In a tense moment at the end of Annie Dillard’s memoir “Encounters with Chinese Writers” (1984), nothing less than the honor of American popular music hangs in the balance. “American songs have no feeling, no depth,” a visiting Chinese novelist complains to Dillard and a colleague. “They are too bouncy — not subtle.” Rising to the occasion, Dillard and her colleague break into an a cappella version of “St. James Infirmary.”
“That’s better,” the visitor responds.
Like Dillard and her colleague, I assumed “St. James Infirmary” was all-American, based on a real institution that treated patients in New Orleans. After all, isn’t the 1928 recording of the tune by Crescent City native Louis Armstrong the definitive one? Wrong town — even wrong country — argues jazz and blues scholar Ted Gioia in his richly informative new book, “The Jazz Standards.”
“According to the most common current interpretation of this song’s meaning,” he writes, “St. James Infirmary” originated as an English ballad about St. James Hospital in London. Despite “the peculiarity, at least within the American popular music tradition, of a love song delivered to a corpse,” the non-bouncy “St. James Infirmary” has become what Gioia calls “a well-traveled cultural meme.” In 1975, it even memed its way to 30 Rockefeller Center, where Lily Tomlin sang it on “Saturday Night Live” “while seated atop the piano with the band dressed as nurses.”
Gioia delivers this kind of in-depth notation (and correction of the record) again and again. Calling them “the soundtrack of my own life,” he takes the reader through hundreds of songs, rounding out each entry (they appear in alphabetical order by title) with a list of his recommended versions. His main criterion for selection is “significance in the jazz repertoire of the current era,” and though I missed a few favorites (“Fever,” for example, recorded by Little Willie John, Peggy Lee and Beyonce, among others), it’s hard to quarrel with Gioia’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of what’s still hot and what’s not.
Among his choices are “All of Me,” by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons, and “All of You,” by Cole Porter. The latter song becomes a springboard for a discussion of censorship. Porter, of course, packed an incomparably witty series of double entendres into his song “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” (another omission from the book; for my money, nobody sang it better than Ella Fitzgerald). Although less well-known, “All of You” stretched the limits of the allowable, too. As Gioia reports, the Motion Picture Association of America “found the references to making a ‘tour of you’ with a rest stop at the ‘south of you’ potentially offensive to American sensibilities.” In the end, the censors relented, and Fred Astaire sang the song as written in the movie “Silk Stockings” (1957).
Gioia is normally indefatigable in tracking a song as it ramifies from its origins (most often, Tin Pan Alley or Broadway) to various media, but occasionally he misses a turn. He devotes an entry to “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields — and deservedly so. But in a discussion that runs to almost two pages, he says not a word about the song’s prominence in “Bringing up Baby” (1938), the great screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, directed by Howard Hawks. Not only does the song mollify Baby, a leopard that has clawed its way into the plot, but the two stars’ duet is far from shabby.
More often, though, Gioia examines a song from every angle. In discussing McHugh and Fields’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” he notes that some commentators have “conjectured that the ‘sunny side’ of this song refers to African Americans who passed as white.” Gioia thinks not, and surely he is right: The song seems too carefree to bear such a fraught interpretation. To paraphrase the African American comedian Flip Wilson, sometimes it’s as simple as this: What you hear is what you get.
Gioia closes, fittingly, with one last Cole Porter entry: “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” “The Jazz Standards” itself is awfully nice to dip into.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World. His new book, “The Great American Railroad War,” will be published at the end of the month.