I happened across a recording of Allen Toussaint, a great New Orleans musician, and promptly bought his CD, The Bright Mississippi. Lots of old tunes, with bluesy piano that alternates between the old church style and something more appropriate to a brothel. But it’s the performance of “St. James Infirmary” that really makes the album. I’ve learned it’s a very old tune, stemming from an 18th-century English folk song about “an unfortunate rake” who spends his money on a prostitute and subsequently dies of venereal disease. By the time it became an American blues standard, Louis Armstrong was opening with this verse:
I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Set down on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold, so fair.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be,
She can look this wide world over,
She’ll never find a sweet man like me.
That’s a damn fine song, and Toussaint plays it low and sneaky.