“I Went Down to St. James Infirmary” is the quintessential jazz-blues song of the early twentieth century.
Many major performing and recording artists have covered it, from Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Rodgers to Van Morrison and the White Stripes.
Infused with ego-driven angst and once considered obscene because of the song's stark depiction of death and the portrayal of a seedy underworld inhabited by gamblers, pimps, loose women, and every sort of rounder, it has been adapted, rewritten, borrowed, stolen, attacked, revered, and cherished. In its heyday of the 1920s and ‘30s, when recordings and sheet music of St. James Infirmary were first packaged and marketed, the public could not get enough of it. Nearly a hundred years later, its allure remains.
Author Robert W. Harwood follows the song as it travels from its folk origins into the recording studios, performance stages, and law courts of America's jazz era. Along the way he picks up a retinue of fascinating characters whose stories are as fascinating as the song itself. Infused with humor and supported by meticulous research, this groundbreaking book explores the turbulent and mysterious history of one of the most important and influential songs of the twentieth century.