Monday, September 19, 2005

Goin' down to Saint James Infirmary...

My paternal grandmother, Imogene Garrett, was a remarkable woman. She was still running for and being elected to office (justice of the peace) in her small west Texas town late into her "golden years." (She was a die-hard Democrat, by the way.)

She taught Sunday School for years at the Methodist church she attended faithfully until her death. She was fun, and funny, and laid kids, we always knew we could relax and enjoy ourselves at her house.

My dad often referred to her, not as Mother or Mom, but as "Imogene"...with a good deal of respect and a dollop of awe, like she was a force to be reckoned with.

She was originally from Arkansas, but the man she married, my grandfather, was Lousiana-born and bred. (My own father, in fact, was born near Mansfield, Louisiana.)

Some of my favorite memories of Grandma Garrett involve her sitting at her piano and accompanying herself as she sang. She had a light, pleasing, slightly quavery voice...part of that could have been her age, but part of it was a slightly bluesy vibrato that was characteristic of the popular singers of her youth.

(Any visits to Grandma's house also included an on-demand performance by our family. She loved gospel music, and nothing delighted her more than to listen to her family members sing.)

I remember her playing and singing one song that caught my attention (I think I was a teenager at the time), and I never, ever forgot it. Grandma's little quavery bluesy voice singing it; the sad, rather morbid lyrics, and the lazily mournful tune, somehow combined to capture me.

The song was "Saint James Infirmary." I only heard the song one other time in subsequent years...for some reason, Lily Tomlin sang it once on Saturday Night Live (I have no idea why...I think it was part of a skit.)

Here are the most commonly-heard lyrics:

I went down to the St James Infirmary
Saw my baby there
She stretched out on a long white table
So cold, so sweet, so fair

Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
She can look this wide world over
But she'll never find a sweet man like me

When I die want you to dress me in straight lace shoes
I wanna a boxback coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys'll know that I died standing flat

I've been thinking about the song since Hurricane Katrina, because for some reason, it was linked with New Orleans in my mind.

Well, now there's the Internet, and I can Google a song that has stayed in my memory for years. Thanks to the Internet, I now know that the song has been recorded by a wide range of artists, from Louis Armstrong to Cab Calloway to Eric Burdon to the White Stripes. Come to find out,though it's often performed in New Orleans by blues artists, it's not about New Orleans. According to Rob Walker, who seems to be even more fascinated with the song than I am, it actually had it's earliest origins in County Cork, Ireland in the 17-hundreds!

This makes sense to me, because the Irish really seemed to have a thing for morbidly sad songs. Remember "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye", on which "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" was based? The original version is horribly sad and mournful.

In his Letter from New Orleans #13, Rob Walker says he likes the stanza where the singer starts planning his own funeral while gazing on his loved one's corpse: "It was odd that the singer would abruptly start addressing his own funeral arrangements while looking at his lover's body, but I found it charming somehow. I'm not saying I admire the singer, who seems overly pleased with himself and dishonest besides. But I do admire something in his matter-of-fact, fearless taunting of the fates. That just seems very New Orleans to me."

It's rather amazing that a tune I hadn't heard since the 70's has stuck in my mind all these years. For me, it's inextricably woven into my memories of my grandmother, sitting at her piano playing and singing. I loved my grandmother, and truly miss her--just as I do my dad, her oldest son, who died a little over a year ago.

I can easily imagine them sitting at a piano in heaven together, singing and playing to their heart's content.

If you'd like to hear a bit of the song, here's a little sample of Harry Connick Jr. singing it...and here's a sample of an instrumental version.

(By the way, Connick's version captures the almost indolently slow, unhurried tempo at which my Grandma sang it.)

UPDATE:Here's a little more of the Harry Connick with the Marsalis Family version.

And it's good to know my cousin Chris also remembers Grandma singing this song: "I remember her singing St. James Infirmary and it was great, in exactly that warbly old 78rpm blues style that (Cindy) described - and oddly enough, I have that Saturday Night Live version of the song burned in my memory too. I probably experienced them both around the same time (mid-late 70's). I wish some one had a recording of Grandma singing some of those songs - St. Louis Blues, St. James Infirmary, whatever song she was singing - her version was always the definative version for me."

Amen, Chris. :)

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