Mardi Gras Funeral Planning

Feb 20, 2012 | 0 comments

With Mardi Gras tomorrow, the song “St. James Infirmary Blues” came to mind. The lyrics actually talk about funeral planning issues. The man who’s mourning the loss of his woman goes on to talk about his own desired send-off.

Louis Armstrong: St. James Infirmary

The song has been performed by a number of artists, perhaps most famously by Louis Armstrong. Here is one version of the lyrics, with the funeral planning part highlighted in red:

I went down to St. James Infirmary
Saw my baby there,
She was stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, so sweet, so fair.

Let her go, let her go, God bless her;
Wherever she may be
She can look this wide world over
And never find a sweeter man than me

Went up to see the doctor,
“She’s very low,” he said;
Went back to see my baby
Good God! She’s lying there dead.

I went down to old Joe’s barroom,
On the corner by the square
They were serving the drinks as usual,
And the usual crowd was there.

On my left stood old Joe McKennedy,
And his eyes were bloodshot red;
He turned to the crowd around him,
These are the words he said:

Let her go, let her go, God bless her;
Wherever she may be
She may search the wide world over
And never find a better (or sweeter) man than me

Oh, when I die, please bury me
In my ten dollar Stetson hat;
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So my friends’ll know I died standin’ pat.

Get six gamblers to carry my coffin
Six chorus girls to sing me a song
Put a twenty-piece jazz band on my tail gate
To raise Hell as we go along

Now that’s the end of my story
Let’s have another round of booze
And if anyone should ask you just tell them
I’ve got the St. James Infirmary blues.

Now there’s a man who knows what he wants in his funeral and isn’t afraid to express it. Jazz funerals in New Orleans are a wonderful tradition that recognizes the duality of laughter and tears at any life cycle event. The twin masks of comedy and tragedy at Mardi Gras carry the theme throughout this celebration.

Here’s the history of the “St. James Infirmary Blues” song, according to Wikipedia:

“St. James Infirmary Blues” is based on an 18th century traditional English folk song called “The Unfortunate Rake” (also known as “The Unfortunate Lad” or “The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime”). There are numerous versions of the song throughout the English-speaking world. It also evolved into other American standards such as “The Streets of Laredo“. “The Unfortunate Rake” is about a sailor who uses his money on prostitutes, and then dies of a venereal disease. Different versions of the song expand on this theme; variations typically feature a narrator telling the story of a youth “cut down in his prime” (occasionally “her prime”) as a result of some morally questionable actions. For example, when the song moved to America, gambling and alcohol became common causes of the youth’s death.

Here’s a lovely modern version by Hugh Laurie:

Hugh Laurie Sings the Blues - St. James Infirmary" from the NYTimes
A Good Goodbye