Archive for St James Infirmary

Keys, Blues, a House, and an Infirmary

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on November 7, 2021 by telescoper
Scott’s Corner

I’m not finding very much time these days to continue trying to teach myself how to play the piano but I thought I’d share a quick post that probably only demonstrates how little I know about music.

The other day I decided to try to play The House of the Rising Sun without the music, i.e. by ear. Knowing that it is basically an 8-bar blues for which I thought I could easily figure out the chords I looked up what key it should be played in. Google confidently told me this:

So I set about trying to pick out the melody in that key, but I couldn’t get it to sound right at all (even allowing for the fact that my piano is a bit out of tune). Then I realized that it’s not really in F Major at all. It’s actually in D Minor (the relative minor of F Major, so it also has the same B flat but with a scale that starts on A rather than F). Transposing the chords into D Minor makes it sound much more moody. It can also be played in A Minor as demonstrated by the Modern Jazz Quartet whose Blues in A Minor is unmistakably the same tune:

Anyway, fooling around with 8 bar blues in different keys I tried F Minor and it struck me that there was a marked similarity between House of the Rising Sun and another famous 8-bar blues St James Infirmary. In fact you can sing the lyrics to St James Infirmary quite easily to the tune of House of the Rising Sun.

Both of these tunes have very old origins: Jack Teagarden, for example, introduced his classic 1947 live performance of St James Infirmary with the words “the oldest blues I ever heard”. I always assumed both these tunes referred to real places, but that seems wrong too. There was no “House in New Orleans” they called the Rising Sun, nor was there a St James Infirmary. They are not the same song, and neither started off as an 8-bar blues, but they do have elements in common and may be derived from a common ancestor.

The most famous version of The House of the Rising Sun is the 1964 hit by Eric Burdon with the Animals (including Alan Price on keyboards, who did the arrangement):

Interestingly, Eric Burdon and the Animals made a much less famous version of St James Infirmary in 1968 which I think demonstrates the similarity between the two tunes: