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Billy Bobbie’s St James Infirmary

Kyle Mercer

January 23, 2018

Genre: Blues

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About This Song


A re-imagining of St. James' Infirmary that transforms the standard into an odd, old-fashioned, somebody-did-me-wrong song.

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Not suitable for pitching, but it amused me and I was wondering if it amused anyone else. Tell me which lines you think don't work.



And please excuse the vocals. I can't sing worth a damn and my audio engineering skills are even worse.


2 Responses


Brent Baxter

Hey, Kyle!  Thanks for sharing with us.  I’m not familiar with “St. James Infirmary.”  I had to look it up to see there were some other versions of it.

Did you re-write the lyrics?  I’ve listened to a little of another version, and the lyrics are a little different.

In other words, I’m not sure what to day about your writing, because I’m not sure what writing is yours.

However, I REALLY dig what IS here.  I don’t know what’s yours and what isn’t… and I guess that’s a good thing.  I really like it.  Cool dadgummed song.

Hope that helps!  Please take a moment to leave a comment on another writer’s song.  It doesn’t have to be super-detailed or anything.  Just a thought or two about the song.  (Also, the best way to GET feedback is to GIVE feedback.)  Thanks!

January 24, 2018

No members have liked this comment.

Kyle Mercer

God, you make me feel so damn old. It never occurred to me that someone might be young enough to have never heard ‘St. James’ Infirmary.’ But then, if you rattled off the names of the top twenty-to-twenty-five recording artists in Nashville right now, I probably wouldn’t recognize but maybe two or three and wouldn’t have a clue what their hits sounded like.

The definitive version of ‘St. James Infirmary’ was recorded by Louis Armstrong in December of 1928, released the following month and is still a standard in Dixieland band circles. It’s one of those songs that makes musicians groan whenever somebody in the audience requests it, because they’ve played it so many times.

Lyrically the song’s roots go back to at least the 1700’s, to an old English ballad usually known as ‘The Unfortunate Rake,’ a cautionary tale about the ‘sporting life’ wherein the protagonist is dying of syphilis in a hospital. ‘Streets of Laredo’ is another descendant of the same song.

When it came across the water, the ballad eventually evolved into a piece about a man bemoaning his lover’s death in a charity hospital. Baxter and Moore copyrighted a version they claimed to have written called ‘Gambler’s Blues’ in 1925 and first recorded in 1927. The song is sometimes performed under that title. It was a signature piece for Dave Van Ronk back in the sixties. But Carl Sanburg, the poet, published a folk song collection called ‘American Songbag’ in 1927 that had two versions of ‘Those Gambler’s Blues’ in it. So the piece had obviously been around for a while.

And the melody that we associate with the song today was apparently a sort of standard that dates back to before WWI. Musicians were so familiar with it, that they would fall back on it in jam sessions, somewhat like the way blues guys use a twelve bar blues today. The melody was first recorded in 1924 on an instrumental piece called ‘Charleston Cabin.’

A couple of months after Armstrong recorded and released his version, Irving Mills, the publisher, decided he wrote the tune and, being Irving Mills, was able to effectively take the song out of public domain. Go figure. That copyright still stands today and will remain in effect until 1924 I think, even though Mills testified in a New York state court in the 1930’s that the music and lyrics were not original to him. (This was a trademark case involving the use of the name ‘St. James’ Infirmary’ in the title of a rival publisher’s version, not a federal copyright lawsuit.) Mills and his lawyers eventually squashed all other copyright challengers.

‘Billy Bobbie’s’ version should be transformative enough to pass a derivative test in today’s judicial climate. The first two lines of the first verse and the first line of the refrain are, if I remember right, the only lyrics that can be found in Armstrong’s version, but have public domain precedents. The Armstrong version’s only unique feature was the use of the name, ‘St. James’ Infirmary.’ And you can’t copyright a name. But I have a version that substitutes ‘St. Joseph’s Infirmary’ just in case.

There are some other lines in this version that reference and pay homage to traditional lyrics, but twist them around. For example, pallbearing soldiers and singing maidens in ‘An Unfortunate Rake’ have been transformed into lonely sailors and strumpets here. But none of the traditional versions have anything resembling the discussion with the doctor or the descent into Hades or a return to the hospital for revenge. And the melody used was recorded five years before Mills’ copyright application.

All of which is probably much more than you cared to know. It was more than I ever expected to know. But when the song popped out, I thought it was in public domain and when I found out it wasn’t, I had to do some research.

And if you haven’t ever heard Armstrong’s recording, you should look it up on YouTube. This was Armstrong back in the day when he was still young and hungry and a musical explorer, as opposed to his later years when he was singing for Disney. The Hot Five and Hot Seven jazz recordings he made back in the twenties were an inspiration for an entire generation of musicians and among the finest recordings ever made.

January 24, 2018

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Brent Baxter

Hey, Kyle!  Thanks for sharing with us.  I’m not familiar with “St. James Infirmary.”  I had to look it up to see there were some other versions of it.

Did you re-write the lyrics?  I’ve listened to a little of another version, and the lyrics are a little different.

In other words, I’m not sure what to day about your writing, because I’m not sure what writing is yours.

However, I REALLY dig what IS here.  I don’t know what’s yours and what isn’t… and I guess that’s a good thing.  I really like it.  Cool dadgummed song.

Hope that helps!  Please take a moment to leave a comment on another writer’s song.  It doesn’t have to be super-detailed or anything.  Just a thought or two about the song.  (Also, the best way to GET feedback is to GIVE feedback.)  Thanks!

