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St. James Infirmary and Crapshooters Blues

In this column: history of the songs "St. James Infirmary" and "Crapshooters Blues", added "Pneumonia Blues"

Louis Armstrong

St. James Infirmary

"St. James Infirmary" and "Dying Crapshooter Blues" have the same origin: an old English folk song, which tells the story of a dying soldier, in which he instructs his friend to arrange funeral affairs. The song is called "The Unfortunate Rake" (also known as "The Unfortunate Lad" or "The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime") is about a soldier who uses his money on prostitutes and then dies of venereal disease. St. James refers to London's St. James Hospital.

St. James Infirmary - Louis Armstrong

I went down to the St. James Infirmary
Saw my baby there
Stretched out 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

When I die, 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
he boys'll know that I died standin' pat

Notes

Box-back suit: a style of men's suit, a somewhat dated fashion
Louis Armstrong recounted that in 1922, when he stepped off the train in Chicago after being summoned North by King Oliver and looking out of place: 
"I never seen a city that big...  I said, no, this is the wrong city. I was just fixing to go back home — standing there in my box-back suit, padded shoulders, wide-legged pants — when a redcap Joe left word with, came up to me."
Standing pat: stick stubbornly to one's opinion or decision, (in poker and blackjack) retain one's hand as dealt, without drawing other cards
Back-box suit
Straight-lace shoes
Stetson hat (Homburg)

Also used in the lyrics:

straight-leg britches
Doubles breated: having one half of the front lapped over the other and usually a double row of buttons and a single row of buttonholes; is seen as elegant clothing
Blind Willie McTell

Dying Crapshooter’s Blues - Blind Willie McTell
McTell's version, which he claims to have made up "out of three different marches of tunes," is one of the most involved and elaborate. Here, the vice that lead to venereal disease in the "Unfortunate Rake" has been exchanged for an addiction to gambling.

Little Jesse was a gambler, night and day
He used crooked cards and dice
Sinful guy, good hearted but had no soul
Heart was hard and cold like ice

Jesse was a wild reckless gambler
Won a gang of change
Altho' a many gambler's heart he led in pain
Began to spend a-loose his money
Began to be blue, sad and all alone
His heart had even turned to stone

What broke Jesse's heart while he was blue and all alone
Sweet Lorena packed up and gone
Police walked up and shot my friend Jesse down
Boys i got to die today

He had a gang of crapshooters and gamblers at his bedside
Here are the words he had to say

Guess I ought to know
Exactly how I wants to go
(How you wanna go, Jesse?)

Eight crapshooters to be my pallbearers
Let 'em be veiled down in black
I want nine men going to the graveyard, bubba
And eight men comin back

I want a gang of gamblers gathered 'round my coffin-side
Crooked card printed on my hearse
Don't say the crapshooters'll never grieve over me
My life been a doggone curse

Send poker players to the graveyard
Dig my grave with the ace of spades
I want twelve polices in my funeral march
High sheriff playin' blackjack, lead the parade

I want the judge and solic'ter who jailed me 14 times
Put a pair of dice in my shoes (then what?)
Let a deck of cards be my tombstone
I got the dyin' crapshooter's blues

Sixteen real good crapshooters
Sixteen bootleggers to sing a song
Sixteen bug(gy) riders gambling with a coupla tens, boys
while i'm rollin' along

He wanted 22 womens outta the Hampton Hotel
26 off-a South Bell
29 women outta North Atlanta 
Know that little Jesse didn’t pass out so swell

His head was achin’, heart was thumpin’
Little Jesse went down bouncin’ and jumpin’
Folks don’t be standin’ around ole Jesse cryin’
He wants everybody to do the Charleston whilst he dyin’

One foot up, a toenail dragging
Throw my buddy Jesse in the hoodoo wagon
Come here mama with that can of booze
He’s got the dyin’ crapshooter’s, passin’ out
Well the dyin’ crapshooter’s blues

