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June 19, 2004, 09:52
Box-back coat
Louis Armstrong's 1927 recording of St. James Infirmary mentions a 'Box-back coat'. From what I understand, a box-coat is an overcoat, but I can't find 'box-back coat' in the OED or elsewhere. Anyone know if it differs from a box-coat, or if it is a regionalism?


June 19, 2004, 10:39
I thought perhaps you'd mis-heard the lyric, and "box-back coat" was a mondegreen. But not so: the web gives the same lyric for other recordings of the song. Here's one version of the verse:Other texts on the web end the first line with "straight-leg shoes" (what are those?) or "straight lace shows".

Still no clue of what a box-back coat is, though.
June 19, 2004, 17:35
Carl Sandburg's The American Songbag, 1927, contains two versions of the song "Those Gambler's Blues", which, apparently, is a version of "St. James Infirmary". One version carries the line:

"O, when I die, just bury me in a box-back coat and hat ..."

I couldn't find a definition for "box-back coat", but "The Jug Band Dictionary" says a "box-back suit" was a style of men's suit that was already dated by 1930.

Ken Burns, in Jazz: A History of America's Music recounts the the early days of jazz in Chicago. Louis Armstrong had been making $1.50 an evening in New Orleans in 1922. He took a train to Chicago, where he expected to make $52.50 a week plus an equivalent amount in tips. He had second thoughts when he got there.

From Jazz: A History of America's Music :

Louis Armstrong had never been so far from home before. And when he stepped down at Chicago's 12th Street Station and bandleader Joe "King" Oliver, Armstrong's friend and mentor, was not there to meet him, he asked himself if he had made a mistake leaving New Orleans: "I saw a million people, but not Mister Joe, and I didn't give a damn who else was there. I never seen a city that big. All those tall buildings, I thought they were universities. I said, no, this is the wrong city. I was just fixing to go back home — standing there in my box-back suit, padded shoulders, wide-legged pants — when a redcap Joe left word with came up to me."

The OED Online defines "box-back" as "designating a coat or jacket of which the back has a squared, box-like appearance" and cites this quote:

1946 R. BLESH Shining Trumpets (1949) viii. 196 In their tight ‘*box-back’ coats, the players blasted away.

Box-pleat is in several dictionaries, including the OED Online, which defines it as "a double pleat or fold in cloth". Several online retailers offer clothing with box-back pleats, but I couldn't find that term in any dictionary.


This message has been edited. Last edited by: tinman,
June 19, 2004, 21:12
Great question, neveu....and welcome to our site! Smile Big Grin Wink Cool

I can't give you a clue as to what it means, but I intend to ask my logophile friend who knows a lot about words, especially older uses of words.
July 05, 2004, 10:16
From some reasearch, I can add a bit to the question of 'box-back coat'[i] as used in the song [i]St. James Infirmary Blues.

First, the song likely came out of New Orleans. That city did indeed have a St. James Infirmary for many years. So did a few other cities (San Francisco), but when you further note that New Orleans was the blues center, and a mecca for many of the musicians who recorded that song, it's hard to believe that the song came from any of those other cities.
. . . .Given that, it's unlikely that the song's 'box-back coat' meant an overcoat. Overcoats would not be a feature of dress in the warm, muggy climate of New Orleans. Indeed, its hard to imagine them as a corpse's burial attire anywhere.

So what did the song-lyrics mean by 'box-back coat'?

Mencken lists 'box-back' as slang, within the prostitution trade, for pimp. So box-back coat could reasonably mean "a fancy, showy coat like a pimp would wear" (compare pimpmobile). That meaning would fit well with the song, particularly if (as it seems) the lyric is talking about other sorts of fancy dress as well.

One problem with this speculation: 'box-back' slang for 'pimp' in New Orleans, at that time, or only elsewhere or at some other time? The Mencken I cite is the updated/abridged 1963 edition. It doesn't indicate where, or when, that slang term was in use.
July 06, 2004, 09:35
Wow. Very interesting box-backRazzimp connection. This makes sense in the context of the song.

My question arose out of a web article by Rob Walker (http://robwalker.net/html_docs/letterthirteen.html) about St. James Infirmary. In it he writes:

I was reading through a book called Storyville, New Orleans, by Al Rose, in particular a passage about the corner of Bienville and Marais streets. (This corner no longer exists; there's a housing project where Storyville used to be.) Jelly Roll Morton hung out at one of the bars on that corner, and across the street stood St. James Methodist Church. "According to a common legend," Rose writes, "the church offered first-aid services and modest hospital facilities and thus became the inspiration for the widely performed St. James Infirmary Blues."


But no. The next line: "Unfortunately, this colorful and imaginative legend is not true; indeed, the song has no connection with New Orleans whatever." After this crushing sentence, Rose moves on to his next topic, without a footnote or a backward glance. . But I now have a pretty good idea what he meant, because this particular story really begins, at the very latest, in 1790.

* * *

"St. James Infirmary," it turns out, is an offshoot of an extraordinary song cycle that is the subject of a 1960 Folkways Records release called The Unfortunate Rake: A Study In The Evolution of A Ballad, containing 20 songs and extensive notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein. I have, needless to say, purchased this item. Goldstein writes that the oldest published text from the "Rake" cycle was "collected" in 1848 in County Cork, Ireland, "from a singer who had learned it in Dublin in 1790." The song may have been "in tradition" for years prior to that, but it's obviously impossible to say. (He also says St. James Hospital was in London, and treated lepers.)

