Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A Buyer's Guide

From time to time I’m asked which version of “St. James Infirmary” is my favorite. Of course, I cannot choose. However, it recently occurred to me that what I might do is offer up, as a kind of elaborate dodge to answering the question, a guide to some versions of the song that I like a lot and that are available on iTunes. (So this isn't exactly my top ten -- it's ten that are easy to buy.) I know not everybody uses iTunes, and it’s no skin off my nose if you’d prefer never to use it yourself. It just seems like a handy thing to do. So here goes: a 10-song buyer's guide.

1. It's mandatory to start with Louis Armstrong's 1928 version of the song. Among other reasons, I believe this is the blueprint for the many, many New Orleans musicians who continue to perform "St. James Inifrmary" to this day.

Louis Armstrong - The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, Vol. 3 - St. James Infirmary
Louis Armstrong, "St. James Infirmary."

2. The Hokum Boys recorded two versions of the song, and both are phenomenal. I'm going to choose the take that's titled "Gambler's Blues No. 2." At some point I intend to do an entry on their versions, when I've had a chance to do a little more research. (By the way any good tips regarding Hokum Boys history are welcome.) Lots of great lyrical flourishes.

The Hokum Boys - The Hokum Boys Vol. 1939 - Gambler's Blues No. 2
The Hokum Boys, "Gambler's Blues No. 2"

3. Among recent-ish takes on the tune, I like Marc Ribot's instrumental on his solo-guitar record Saints, released in 2001. I'm a bit biased here, because I'm a big fan of basically everything Ribot does, from his solo work, his astonishing albums with Los Cubanos Postizos, and his playing on other people's records (including, for instance, my all-time favorite guitar solo, the one in Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon"). Maybe this version isn't for everybody, but I enjoy it quite a bit.

Marc Ribot - Saints - St. James Infirmary
Marc Ribot, "St. James Infirmary."

4. I wrote about James Booker's version a while back, and don't have much to add. It's really beautiful.

James Booker - Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah - St. James Infirmary
James Booker, "St. James Infirmary"

5. Another nice instrumental version is Red Garland's. I don't know any more about the Texas-born piano player than any other casual jazz fan, and actually I don't really even remember how and when I first heard this version. I think it may have been a part of the binge that I went on a few years ago when I first decided I was going to do some research on "St. James Infirmary." This mellow, pretty, beguiling take stood out then, and it stands out now.

Red Garland - When There Are Grey Skies - St. James Infirmary
Red Garland, "St. James Infirmary."

6. More than a year ago now a reader named Nate Lane sent me a great version by Jack Teagarden. Teagarden recorded the song more than once, but the one I'm referring to is a live performance at Club Hangover, evidently part of a series of radio broadcasts from that San Francisco club recorded in 1954. It's an instrumental version, and the opening section in particular is so mysterious and sexy, with gently primal percussion, and the horn and piano parts so smooth -- and, something about the background crowd chatter and clinking glasses always gets me. This would be great in a movie. A black and white movie. The other interesting thing about it is that the end of this thoroughly riveting performance there's polite applause and then this incredibly awkward bit from the guy who is I guess the host, who sounds like the world's biggest square, describes how, "Jack disassembled his trombone -- heh, heh -- and used the forward portion of same," blowing into "a glass that he employs for this purpose," etc. A truly absurd coda.

Jack Teagarden & Jackie Coon - Club Hangover Broadcasts - St. James Infirmary
Jack Teagarden, "St. James Infirmary" (1954 Club Hangover recording)

7. It's interesting to note that the now-famous White Stripes recorded this tune their first record. I don't know that I think it's a remarkable version, but it's not bad. I bet Jack White would have some interesting things to say about the song.

The White Stripes - The White Stripes - St. James Infirmary Blues
The White Stripes, "St. James Infirmary Blues"

8. I also did an earlier entry on Dr. John's reworking of the song into "Touro Blues." Definitely one of my favorites.

Dr. John - The Legendary Sessions, Vol. 2 - Dr. John Plays Mac Rebennnack - Touro Infirmary
Dr. John, "Touro Infirmary"

9. Reader Brad M. of Iowa City emailed me about Frank Zappa's "Ain't Necessarily the Saint James Infirmary" a while ago, and I immediately bought the 1988 CD it appears on, Guitar. The other day I was surprised to see that it's now available on iTunes. I have vague plans to do a separate post on this down the road, and as I see how long this list is getting, word-wise, I'll leave it at that for now.

Frank Zappa - Guitar (2 CD) - It Ain't Necessarily the Saint James Infirmary
Frank Zappa, "Ain't Necessarily the Saint James Infirmary"

10. I sort of dealt with Blind Willie McTell's version(s) in the long essay that this site is spun off from. McTell also deserves a longer post some day, so for now I'll just say "The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," as recorded in McTell's "Last Session" in 1956, is extraordinary, and arguably a must-have, even if you're not interested in "St. James Infirmary." Although if you're not interested in "St. James Infirmary," it's hard to imagine why you're reading this.

Blind Willie McTell - Last Session - The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues
Blind Willie McTell, "The Dyin Crapshooter's Blues" (1956 "Last Session" version)

Important Disclosure! Yeah, there's some kind of "affiliate" program that I signed up for in order to provide iTunes links, and in theory I get some tiny slice if people click through and buy songs. I don't know how that really works, but my solemn pledge is that any pennies I do receive will be reinvested into the purchase of more versions of "St. James Infirmary." Thank you.