The magical mystery tour

Listening to good music is like watching a quiz show without cue cards -- the fun is in knowing that you might not ever figure it out.

Topics: Music, NPR,

I once made a pact with myself that I wasn’t going to buy any new records until I figured out the ones I had. That was until I realized the thing I liked about Charlie Parker or Laurie Anderson was that at some pure deep level, their music couldn’t be figured out. There
isn’t some all-purpose passkey that unlocks their meaning.

The song around which I formed my eternal-mystery theory was not
some illegible bebop map or a question mark from “Big Science.”
The song that hammered home the notion that listening to good
music was like watching a quiz show without cue cards was from a
genre not known for its elliptical subtleties — Dixieland. Specifically,
it was Louis Armstrong doing that old dirge, “St. James Infirmary.”
When I was 14, I listened to the one Armstrong record I had every night
before I went to sleep — theoretically to
help my own trumpet playing (which is what I told my sister
across the hall when she’d had quite enough), but
really because I was hooked on getting spooked. “St. James
Infirmary” never stopped scaring me, never opened up — and
thus never closed down.

Every time the song came on, I closed my eyes and went to
the movies. It’s that cinematic, the minor key working as a
kind of lighting, midnight blue gels on a few random spots.
You hear the smudged brass of Armstrong’s trumpet before you
hear his voice, harking back to the sad joy of a New Orleans
funeral parade. The camera comes in for a close-up as the
band slides into a smooth shuffle and Armstrong starts to
sing: “I went down to St. James Infirmary/Saw my baby
there/She was stretched out on a long, white table/So sweet,
so cold, so fair.” It’s a stark yet moving image, a
thrilling twofer, the way the sentimental action takes place
in a place as clinical as a hospital morgue.

Armstrong’s timbre as both a trumpeter and a vocalist is the
perfect match for such a mood, a perfect American marriage
of the gruff and the tender — which is one reason the song’s
next turn is such a surprise. “She can look this wide world
over/But she’ll never find a sweet man like me.” She’s
dead, right? She won’t be looking. This doesn’t make any
sense unless you take into account the selfish way the
living regard the dead. Mourning is often pure
solipsism — what am I going to do? But the narrator of this
song is curiously so stuck up that he feels sorry for his
loved one, not because she won’t be doing any more
breathing, but because she just lost the grace of his
presence. It’s so petty. And so human.

The next verse omits the dead girl altogether. Now he’s
imagining his own death, and it couldn’t get more selfish.
When he sees himself as a corpse, it’s as an ad for his own
success. He doesn’t think about the people or places he’ll
miss. He wants to be buried in a Stetson hat. “Pin a
$20 gold piece on my watch chain,” he commands the
air, “So the boys will know I died standing fat.”

This song gave me the shivers then and it gives me the
shivers now. Not just because it’s a morgue scene, not just
because of the cold body lying there on a table instead of a
bed, but because of the chill of the man’s words. Hearing it
as a young girl, hearing it before I ever fell in love
myself, it frightened me because of the way it shoots down
the idea of love as a true possibility. If you need love in part to know you’ll be missed when you’re gone, what does it mean if your sweetheart stands over your icy corpse
and — instead of wishing to rejoin you on some astral plane –
fantasizes about impressing his buddies with a big dumb coin?

That’s an ugly thought. But the song’s so pretty. The bad
thought is expressed in good poetry — cool phrases such as
“sweet man like me,” “Stetson hat,” “$20 gold
piece” — phrased by a captivating voice working through an
addictive blues melody and orchestrated to clarinet and
piano perfection. The reason I could listen to the song
over and over and never quite figure it out, never get
bored — and the reason the song has been covered by so many
performers — lies in its utter ambiguity. Which is to say, in its
freedom. The fact that the song doesn’t entirely make sense
is an invitation for everyone from Cab Calloway to a new
trip-hop band called Snakefarm to get in there and do a
little detective work. That jump-cut from the morgue’s cold white table to the man’s cold dark heart demands interpretation.