The disc includes one recording based on lyrics printed on a 19th century broadside. The singer recounts "a-walking down by St. James Hospital" one day and running into a friend, who was "wrapped up in flannel," despite the warm weather. The friend blames his troubles on "a handsome young woman." It seems that he knew this woman rather well, but there was something she didn't tell him, and if only she had, "I might have got the pills and salts of white mercury." This refers to treatment for venereal disease. "Now I'm cut down in the height of my prime," the unfortunate rake explains, proceeding to make requests relating to his funeral ("Get six your soldiers to carry my coffin, six young girls to sing me a song…")

The next several tunes on the disc are variations on this story, with the lyrics rearranged in various ways. One difference is that most are explicit that the young man is a soldier or sailor, and none are any where near so explicit about what exactly his problem is. In fact they're all extremely vague — it's just a young man who is "cut down in his prime" for reasons that' aren't clear. Sometimes, as in "Bad Girl's Lament," the ballad is about the woman, but basically follows the same pattern (an early mention of St. James' Hospital, a closing request for "Six pretty maidens with a bunch of red roses, Six pretty maidens to sing me a song…"). You won't find many of the same words that make up the most typically played version of "St. James Infirmary" today, but this at least is a back story that makes some of the latter's sentiments perfectly logical: The singer makes a jealousy-tinged boast and turns quickly to thoughts of his own death because his "baby" just died of VD. Dig?


If box-back means 'pimp' it fits perfectly in this context.

My original question was did Louis Armstrong improvised this part of the song, or was it a version he picked up? Locating 'box-back' in space and time (along with other obvious things like 'gold piece' 'stetson hat') lead me to conclude these were Armstrong's lyrics.

I believe Armstrong's recorded version was done after he had left New Orleans and had lived in Chicago and New York. He may have picked up slang in either of those cities as well.
July 07, 2004, 22:35
Originally posted by neveu:

[QUOTE] "St. James Infirmary," it turns out, is an offshoot of an extraordinary song cycle that is the subject of a 1960 Folkways Records release called The Unfortunate Rake: A Study In The Evolution of A Ballad, containing 20 songs and extensive notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein.

From IGS Guitar Forum (scroll down to "Adrian Freed posted July 17, 2002 09:10 AM"):

The record Jerry mentions is The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad (Notes by Kenneth Goldstein) (Folkways FA 2305, 1960) [LP], which includes:

1. The Unfortunate Rake (Sung by A.L. Lloyd)
2. The Trooper Cut Down in His Prime (Sung by Ewan MscColl)
3. The Young Sailor Cut Down in His Prime (Sung by Harry Cox)
4. Noo I'm a Young Man Cut Down in My Prime (Sung by Willie Mathieson)
5. The Bad Girl's Lament (Sung by Wade Hemsworth)
6. One Morning in May (Sung by Hally Wood)
7. Bright Summer Morning (Sing by Mrs. Viola Penn)
8. The Girl in the Dilger Case (Sung by D.K. Wilgus)
9. The Cowboy's Lament (Sung by Bruce Buckley)
10. The Streets of Laredo (Sung by Harry Jackson)

1. St. James Hospital (Sung by Alan Lomax)
2. Gambler's Blues (Sung by Dave Van Ronk)
3. I Once Was a Carman in the Big Mountain Con (Sung by Guthrie Meade)
4. The Lineman's Hymn (Sung by Rosalie Sorrels)
5. The Wild Lumberjack (Sung by Kenneth S. Goldstein)
6. A Sun Valley Song (Sung by Jan Brunvand)
7. The Ballad of Bloody Thursday (Sung by John Greenway)
8. The Streets of Hamtramck (Sung by Bill Friedland)
9. The Ballad of Sherman Wu (Sung by Pete Seeger)
10. The Professor's Lament (Sung by Roger Abrahams)

This was copied from The The Mudcat Cafe:
Subject: RE: History of Saint James Infirmary Blues?
From: masato sakurai
Date: 10 Apr 02 - 06:22 AM

Both of these sites seem pretty interesting. I'm sure you can while away hours there.

I just found out you can find the words to some of these songs at the Digital Tradition .


This message has been edited. Last edited by: tinman,
July 07, 2004, 23:06
Neveu, we've got a working hypothesis on your question, but no definitive answer.

You question is a perfect one for the people at the American Dialect Society. (They publish the Dictionary of American Regional English [D.A.R.E.] but since it runs something like $90 per volume, it's not in my personal library to check 'box-back coat'.) I'd contact them, but you're the one who thought up the question, so you should get credit for contacting them and bringing it to their attention.
July 27, 2004, 20:53
Our friend who visited us from England sent me yet another link to the St, James Infirmary song.
September 16, 2009, 19:13
My edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, under "Box" lists "box-back a., designating a coat or jacket of which the back has a squared, box-like appearance."

The other nouns, "straight lace shoes," "Stetson hat" and "20 dollar gold piece" all point to a man who has pride in his appearance and in this finery, is a cut above average.

Thus, this box-back coat was something a little out of the ordinary that served as a status symbol.
December 08, 2009, 04:49
straight laced shoes
Buck´s Black Coat...

...Black Buck

Know the Black Buck
Kala Hiran also called Indian Black Buck Antelope (Antelope cervicapra L.) is an exclusively Indian animal, which is perhaps the most graceful and beautiful of its kind. The Black Buck has four sub species, they are - Antelope cervicapra cervicapra, Antelope cervicapra rajputanae, Antelope cervicapra centralis, Antelope cervicapra rupicapra.
December 11, 2009, 21:28
raginald, welcome to Wordcraft! It sounds like you might be a biologist?
December 13, 2009, 14:40
Wow - see what I miss when I've been gone? Jazz and fashion and New Orleans? Awesome!

I love the long history of the song - very cool research. I don't really have anything to add to the convo, but I want to thank you for sharing it all.

"Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.
~Dalai Lama
December 14, 2009, 20:15
And we've missed you, CW. Glad to see you posting again. I have a feeling you'll be glad to toast goodbye to 2009!