Folk songs, memes, and going viral
It’s been a long road down but I hope I’m finally and decisively on the way back up and I won’t be playing the pneumonia blues no more.
However I have been playing the St James Infirmary Blues and what a great song it is. You can play it quietly as a lamentation, fiercely as a howl of rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or any combination in an extended improv.
Credited as ‘traditional’, it has been taken up and reinterpreted through the generations, moving across time and space.
The song is based on an 18th century English folksong ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, which recounted the story of the untimely death of a soldier from venereal disease after frequenting too many prostitutes.
The St James Infirmary of the title is often claimed to be the St James leprosy hospital in London; however since this hospital closed in the 1530s when Henry VIII acquired the land to build St James’s Palace , this is questionable.
When the song emerges in the USA in the early 20th century, somewhere along its transatlantic journey the subject has become a young woman, and the cause of her downfall is drinking and gambling.
There are countless variations in the lyrics, and of course in the playing, but the version recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1928 begins
I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold, so bare.
It strikes me that folk songs are an early form of going viral, or of memes threading their way through different cultures.
They also provide a perfect example of content with soul – that is, content produced by people who are passionate about their mission and their audience.
(That is, if describing folk songs as content is helpful in any way.)
I have a feeling content marketing may give content a bad name. Endless stuff produced with ever decreasing effect because it is transparently marketing as opposed to a genuine and meaningful value exchange (see digitaltonto for an interesting post on this).
But if we take the richness of experience of the St James Infirmary Blues as a guide then maybe, just maybe, our content (and even our content marketing) may have the impact we hope for. And staying power.
In the meantime, play it one more time. From the top…