More Blues (2)


St. James Infirmary

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on the long white table,
So sweet, so cold, so bare.

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.

When I die I want you to dress me in straight-lace shoes,
Box-back coat and a Stetson hat,
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch-chain,
So the boys’ll know that I died standing pat.

Don Redman? Phil Baxter?


Gettin’ All Wet

Wake up my baby come my love
Unlock the door the skies above

Are leaking down upon your bed
Papa’s in the rain getting’ all wet

Getting’ all wet getting all wet
And if I die you will regret

Papa had no place to go
You got a nice warm room and so

Share it with papa don’t forget
Papa’s in the rain getting all wet

This rain ain’t healthy I’ve been told
Hear me cough catching cold

Ain’t no telling what I’ll get
Papa’s in the rain getting all wet

Papa’s got no coat at all
You got a raincoat in your hall

This suit I told you was too small
You nappy head you knew it all

It lets me stand but I can’t sit
Papa’s in the rain getting all wet

Papa must eat or he will die
You got pork chops you got pie

Graveyard is such a lonely place
Don’t want dirt thrown in my face

Pity old papa and don’t forget
Papa’s in the rain getting all wet.

Leroy Carr (1905–1935)


Inflation Blues

Inflation blues is what we got.
Posh Black folks must do without.
Can’t buy no bread, can’t buy no house.
Can’t live no better than a louse.

We useta sing way back when
Depression was and come again:
“What’s the matter with Uncle Sam?
He took away my sugar, now he’s messing with my ham.”

A piece of beef too high to buy;
Chicken ain’t no better.
Fatback and fish too high to fry;
A quarter mails one letter.

It useta be when I was small
Ten dollars bought enough for y’all.
My daddy couldn’t make one trip
From corner store to carry all.

This morning Lawd, I bought one bag,
And “fifteen dollars” sez that old hag.
I swallowe hard and bit my lip
That she was one expensive trip.

The gas too high to fill the tank
One year cost more than did the car
Bus fare so high I gotta walk
Cost more to live than foreign war.

You can’t afford to live or die.
A baby cost too much to buy.
Hospital bed for just one day
Will scare your very death away.

I don’t know what we coming to
The Gov’ment say they gonna do.
And all they do is raise the rent
And talk again how much they spent.

The wheat, the corn, and other grain
If it is dry, or if it rain,
Must go across the world to feed
While we must pay and still must need.

Our city streets are full of crime
With robbers, muggers, raping blind.
Posh people can’t afford to sleep.
Your house ain’t safe, and you can’t sweep

Your troubles underneath the rug
’Cause then that bad old carpet bug
Will rot you down, your house and all
Don’t care which way you try to crawl.

Inflation blues is what we got.
Posh Black folk must do without.
We naked in the wind and blind
As jaybirds in moulting time.

Margaret Walker (1915–1998)


Note: More Blues (2)

Apart from dividing it into couplets, I’ve left “Gettin’ All Wet” the way it is in Michael Taft’s Blues Lyric Poetry: an Anthology (1983). Repeating the first lines of each of these couplets would result in clumsinesses, with no balancing gains that I can see. I like the slightly off-balance briskness of the way it is.

“Inflation Blues” comes from Kevin Young, editor, Blues Poems (2003).

The text here for “St James Infirmary,” which seems to me perfect, is the one sung by Louis Armstrong in the 1928 recording session with Earl Hines in vol. 3 of the Columbia LP Louis Armstrong Story. It is attributed on that label to Don Redman, but Robert Harwood’s comments online suggest that Phil Baxter may be a better claimant.

Harwood’s book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary leaves me puzzled, though. Either I’m growing dumber (a distinct possibility) or some essential bit of information is missing from it. The nearest that I can get to clarity for myself is that embedded (not adjoining each other) in the thirty-three-line “Gambler’s Blues”, attributed to Phil Baxter and Carl Moore on the label of the 1927 recording by Fess Williams’ orchestra, are what became the first and third stanzas of “St. James Infirmary.”

And that someone excerpted them and added a middle stanza. And that this three-stanza lyric is what Louis sang on his recording the following year.

And that it seems reasonable to suppose that it was Don Redman, named on the label as the composer, and by then a well-reputed arranger, who put together Louis’ text.

Straight-lace shoes, not ankle boots (which you can see on Johnny Dodds’ feet in a posed 1923 photo of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band), and with the laces running parallel, not criss-crossed. Box-back coat : a jacket or coat with vertical pleats and a half-belt creating a raised rectangular area on the back. I recall, whether or not accurately, having seen a jacket with two such pleats in some Thirties movie. I have just now seen for sure, in Tod Browning’s 1935 Mark of the Vampire, a half-belted light-weight jacket with a number of vertical pleats creating a slightly puffy-looking rectangular area.

In Jonathan Latimer’s The Lady in the Morgue (1936) one reads:

There was a lot of style tailored into the gabardine, especially around the pleated and half-belted back, and until he saw the coat had been cut loose at the waist Crane thought possibly the man was a gangster or at least someone who had a connection with race horses. (Ch. 2)

There is also an online controversy about the pronunciation of Armstrong’s first name.

In one of the numbers on the major four-album Columbia series, he refers to himself as “little Loo-ie.” Maybe memory will steer me to it. In the early Fifties, when I knew Mike Zwerin, jazz trombonist and later terrific jazz critic, who had been at age nineteen the trombonist on over half the numbers in Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool sessions, and had a couple of great Armstrong LPs, Mike invariably called him Loo-ie. In the Fifties in general, including a performance by Armstrong’s group attended in St. Paul, Minnesota circa 1956, I never heard Louis referred to as anything but Loo-ie, or St. Louis as anything but St. Loo-ie.

At some point during the past decade or two the distinguished Black movie actor with a well-established reputation as Larry Fishburne returned to his given name as Laurence. In the absence of details, I assume that a similar social upgrading occurred at some point for Armstrong, for PR purposes. It seems to me a mistake. Winston Churchill took a step down when he shifted from Mr. Churchill to Sir Winston.

Among other things, the word “Lewis” isn’t shoutable, as in “Hey, Louis, play that thing.”