If you’ve travelled to a European blues event in the last while, and if you spent any time at the bar, you’ll likely know Dan ‘Edgy’ Edgecombe.
You will have no doubt admired his luxuriant moustache and most excellent tattoo collection (along with his admirable capacity for good whiskey and rum).
What you might not know is that his most recent tattoo is of a St James cross, in honour of his favourite song.
Me: Dan, can I ask you about your obsession with St James Infirmary. I’m curious to hear all about it!
Dan: It started out not as an obsession. I loved that song and I didn’t know why. One day I realised I had many versions. My music collection was peppered throughout. I had versions that everyone played all the time and I also had versions nobody else played.
“My obsession started when I decided to look up the history of it.”
When I looked it up to find out the history of it, I found out that no-one really knows the true origin of the song.
What we do know is that ‘The Rake Song’ and ‘The Gambler’s Blues’ were two of the precursors to it.
I, like everyone else, thought St James Infirmary was about a dead girl and her lover who was sad that she was dead.
What it’s really about is an arrogant guy who is singing about how lucky his girl was to have him before he goes on to talk about his own life and his wishes for his own funeral.
“It’s all about what he wants. It’s not about her.”
Me: Why do you think everyone loves it so much?
Dan: It’s really solid. It’s a really good song. It’s easy to dance to. We love it because there are so many different versions but fundamentally there are only two.
Sometimes the story is told in the first person: the perspective of a guy who is singing about losing his girlfriend. Otherwise it is told in the third person: from our perspective when we are sitting at the bar listening to the guy who lost his girlfriend.
There are some variations in the verse about the funeral. The number of pall-bearers, the horses leading to the burial, each version will add/remove its own pieces. That’s why it isn’t always the same.
Another line that is sometimes there, and sometimes not:
“There are 13 men going to the graveyard and only twelve are ever comin’ back.”
I like that line.
The White Stripes recorded a version and introduced an entirely new verse of their own. That one was the first new verse to be added that I can find.
Every version of the song is different and yet it is somehow the same. I always ask myself, “What will I discover in this version?”
Me: Tell me about that a-m-a-z-i-n-g version by the Australian band that I’ve heard you play!
Dan: The Graveyard Train from Melbourne play their own ‘horror themed’ country music. They are a kind of niche band.
I once had the chance to hear them play for Triple R in Melbourne. It was a live radio recording and I was excited to go and hear them as they are a great live band.
Their opening track was St James Infirmary. I was unaware that it was in their repertoire, it was mind-blowing, to this day it is still my favourite version in my collection.
Because they’d recorded for the radio, I was told that I’d be able to download it. I spent the whole of Monday refreshing my browser until they uploaded the stream. I then spent the rest of the evening splitting it into separate tracks.
“If there was just one version I could listen to, that would be the one. I listen to it over and over.”
If you hear me playing it, near the beginning, if you listen really carefully, you might hear a strange squeak. (That’s me realising what was about to happen.)
Recently I exchanged versions with another DJ who had around 60 versions of the song. I had around 100. While we expected there to be mostly duplicates, we actually found that there were only a couple of duplicates (the most played versions).
Here are four versions that I particularly like (as a Spotify playlist.)
I discovered just this morning that I have a 28 minute version. It’s a radio play of the song. I’m going to listen to that later.
Dan, thank you for sharing your passion for St James Infirmary.
We all love it.
I love that you have more versions of it than anyone else.
Thank you also for the rum recommendation at Fair City Blues in Dublin. (Next time we get to hang out, the rum’s on me.)