A basic wikipedia search will tell you the song is essentially an American tune that's derived from a British one and has been covered A LOT. The importance of St. James Infirmary Blues arguably lies in it being a prime example of how the folk tradition brought a harder edge into blues music. Many of you would know how Son House lived a life of conflict as a result of being torn between the blues and the lord yet to a modern, somewhat desensitised, audience this often comes across as a bit odd. A lot of blues music was derived from spiritual songs and even it's edgy pain is derived from the toil of an honest days work, not exactly hedonistic or unchristian. The modern cultural image of the blues often centres around hollering in a cotton field but this unfairly ignores the run down and unsavoury juke joints where the genre really flourished. St. James Infirmary Blues has to be Exhibit A for this area of the blues. It's a hedonist's anthem... or eulogy depending on how you look at it. The Bristish original was concerned with deadly venereal diseases brought to the singer by various prostitutes and once it moved to America the story got a good dose of gambling and drinking to spice it up. (There is in fact a St. James Infirmary/Hotel in America contrary to popular belief that it was simply an imported term from a medieval English hospital but this only becomes really important when viewing Bob Dylan's quasi-adaption Blind Willie McTell). The song is all high drama, an epic ballad that stands tall with the likes of Black Jack Davey... except it's about drinking and sex. This contradiction is in many ways the essence of the blues. The invasion of a harsh modernity into an age old tradition is arguably what gives the song it's lasting affect and makes it a must-cover for any self-respecting blues fan.
I'll pull three examples to explore the different ways you can go with this song. If you have a look at Josh White's version you can see how it can be rendered as a mournful lament about a wasted life. Considering White would become friends with the president it's not that surprising how his recording (I cannot tell you which year the version I'm listening to is as he recorded the song on a number of occasions) comes across a lot more moralistic and sanitary on behalf of the singer. For one thing White frames the story through the bloodshot eyes of companion Joe McKennedy who is clearly damaged by the lifestyle he's been living and even when carving out the life of this companion he is vague on the detail, leaving much to the listeners imagination. But the singing is ghostly and sad, there is nothing to celebrate about the damage done here and when McKennedy orders another round of booze it pretty much sounds like he's writing his suicide note.
White a bit too nice for you? Try Blind Willie McTell's 'fuck you' of an adaption Dyin' Crapshooter Blues. While there isn't a baby on a table the narrator instead tells the story of gambler Jesse who calls a gang of crapshooters to his deathbed (he was shot by the cops of course) to organise his incredibly elaborate funeral process which essentially is designed to be one big middle figure to anyone who questioned the way he lived. He did it his way and he wants you to remember. Why the lack of any St. James Infirmary Blues? Because Jesse ain't got no regrets to turn into the blues, considering he is bizarrely described as being 'good hearted' but '[having] no soul'(?!) by McTell. When you couple these lyrics with McTell's incredibly unpredictable and wild method of playing you have a recipe for a seriously rebellious piece of music that makes punk look incredibly tame. The moral? There is no moral.
And then there's good old Cab Calloway who doesn't really care who's right or who's wrong as long as there's a good story to tell. In fact the story might not even be noticeable as you're distracted by his funky dancing. The protagonist of this story is probably sharing a grave somewhere with Minnie The Moocher. Calloway plays his story purely for drama and lays it on incredibly thick. If White (Josh not Jack) is the mourner and McTell the rebel then Calloway is the supreme raconteur and through these three interpretations of a single story we get a somehow complete picture of the blues (to a certain extent) even though Calloway is technically of the big band genre. The storytelling, the pain and the defiance. Good things do come in threes, don't they?
So when The White Stripes', raised on the blues in it's many forms, turn to cover the song came up how did they approach it. Well they kind of went for all three in a certain sense. One can only subjectively describe the type of emotions that their version conjures but I think that what they came across, both in the studio and live, was a nice middle ground. Jack's approach to the genre is a solution to the white-boy-blues problem, that pain invented for a song can be just as authentic as pain experienced. In this sense he has already been forced to approach the song from the storyteller angle yet his talent lies in his ability to completely immerse himself in the fiction of his songs to create a performance of intense involvement and honesty. He is the method actor of music in a way. So to a certain extent his rendition of the song is one of observation and narration but at the same time he places himself in the centre of the story experiencing all the relevant emotions. The minor key honky-tonk stomp on the album is somewhat resigned and regretful but at the same time a pang of defiance lays in the track. Compared to many of the more earth-shattering screams that pepper the album these vocals are relatively restrained but when the occasional rise in voice does occur you can here McTell's rebellion seep through. And the ante is raised even more during live performances when the album's arrangement is ditched for a stuttering and rythm-less screamathon where there's no particular slant brought. It's just pure emotion, Jack hollering the blues with the song telling him how he feels, not the other way around. In this way it's pure.
The White Stripes played St. James Infirmary Blues at their first ever concert and it continued to be played (sometimes with McTell's lyrics included) into their final tour in many different guises. Even if their version may not rank as one of the great performances of the song (and it probably doesn't) this was still something that the band needed to do. To take an age-old song and make it believable with Jack's ability to believe every word he sings is in many way's the essence of The White Stripes. It's the blues: a story, a eulogy and a rebellion. And this is the red, white and black version that had to be.