I just got home this evening from a good night’s supper: the Outback. Usually I have to cook, but I lucked out tonight and we ate steaks tonight. Tomorrow night I shall fix apricot chicken and fragrant rice (two Mediterranean dishes). However, for now I am thinking of a subject, however unpopular is one of my favorites–Jazz (I will eventually get over this kick). There was a song I wanted to use last night but couldn’t seem to enfold into a story sometime, “St. James Infirmary”:
I went down to St.James Infirmary
Saw my baby there
She was 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 bury me in shoes,
I want a Boxback coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys will know that I died standin’ pat…
I love this song for its hard-bitten morbidity. My dad used to play the songs of Ella Fitzgerald in Ella Sings Gershwin, but the sonorous heights she climbed were only beautiful music and never touched the earth. The grit of Billie Holiday’s “Nobody’s Business” and “God Bless the Child” and even some of her love songs speak to the dark nights of the soul like none other. Yet to be Mephistopheles in the evening, when the polite society hypocrite takes off his day clothes and “doing good” if not for God, so he can frolic in the night doing the devil’s work where nobody can see him–that is the song which the “St. James Infirmary” stands for. It’s devil grinning broadly as the egotistical slouch in the song declares, “She’ll never meet a sweet man like me.” Ha! He probably killed her himself. Or at least, that is what I want to believe.
For some reason in my stream-of-consciousness, “St. James Infirmary” reminds me of a story from Tales from Uncle Remus (despite the frame story some of the stories really are great). There is a story about a sorcerer, his daughter Susannah, and her beau, whose name I forget. A handsome young man falls in love with the beautiful Susannah, a wicked Sorcerer’s daughter. She reciprocates, but warns him that her father disapproves of her ever marrying. So they slip away in the night, planning to marry as soon as possible, but for now lighting out of the territory while the getting is good. Susannah steals some materials to throw behind her to slow the Sorcerer down as he chases the two love birds. However, though they stall the Sorcerer temporarily, eventually he overcomes the obstacles. The story ends in a cliff hanger–we never are told that Susannah and her beau are ultimately caught and killed, but it is strongly implied. The effect is chilling.
I find that the story recalls a quote attributed to Martin Luther, “Why should the devil get all the best tunes?” and there is something devilish about Susannah’s pursuer and the man singing “St. James Infirmary.” I hope no black person reading this is offended. I know that there are angels as well as devils in black culture, and more that in this they are not different from white people. It is just that playing “St. James Infirmary” and thinking of that story about the Sorcerer’s daughter Susannah and her hapless groom, I think that besides suffering, black people as slaves must have known a great deal about human cruelty as it was inflicted on them. Sin and suffering, sex and grief… these things are a part of the human conditions; African American blues just knows how to express it better than most of white people. Again, if there is anyone black reading this, please do not be offended: I know I am not one of you and as such may understand black culture imperfectly at best.