumental in popularizing with the folk and cabaret crowd, 'St. James Infirmary.'"

White was from Greenville, South Carolina, and as a young man moved to New York, where, according to another source that the generous Mr. Bach sent me, he "obtained a recording contract with ARC and had a great success with songs such as 'St. James Infirmary Blues' and the anti-lynching song, 'Strange Fruit'."

From the bit of the "Free and Equal Blues" take that I can hear, the melody sounds identical to "St. James Infirmary," so I don't know what the above reference to "music by Earl Robinson" means, exactly. In any event, White also recorded "St. James Infirmary" itself in 1956, and that version happens to be available on iTunes, if you're interested. Thanks again, Mr. Bach...

Josh White - Josh At Midnight - St. James Infirmary
Josh White, "St. James Infirmary" (1956 version)