Song:St. James Infirmary (Gambler's Blues)
Album:Down In Washington Square: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
Though he never had commercial success, Dave Van Ronk was an important figure in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 60s. Bob Dylan was one of Van Ronk's disciples. He was born June 30, 1936 in Brooklyn, NY. He started out in the 50s playing traditional jazz. But then he got into the blues by listening to records by Furry Lewis and Mississippi Fred McDowell. He recorded his debut album Van Ronk Sings Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual for Folkways Records in 1959. St. James Infirmary or as it's called here Gambler's Blues is on that album. St. James Infirmary is a traditional song that dates back to 18th century England. An adaptation was made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928 and then in the 1933 Betty Boop cartoon Snow White by Cab Calloway. At the same time, it was recorded as Gambler's Blues by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra. There are other versions of St. James Infirmary with different titles but Gambler's Blues is the best known. The song was part of Van Ronk's live shows for his entire career. When artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs came to Greenwich Village in the early 60s, Van Ronk helped them get gigs. Van Ronk never became famous because he rarely strayed from acoustic folk music. He tried to form a folk rock group in the mid-60s but he didn't like it and he went back to performing solo. And he didn't drive and he hated flying so touring was a problem. This 2013 3CD box set from Smithsonian Folkways covers Van Ronk's entire career. It has Van Ronk's original recording of Gambler's Blues plus a live version from 1997. This box set was released around the time the film Inside Llewyn Davis renewed interest in the early 60s folk music scene. Van Ronk was writing his memoir when he died on Feb. 10, 2002 at age 65. That book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was published in 2005. Here's Dave Van Ronk performing St. James Infirmary at Barns at Wolf Trap 1997. That entire concert is included in this box set.