Obsession, Expertise, and Uncertainty
But in the meantime, I did want to mention a recent email exchange. Lots of surprising correspondence regarding “St. James Infirmary” comes my way, but nothing has surprised me more than a question this week from a magazine fact-checker. Apparently this magazine has a story coming up that makes passing mention of the song “The Streets of Laredo,” which of course is a descendent of “The Unfortunate Rake,” which also spawned “St. James Infirmary.” The fact-checker needed to confirm or clear up the relationship between “Streets of Laredo” and “St. James Infirmary,” and this assignment had led him, of all places, to me.
“Would you,” my inquisitor asked, “consider yourself the most definitive source of info on 'St. James Infirmary?'”
The answer is no. I would consider myself: some guy. (I did try to help him out as best I could, of course.) But it's interesting how this sort of thing works -- how random obsessive musings on the Web have a different sort of sheen than, say, random obsessive musings from the last seat the bar.
Anyway, both his question and my thoughts about it reminded me of a recent article in the Boston Globe. This piece argued that while "the digital music age" is having a negative effect on albums, "a movement to preserve [the album idea] has recently been gaining momentum, and in an unlikely field-book publishing." A a variety of examples are cited. Then, the final third of the piece notes that recently, "a spate of books extolling the virtues, and plumbing the depths, of individual songs have appeared alongside books about albums. The critic Greil Marcus has dissected Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone' at book length. Dave Marsh wrote about 'Louie Louie'; David Margolick, 'Strange Fruit.' There are books on 'White Christmas' and 'Amazing Grace.'" Also mentioned is "Stagolee Shot Billy," by Cecil Brown, as well as a forthcoming book about "House of the Rising Sun," which I believe has a history like that of "St. James Infirmary," in some ways. The writer argues that these books have less in common with the ones about albums than with books like "Salt," "Cod,' "Spice," "Zipper," and so on. "As with these projects, books about single artworks can provide revelations about the world beyond the thing itself." (The writer of the article evidently has a book coming out called "Jeans.")
I became aware of this by way of a post on Zoilus, where my old pal Carl Wilson made the following useful point: "While I mainly agree, the potential trouble with using a song as a window into cultural history -- just as with using salt or tobacco -- is that you risk making more of the song's journey and influence than is really warranted, and as creative as that can be, it can also curdle into crap, of the 'the song that changed history' variety. To quote the Artforum review of Dave Marsh's Louie Louie book, for instance: 'By the end of his book Marsh is claiming Richard Berry as the forebear of both rapper Ice-T and Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, insisting, with typical understatement, "Louie Louie shaped the modern rock 'n' roller's entire world."'"
Yeah. I've thought about this very issue. I certainly don't think that "St. James Infirmary" changed the world. On the other hand, I'm interested in the way it has traveled the world. I don't think it has had an effect on history; but I do think it opens a lot of interesting windows on forgotten historical moments. Perhaps above all, I think of the song not so much as being an answer, so much as containing a seemingly endless series of fascinating questions. And so the real reply to that fact checker might have been: I consider myself to be more confused about "St. James Infirmary" than almost anybody else, and thus, arguably, the least definitive source on the topic. This site isn't about expertise, it's about uncertainty, and ambiguity. Which, as it happens, I find far more interesting.