1001 Songs Challenge,  1910s-1920s,  Music

1001 Songs Challenge #6: St. James Infirmary Blues (1929)

On 11 February 2019 I set myself the challenge of reading 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die by Robert Dimery (ed.) and following the book’s advice to the letter. I’ve previously read 1001 Films… and started 1001 Albums… but felt 1001 Songs… would be a sensible place to start for what I have in mind here.

My challenge is to read about one song per day and listen to it (YouTube and Spotify, I need you tonight!) before sharing my own thoughts. Some songs I will love, others I’ll hate, and I’m sure there will be those that leave me perplexed but listen to them I shall.

I’ll also try, and most likely fail, to pinpoint the best song from the 1001 on offer but I’m nothing if not foolhardy. Instead of one song, I’m predicting I’ll have about 100 favourites by the end and may have to resort to a Top 10 so far to maintain any semblance of sanity.

So long as I post every day (including Christmas) then this challenge should come to an end on Wednesday 8 November 2021. Staying with the Barney Stinson theme I am hoping that the whole experience will prove to be… legendary!


Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five – St. James Infirmary Blues (1929)

St. James Infirmary Blues

” St. James Infirmary Blues” is an American blues song of uncertain origin. Louis Armstrong made the song famous in his 1928 recording on which Don Redman was credited as composer; later releases gave the name Joe Primrose, a pseudonym of Irving Mills.

Lyrics (via Genius)


From New Zealand we head back to the US to take in some early jazz from one of the genre’s pioneers, Louis Armstrong. A gifted player of the trumpet, Armstrong was also a great singer and this is one of his earliest efforts.

The origins of St. James Infirmary Blues is a maelstrom with the song seeming to be originally set in the UK and concerning an unfortunate sailor who has spent a lot of money on prostitutes and ended up dying in a hospital from venereal disease. Speculation remains about who wrote the song and my head was hurting trying to unravel the mystery as I read online. By the time Louis Armstrong recorded it, the song had undergone many changes. Armstrong sings of visiting his lover in the hospital and finding her near lifeless. He is somewhat contradictory, wanting her to go but then switches to mentioning how she’ll never meet anyone as good as him. He even chuckles at times. Very strange. 

The vocals are in the middle of the song with the music, including Armstrong’s trumpet solos, at its most prominent as it sandwiches the words. The music here seems to emit a variety of emotions. I did find myself smiling as I listened, I was feeling upbeat, but then my mood soon became sombre as I took in Armstrong’s words, that gravelly voice and those closing notes from the trumpet. I was looking forward to dabbling in some jazz going through these 1001 songs and felt this was a great introduction to what is a vast genre.


Favourite song so far:

Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five – St. James Infirmary Blues (1929)

My name is Dave and I live in Yorkshire in the north of England and have been here all my life. I hope you enjoy your visit to All is Ephemeral.

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