The Phono Project

Exploring the history of the groove

“St. James Infirmary” by Cab Calloway

It is generally unclear where “St James Infirmary” originated. It is widely thought that it may have come from an old English folk song, entitled “The Unfortunate Rake”. After passing over the Atlantic, the song was adapted by prominent blues singers in America. It was first made popular by famous jazz trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong in 1928. After that, it was picked up by a few more artists, but many traits of the song remained the same.

This version, performed by Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, was originally created for the 1933 Betty Boop cartoon Snow White, but quickly became one of the more famous renditions of the song. The dark nature of blue songs like this were heavily sought after for cartoons in the 30’s because of their often twisted and strange nature.

The lyrics themselves contain many terms of the time, including references to fashion and burial tactics. A “Stetson hat” is a men’s wide-brimmed hat popular in the early 1900’s, and a “twenty dollar gold piece” refers to a fob or attachment of high quality for pocket watches. These images combine to date the song in an almost historic way, indicating to modern listeners that this was indeed a tale that has long since past.

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