This post on “Gambler’s Blues”/”St. James Infirmary” is the second installment on variants of the “Unfortunate Rake” ballads. The first installment was on an older, British “Rake” ballad, called “Pills of White Mercury,” in which the narrator comes across a military comrade wrapped in white linen and dying. Mercury was a common treatment for sexually transmitted infection at the time, and we learn the soldier believes he was infected by a “flash girl” or camp follower. Read the first installment here.
“Never find a man like me”
“Gambler’s Blues,” performed by The Easy Riders on their 1959 Wanderin’ Folk Songs, was my first introduction to the “Unfortunate Rake” ballads, some time in the late 70s. For me, it was what one of its musical cousins was for music writer Greil Marcus, “the first folk song I ever heard that carried the sting of death.” You may recall that I wrote earlier of the Riders’ version of “John Henry” as part of our “My First Murder Ballad” post. I didn’t understand what was going on in “Gambler’s Blues” at the time – I was about seven – but I knew that I liked it.
The Riders’ Terry Gilkyson could make a folk song pop (pun intended). As with other Riders arrangements, he foregrounds a verse as an “invented” chorus, coming in right after the opening tag line. The sentiment it expresses was something my pre-adolescent male ego could really dig:
Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be.
She may search this wide world over,
She’ll never find a man like me.
It never really made sense, though. After all, wasn’t “she” the Sweet Mama who lies there, “so pale, so cold, so fair” just a little later? Wasn’t she the one among the seven girls going to the graveyard who wasn’t coming back? How was she going to search the wide world over if she was dead?
These puzzles remained with me for decades; not exactly vexing, but never really solved. The song’s verses, especially in the Riders’ version, remained semi-connected scenes, with whatever the full story was lurking between or behind them. Discovering “Pills of White Mercury” and “Streets of Laredo” (the third “Rake” we’ll discuss) helped me unlock some small part of the mystery.
“Gambler’s Blues,” or “St. James Infirmary,” is a distinctly American amalgam, blending some British source material with blues and jazz sources and styles in the early decades of the 20th century. I’d wager that New Orleans played a significant role in its development. Folklorist Kenneth Goldstein, whose Folkways collection on the “Unfortunate Rake” ballads is a terrific resource. comments in his excellent liner notes that the first recording of the song emerged in the 1920s, and that jazz scholars believe that it probably appeared as a distinct strain of the “Rake” no earlier than 1910. Goldstein describes the “Gambler’s Blues” variant as follows:
“‘Gambler’s Blues’…, a popular Negro jazz song, has close affinities to the ‘Rake’ cycle of ballads in thematic content, and appears to have even borrowed several stanzas from the older ballad, but it tells its story uniquely. Two distinct ballads may have crossed paths in a honky-tonk nitespot [sic] early in the 20th century, resulting in a fusion of elements from both. Or, we may be dealing with a mutational version, deriving directly from some older form of the ‘Rake’ ballad, probably ‘The Bad Girl’s Lament’.”
Goldstein sees “Gambler’s Blues” at the outer limit of songs that derived from the “Rake.” On the other side of that limit are songs that merely borrowed from it. Carl Sandburg, a generation before Goldstein and Van Ronk, says about it in The American Songbag, “This may be what polite society calls a gutter song. In a foreign language, in any lingo but that of the U.S.A., it would seem less vulgar, more bizarre.”
The vestiges of the “gutter song” and the spotty storytelling make more sense when you know the song’s forebears. That is, the reference to syphilis present in the earlier, British versions gets further sublimated here into the dead lover laid out on a long white table and the fact that “Big Joe McKennedy” (or a similar name) also feels death hanging close to him. The song leaves the more unseemly details to the imagination, perhaps because those in the know would get it, and those out of the know wouldn’t. Perhaps the element that ties the song most directly back to earlier “Rake” ballads are the funeral instructions at the end of the ballad.
“Now when I die, bury me in straight lace shoes,
Box-back coat and Stetson hat.
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys [or “the Lord”] will know I’m standin’ pat.
Get six crap shooters for my pallbearers,
And a chorus girl to sing me a song.
Put a jazz band on my hearse wagon
Just to raise hell as we roll along.”
These lines present an American equivalent to the military style funeral instructions offered by the dying “rake” or “bad girl” in earlier versions of the song, in this case rendered into something more commonly associated with New Orleans funeral procession traditions. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you can watch this video of the November 2015 funeral procession for the late, great Allen Toussaint, who was also an adept interpreter of “St. James Infirmary.”)
The popularity and diversity of “Gambler’s Blues” are so great that an encyclopedic account is beyond our scope here. I’ll take you on a more personal journey, therefore, as this song is one of my oldest friends, and still reveals a surprise every now and then. I’ll wrap up with some great performances demonstrating the endurance and the versatility of this particular and very American “Rake.”