Anna Domino, the Snakefarm chanteuse, makes “St. James
Infirmary” and other hoary old laments like “Tom Dooley” and
“House of the Rising Sun” sound positively glamorous on the
album “Songs From My Funeral.” Domino recently told hearsay magazine,
“These songs remain relevant, moving, and scary. To keep
them from becoming relics they get reinterpreted every few

That depends on your definition of the word
“relic.” A relic in the medieval Christian sense is a holy object
that could be wholly creepy. Talismans of mystery and
desire, relics were frequently hacked-off body parts of
saints. “Let’s walk 200 miles to kiss the tooth of
John the Baptist!” said the medieval pilgrim.

In a secular world, songs like “St. James Infirmary” work the same way.
That’s what a cover version is — a pilgrimage, a chance to
traipse to the song and fill in the blanks. The riotous Cab
Calloway soups it up and turns the wake into a party,
clanging swinging horns around the room as if to raise the
dead. Eric Burdon and the Animals rewrite the song so they
can stop off at a bar before the viewing since, sensibly,
they need a drink first. And Lily Tomlin, inexplicably,
once did the song on “Saturday Night Live.” Vaguely pissed
off and a little too who-gives-a-shit for my taste, her
performance nonetheless captures the song’s essential
weirdness. Because: a) Why did she choose this particular
song for this particular show in the first place? b) Who’s
idea was it to dress up the SNL band, a bunch of guys with
random facial hair, as nurses? And c) Isn’t it a little too
cute that before she can start singing the song, she has to
take a thermometer out of her mouth? (That’s a prop joke we
would have been above even in the 4-H talent show.) So even
though her actual performance is a little
lackluster, to see Tomlin with a flower behind her ear
sitting on top of Nurse Paul Schaeffer’s grand piano is
nonetheless mesmerizing.

My favorite version of the song, even more than Armstrong’s,
is by Bobby “Blue” Bland. On his album “Two Steps From the
Blues,” he skips the Stetson hat/watch chain nonsense and
actually performs it as a true love song, adding the
unselfish thought that he wishes he could take her place and
that “she was all I ever lived for.” Snakefarm call their
album “Songs From My Funeral,” but Bland’s version is the only
one that’s actually respectful enough to be played at a
funeral. Bland has the same blueprint as Armstrong, and even
has a brass band backing him up, but with the way his voice
throbs and tears up and practically collapses, he convinces
the dumbstruck listener that if the short song were any
longer it would kill him dead.

The fact that “St. James Infirmary” can go from Bobby Bland’s
suicide to Cab Calloway’s dance party, Eric Burdon’s bar and
Lily Tomlin’s brain is an indicator of the song as a kind of
blank screen, a place to project oneself onto. Or maybe
it’s a black hole: The origins of “St. James Infirmary” are
characteristically mysterious. Sometimes, one imagines
because of specific lyrics or arrangements, it is attributed
to Duke Ellington associate Irving Mills, sometimes to a Joe
Primrose (or Joe Primerose) — Armstrong’s various recordings
of the song divide between these two. Usually it is
credited as “traditional.” I buy the latter. Even if it
was authored in the last 100 years by an identifiable
songwriter, the fact that nearly every singer of the song
changes its words around suggests that it holds the
malleability of an ancient folk song. That word infirmary
has the British air of those old Scotch-Irish ballads (my
researches found a St. James Infirmary in Dublin as far back
as 1667), and you can see how a jazz hipster of the 1920s
could make the dead girl his “baby” in a New York minute,
even if she’d been a “lady” since Elizabeth was queen.

But I like to think “St. James Infirmary” predates the
Tudors. It is called “St. James,” isn’t it? The shrine of
St. James at Spain’s Santiago de Compostela was the focal
point of the medieval pilgrimages. It was at the end of
the pilgrimage route, the place where all the crazy zealots
eventually ended up. As Dante Alighieri wrote at the end of
the 13th century, a pilgrim can be defined “in the
narrow sense” as “the man who travels to or from the
sanctuary of St. James.” For medieval Christian pilgrims,
going down to St. James was a grueling, once-in-a-lifetime
blowout. Thanks to records, the modern music pilgrim can
crawl under the covers and go down there every night. The
only tough question is who you’re going with — Bobby or
Louis? Snakefarm or Cab?

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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