Notes

Crapshooters: men playing a gambling game with two dice

Pallbearers: persons who help to carry the coffin at a funeral

Dig my grave with the ace of spades: the ace of spades is traditionally the highest and most valued card in the deck of playing cards, in Latin, the word spatha, the root of the modern English word spade, refers to a "broad, flat weapon or tool” and is associated with killing and death therefore that way the ace of spades became the death card

Bootleggers: persons who make or sell alcoholic liquor illegally

Bug riders: name denoting the reduced weight allowance permitted an apprentice jockey (bug boy). When this weight concession is allowed the program denotes the weight in the program with an asterisk "*" (which looks like a bug)

The Charleston: the Charleston was a very popular dance of the "Roaring '20s" generation, the Charleston involves the fast-paced swinging of the legs and big arm movements

Kentucky Derby's Black Jockey Jimmy Winkfield

Gambling with a coupla tens: in blackjack, two tens are worth 20 points while 21 is the highest score you can get

Throw my buddy Jesse in the hoodoo wagon: blues singers sing in veiled terms the wish to have someone on their side, who will reserve a place for them in heaven. Examples are: "Mr. Undertaker, please fry your ham an' eggs slow" an "Throw my buddy Jesse in the hoodoo wagon". The Hoodoo Wagon was an early version of a present day vending trailer to cook and serve food.

1908: an English Hoodoo Wagon

 

More clothing referenced in the blues

Black (the wearing of…)
"Now when your good girl leaves you, papa don't wear no black."
Meaning: dressing in black is done to denote a time of grief, indicates in this case that the absence of the woman in question probably isn’t worth grieving over

BVD's
"You buy these fair brown's everything they need
Find the wintertime'll catch you wearin' your BVD's"
Meaning: long underwear, BVD stands for "Bradley, Voorhees & Day," the Baltimore firm that initially manufactured the garment, in this case the singer speculates that he will have eventually spent all his resources on his girlfriend and have nothing left but his underwear

Pneumonia Blues - Blind Lemon Jefferson

Achin's all over, believe I've got the pneumonia this time.
I'm achin' all over, believe I've got the pneumonia this time.
And it's all on account of that low-down gal of mine.

Sneakin' 'round the corners, runnin' up alleys, too.
I say, I'm sneakin' 'round corners and runnin' up alleys, too.
Watchin' my woman, tryin' to see what she gon' do.

Stood out in the street one cold, dark stormy night
I stood out in the street one dark and stormy night.
Try and see if my good gal gon' make it home all right.

I believe she's found something, that probably made her fall.
She must've found something, and I believe it's made her fall.
I've stood out in the cold all night and she didn't come home at all.

Wearin' BVDs in the winter, prowlin' round in the rain.
Wearin' BVDs in the winter and prowlin' round in the rain.
Runnin' down my baby give me this pneumonia pain.

Now, when I die, bury me in a Stetson hat.
I say, when I die, bury me in a Stetson hat.
Tell my good gal I'm gone, but I'm still a-standin' pat.

Sources: southerngothicbible.com, Thomas Moon: The Verdict Of Big Joe Williams, weeniecampbell.com, BBC news, Talkin' to myself: Blues lyrics, Michael Taft, digitalcitizen.ca, federalcigarjugband.com, pancocojams.blogspot.nl, americanbluesscene.com, YouTube, Wikipedia, Hudson Motors Compagny, Archive Minneapolis, The Cruel Plains, M.H.Price a.o., truewestmagazine.com, The Austin Chronicle, Cambridge Free English Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary, TheSaurus.com, dragonjazz.com/grablue/blues_travel, Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture, Blues by Paul Breman, Blues by David Harrison, Quora.com, urbandictionary.com, Blogs.loc.gov, The Ballad Hunter by Alan Lomax, Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920th by Daphne Duval Harrison, jopiepopie.blogspot.nl, redhotjazz.com, The Blues Lyrics Formula by Michael Taft, American Ballads and Folk Songs by Alan Lomax and John Avery Lomax, The Past Is Not Dead: Essays from the  Southern Quarterly by Douglas B. Chambers, EarlyBlues.com, railroad-line.com,  Jason Lee Davis' RailFan Pages , centertruthjustice.org