One of Dave Van Ronk’s great flagwavers — he generally called it “Gambler’s Blues” — this was my father’s favorite out of his repertoire. They were friends from the moment I had Dave over to my folks’ place and my father came out of the kitchen to ask if he liked Russian red cabbage — he did, and then they got to trading stories about their youths in Brooklyn, and talking about African and Pre-Columbian art, and the relationship developed from there. Each took great pride and pleasure in knowing the other, and when my dad died in 1996, I asked Dave to sing this at his memorial service, and also to say a few words.
Dave talked a little about their shared love of art, then got around to his initial diffidence at knowing a world-class biologist, and told how, after a year or so, he finally got up the courage to ask my dad what he’d done to earn a particular prize. He said my father looked at him very solemnly and said, “Dave, they gave me that prize for fitting lobsters with contact lenses.” Then he sang “St. James Infirmary,” in all its grand, shouting majesty. Those guys were made for each other.
As for the song and Dave’s relationship to it, I summed that up as well as I could in the notes to his final album:
Dave would sometimes tell of singing this song while sitting in with a jazz group at the Stuyvesant Casino in the early 1950s, and having Jimmy Rushing, the legendary vocalist of the Count Basie Orchestra, add a couple of verses from a seat at the bar. On his old repertoire cards, he gave his source as “Josh White/‘Unfortunate Rake’ cycle.” White’s version was the standard template for folksingers of Dave’s generation, and The Unfortunate Rake was an album compiled for Folkways by the folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein, who produced Dave’s first two solo albums. Goldstein assembled the LP as a teaching aid, showing the evolution of this ballad from a nineteenth century English broadside about a young man dying of syphilis, through a change of gender and continent into “The Bad Girl’s Lament,” a journey west to become “The Streets of Laredo,” and various other permutations, including Dave’s recording of this African-American variant. Goldstein wrote that the original St. James Hospital was “a religious foundation for the redemption of ‘fourteen sisters, maidens, that were leperous, living chastely and honestly in divine service.’” Not Dave’s kind of joint, but fortunately the folk process provided him with more congenial surroundings.
Dave’s early recordings of this song did not include the guitar break, which he told me he added in the early 1960s just to piss off Danny Kalb. Kalb, who became the lead guitarist in Dave’s Ragtime Jug Stompers and something of a rock star with the Blues Project, took guitar lessons from Dave and annoyed the hell out of him by learning all the arrangements instantly and playing them more cleanly than Dave could. In revenge, Dave said, he gave Kalb one last lesson, at the end of which, as Kalb was walking out the door, he played him this guitar break, then threw him out without showing him how it was done.
I don’t believe that story, but I enjoy it. Likewise the song, which I play more or less the way Dave taught it to me, though I make no attempt to emulate his singing.