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The song involves a man telling the singer/narrator, at a bar, how he went down to St. James Infirmary (hospital) and tragically found his girl (the so-called “baby”) dead.
Like most such folksongs, there is much variation in the lyrics from one version to another. As a representative version, here is the first stanza as sung by Louis Armstrong:
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.
Notable performers of this song include Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, King Oliver, Artie Shaw, Big Mama Thornton, Jack Teagarden, Billie Holiday, Cassandra Wilson, Bobby Hackett, Stan Kenton, Lou Rawls, The Limeliters, Bobby Bland, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Doc Watson, “Spider” John Koerner, Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Animals, and more recently The White Stripes, the Stray Cats, the Tarbox Ramblers, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, and Tom Jones with Jools Holland. Jazz guitarists Marc Ribot and Ivan “Boogaloo Joe” Jones have recorded instrumental versions.
Bob Dylan used the melody in his song “Blind Willie McTell”
the melody kinda sounds like Summertime…it’s a classic minor blues progression…amazing the power of one song to become a classic…and yet the true writer is unknown….
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