January 24, 2018

0

Kyle Mercer

God, you make me feel so damn old. It never occurred to me that someone might be young enough to have never heard ‘St. James’ Infirmary.’ But then, if you rattled off the names of the top twenty-to-twenty-five recording artists in Nashville right now, I probably wouldn’t recognize but maybe two or three and wouldn’t have a clue what their hits sounded like.

The definitive version of ‘St. James Infirmary’ was recorded by Louis Armstrong in December of 1928, released the following month and is still a standard in Dixieland band circles. It’s one of those songs that makes musicians groan whenever somebody in the audience requests it, because they’ve played it so many times.

Lyrically the song’s roots go back to at least the 1700’s, to an old English ballad usually known as ‘The Unfortunate Rake,’ a cautionary tale about the ‘sporting life’ wherein the protagonist is dying of syphilis in a hospital. ‘Streets of Laredo’ is another descendant of the same song.

When it came across the water, the ballad eventually evolved into a piece about a man bemoaning his lover’s death in a charity hospital. Baxter and Moore copyrighted a version they claimed to have written called ‘Gambler’s Blues’ in 1925 and first recorded in 1927. The song is sometimes performed under that title. It was a signature piece for Dave Van Ronk back in the sixties. But Carl Sanburg, the poet, published a folk song collection called ‘American Songbag’ in 1927 that had two versions of ‘Those Gambler’s Blues’ in it. So the piece had obviously been around for a while.

And the melody that we associate with the song today was apparently a sort of standard that dates back to before WWI. Musicians were so familiar with it, that they would fall back on it in jam sessions, somewhat like the way blues guys use a twelve bar blues today. The melody was first recorded in 1924 on an instrumental piece called ‘Charleston Cabin.’

A couple of months after Armstrong recorded and released his version, Irving Mills, the publisher, decided he wrote the tune and, being Irving Mills, was able to effectively take the song out of public domain. Go figure. That copyright still stands today and will remain in effect until 1924 I think, even though Mills testified in a New York state court in the 1930’s that the music and lyrics were not original to him. (This was a trademark case involving the use of the name ‘St. James’ Infirmary’ in the title of a rival publisher’s version, not a federal copyright lawsuit.) Mills and his lawyers eventually squashed all other copyright challengers.

‘Billy Bobbie’s’ version should be transformative enough to pass a derivative test in today’s judicial climate. The first two lines of the first verse and the first line of the refrain are, if I remember right, the only lyrics that can be found in Armstrong’s version, but have public domain precedents. The Armstrong version’s only unique feature was the use of the name, ‘St. James’ Infirmary.’ And you can’t copyright a name. But I have a version that substitutes ‘St. Joseph’s Infirmary’ just in case.

There are some other lines in this version that reference and pay homage to traditional lyrics, but twist them around. For example, pallbearing soldiers and singing maidens in ‘An Unfortunate Rake’ have been transformed into lonely sailors and strumpets here. But none of the traditional versions have anything resembling the discussion with the doctor or the descent into Hades or a return to the hospital for revenge. And the melody used was recorded five years before Mills’ copyright application.

All of which is probably much more than you cared to know. It was more than I ever expected to know. But when the song popped out, I thought it was in public domain and when I found out it wasn’t, I had to do some research.

And if you haven’t ever heard Armstrong’s recording, you should look it up on YouTube. This was Armstrong back in the day when he was still young and hungry and a musical explorer, as opposed to his later years when he was singing for Disney. The Hot Five and Hot Seven jazz recordings he made back in the twenties were an inspiration for an entire generation of musicians and among the finest recordings ever made.

January 24, 2018


Billy Bobbie’s St James...

Written by Kyle Mercer

I went down to St James' Infirmary
Found my baby there
They had her stretched out naked on a table, boys
All sutured up from hither to God-knows-where
Sutured up from hither to there

I said, Doctor, Doctor what ails her?
My gal's as pale as can be
He said, I'm sorry to say your woman passed yesterday
Now can you sign a couple papers for me?
Just need a signature or two, maybe three

Oh Doctor no, no, how could she just up and go?
He said, Well that part's a little unclear
It might've been the scurvy
Might've been something nervy
Might be something maybe crawled in her ear
Something nasty crawling up in her ear

Well Doctor tell me you didn't let her suffer
He shook his finger, said That wasn't our fault
She ripped her bindings to pieces
Tried to bite off her leeches
Wrote her final words in blood on the walls
Wrote her final requests on the walls

She asked for six lonely sailors to carry her coffin
Six strumpets to sing her a song
She said tell all the immoral bring a little sprig of laurel
Won't want to smell her as they bear her along
Won't have to smell her as they bear her along

Oh Doctor no, Doctor no
Please say it isn't so
There's some things that never should be
Could turn the world up and over
Look under rock and clover
Never find another woman for me
Never find another woman for me

Well it's seventeen miles to the old Potter's Field
A man could walk hisself from gristle to bone
But that's nothing compared to that trip down to where
He's gotta cross the River Styx all alone
Try to find her, try to bring her back home

Oh let her go, let her go
God help her
Wherever she might be
Could search the world over
Under stone, under clover
Never find another woman for me
Never find another woman for me

Now I'm going back to St James Infirmary
Pistol up my sleeve
And with a pain in my heart like something ripped it apart
But I know a good doctor to see
I know a really good doctor to see

And you can get me six angry judges to carry my coffin
Six hangmen to sing me their song
Make sure that all of them wear a little tonic in their hair
Don't want to smell them as they bear me along
Won't have to smell them as they bear me along

Oh let her go, let her go
May God bless her soul
Wherever it might be
Could search the world over
Look under stone and clover
Never find another woman for me
I'll never find another woman for me
There'll never be another woman for me

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