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Saint James Infirmary: Some thoughts and a possible comparandum

October 15, 2011

For me — as for many — the strangest and most jarring aspect of the blues/jazz standard “St. James Infirmary” is this transition:

I went down to see the Doctor —
She’s very low, he said —
I went back up to see my baby —
and good lord she was lying there dead.

Let her go, let her go, God bless her —
Wherever she may be —
She can search this wide world over —
But she’ll never find a man like me.

So when I die…

All of a sudden, right where we are expecting the lament for the beloved, the topic changes from the beloved to the speaker (“Joe MacKennedy”), and the mood from despair to bravado; the funeral imagery which closes the song is a set of instructions for the McKennedy’s own funeral, having apparently little or nothing to do with the death which the death which the song has taken as its theme up to this point.   I find the transition psychologically effective; the attempt to supplant deep sadness with aggressive manliness feels very familiar, and is certainly typical of blues as a genre.  It is also an innovation in the tradition; in the song’s distant ancestor “The Unfortunate Rake” it is the rake himself who is about to die, and the instructions for his funeral are more straightforwardly relevant to the situation set out at the beginning of the song, as in the cognate “Streets of Loredo.”  It is surely a nod to (and perhaps a borrowing from) the logic of such cognate traditions that sometimes the following lines (or similar ones) are inserted into the song between the verses cited above:

Seventeen coal-black horses
Hitched to a rubber-tied hack
Seven girls goin’ to the graveyard
Only six of them are coming back

Powerful stuff indeed; but I have a tendency to omit them (usually replacing them with a harmonica solo) in order to keep the funeral imagery at the somewhat jarring remove from the death — a feature that was part of what originally drew me the song.

I recently began reading through Finnegan’s Oral Poetry: Its nature, significance, and social context, and came across the following Maori song of mourning, which strikes me as a particularly interesting parallel (p. 13):

Many women call on me to sleep with them
But I’ll have none so worthless and so wanton
There is not one like Rangiaho, so soft to feel
Like a small, black eel.
I would hold her again —
Even the wood in which she lies;
But like the slender flax stem
She slides from the first to the second heaven
The mother of my children
Gone
Blown by the wind
Like the spume of a wave
Into the eye of the void.

Whereas in “St. James” we moved from mourning to bravado, here the trajectory is in the opposite direction; the speaker (the song is attributed to a certain Te Heuheu Herea) begins by advertising his value as a sexual partner (“Many women call on me to sleep with them”), and then with a violent rejection: “I’ll have none so worthless and so wanton.”  From there he begins his lament.  This is a mirror-image of the progression we see in the “St. James” stanza, which begins with a fairly strongly-worded shrugging-off, this time of the beloved object (“Let her go, let her go, God bless her”) before transitioning to MacKennedy’s own excellent qualities (“She’ll never find a man like me”).  But the collocations (grief-[aggression-towards-woman]-machismo, machismo-[aggression-towards-women]-grief) remain striking.

That’s about all I have to say; this exercise has primarily been an excuse to share the Maori song with you guys, which is among the most beautiful poems I have encountered.

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