In praise of poetry about alcoholics

After a quick look around, it seems there is a vacancy for a recommendation for Drunkard’s Blues as Hank Thompson’s best recording – possibly also one of the best tracks ever and certainly one of the best about drinking.

See what you think at  http://tinyurl.com/l973noy/

It starts: “Walking slow to the graveyard/ I’ve lost everything I could lose/ Now I’ve even lost my baby/ I guess I’ve got the drunkard’s blues.

“I was down at Big Joe’s barroom/ On the corner beyond the square/ Everybody drinkin’ good liquor/ The regular crowd was there.

“So I strolled out on the sidewalk/ Began to look around/ Lookin everywhere for my baby/ But that sweet woman can’t be found.

“It was down at St James infirmary/ I found my baby there/ Stretched out on a long white table/ So cold so pale so fair.

“So I strolled back down to the barroom/ To get another drink of gin/ The next thing you know I’m reeling/ Rocking and drunk again.”

I can’t think where I have heard anything else so bleakly matter-of-fact about alcoholism.

The mournful tune, superbly played and nicely suited to Thompson’s easy baritone, is St James’s Infirmary, as first made famous by Louis Armstrong in 1928 – http://tinyurl.com/36szoxm – and the general theme of comeuppance for dissolution is in Armstrong’s and a hundred other versions, apparently tracing their origins back into English and Irish folk songs.  People have spent whole blogs and books on the history of St James’s Infirmary.  Among them is a guy called Rob Walker, who lists links to some of the best jazz versions at http://tinyurl.com/cvfv86/

I haven’t heard them all but it would be hard to beat Thompson’s laconic poetry about the daytime drinking scene.  He knew a bit about it.  Thomas Cobb, who wrote the story which turned into the film Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges as a country singer eking out the last of his fame and drinking on borrowed money, told the LA Times in 2009 that he wrote it after coming across Hank Thompson, in the 1980s, playing support for Conway Twitty, in Houston, with a local backing band rustled up for him that morning.

Thompson, born Waco, Texas, in 1925, was big in his time.  He and his Brazos Valley Boys were hot competition for Bob Wills on the Texas Swing circuit in the 40s and 50s and had a Top 10 hit in 1952 with Honky Tonk Angels – the love letter to a bar girl which prompted Kitty Wells to reply that it wasn’t God who made them.  Hank didn’t write that one but he did come up with the arrangement recorded as Drunkard’s Blues on the 1959 album Songs For Rounders.

Rounder is an Americanism which crops up a lot in country music – roughly meaning hang-arounder, or barfly, as far as I can make out.

Like Bad Blake, the Jeff Bridges character in Crazy Heart, Thompson made a late comeback.  He made an album called Seven Decades in 2000 and died of lung cancer in 2007, aged 82.

And he wrote a brilliantly old-fashioned country song called Gotta Sell Them Chickens which he recorded as a duet with Junior Brown, the Jimi Hendrix of twang, and another rare baritone, for a 1997 album, Hank Thompson And Friends.  A rough video of it is on YouTube at http://tinyurl.com/759yz2w/

“Well, my pappy told me as I was sittin’ on his knee/ About the birds and the bees and such/ You can do right proud in a college crowd/ But you ain’t gonna learn that much/ Get your degree in the ABCs/ And dig out the cold hard facts/ You’ve got to sell them chickens before they die/ And the eggs before they hatch.”

By the way, if you never heard Junior Brown’s wonderfully laconic rebuff to an old girlfriend, You’re Wanted By The Police And My Wife Thinks You’re Dead, find it at http://tinyurl.com/45rohk/

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