Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Book Review from Malcolm Shaw

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary just received the following review from the magazine VJM, otherwise known as Vintage Jazz Mart. The reviewer, Malcolm Shaw, has long been intensely involved with jazz history; among many other accomplishments he was editor of Brian Rust's legendary compendium Jazz and Ragtime Records (1897-1942). (Incidentally, I used those Rust volumes extensively during my research into the "St. James Infirmary" song - and so it was incredibly rewarding for me to read Shaw's review.)

I was touched by some of Malcolm's comments:  "Bob Harwood is a rara avis. That this Irish-Canadian finds within him the inspired doggedness to try and unravel this massive ball of tangled yarn not just once, but now for the third time in a decade and a half ... is an enigma in itself. He does it in amazing detail ... This work is unique, so if you don’t have it, get it."

Here is that review:

By Robert W. Harwood
Harland Press, 1426 Newport Avenue, #306, Victoria, BC V8S 5E9, Canada
Softbound, 255pp., illustrated, US$29.50 incl. shipping

The creative process, that apparently aleatory, yet in hindsight demonstrably logical path by which works of art and entertainment evolve into new and different forms, is in itself as fascinating as the study of the works themselves.
Bob Harwood uses St. James Infirmary as a case study in musical genealogy. Works of art, he says, don’t come into being as unique flashes of inspiration. They are influenced by what went before, and this particular song blends elements from several antecedents. Forms of artistic expression, he says, (in this case tunes and lyrics) bump into each other across genres and cultural boundaries and lead to fresh, rather than new, creations. In opening the book, Bob quotes Jack Teagarden’s 1941 performance of the tune with the Armstrong All-Stars, where Tea calls it “the oldest blues song I know.” His reaction, to quote part of the book’s subtitle, is: “where did this dang song come from, anyway?” And thus begins the journey.
The book is about a musical enigma, but it could equally well be about any work of art in human history. Every creation is inspired by or bases itself on earlier works, says Harwood. The tune comes from … somewhere, but just where? It pops up in several differing forms, a series of tunes and airs in different eras and venues that bump into one another over time, culminating in one particular rendering’s emergence as an immense hit at the end of the 1920s. The song’s supposed antecedents go back before the turn of the century and in some cases, over the ocean; a cluster of concurrent hand-me-downs; selectively contorted and adapted to a greater or lesser extent by whomever was the performer, sometimes under similar and sometimes totally different titles. There are the supposed ancestors and congeners: The Unfortunate Rake; Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues; Gambler’s Blues; some with musical “branches” that reach out even to the western states where I now live, like Streets of Laredo. Which raises the question: did Billy the Kid know and hum some forebear of St. James Infirmary a hundred and twenty years ago, a few miles from where I sit? Go on, tell me I’m weird.
Although clearly “traditional” and part of the public domain, the version of the song we all know is then legally registered, claimed and defended as the creation of one Irving Mills, under the name of Joe Primrose. Even at the time of the claim, it was obvious that Mills’ claim to have written the tune was as valid as Ferd Morton’s to have created jazz. It was well known in the music world of the day that there were other, earlier versions even within that decade, several of them on record, some attributed to different authors or different sources; some with similar words, others with similar melodies; each version, it seems, spawning the next. Harwood meticulously follows each thread of supposed origin; supports some of them and debunks others.
A handful of names we all know pop up as principal players in the story: Don Redman, Blind Willie McTell, Fess Williams. There are many others, less familiar to jazz and blues enthusiasts, whose fingerprints are also all over the story. Incongruously, even Bob Dylan enters the story late in Act V. It’s a fascinating tale.
Bob Harwood is a rara avis. That this Irish-Canadian finds within him the inspired doggedness to try and unravel this massive ball of tangled yarn not just once, but now for the third time in a decade and a half (the first was Harwood’s A Rake’s Progress, in 2002; then this book’s first edition, six years later) is an enigma in itself. He does it in amazing detail, following each trail to a conclusion or… in some cases, to none. I won’t tread on Mark’s very fine review of the 1st Edition in 2008’s Winter issue, because the substance of the work is the same; but rather point out what the changes and differences are between editions. First, this one is longer, because it has new stuff about some of the actors in the drama. And there is an index, where previously there wasn’t. There is closer documentation of the origins of the different lyrical strains in the song, especially the “Let her go, let her go…” verse. The text of each chapter has been entirely rewritten, end-to-end, for clarity (did I say Harwood was dogged?) And in particular, the relationship of the song to The Unfortunate Rake, stated by some to be the indisputable root source of the ditty, is reevaluated and found to be no more solid in that category than anyone else’s theory of the song’s origin.
There is also a discussion in depth about Mills’ assertion and defence of his claim to copyright on the work, or whether the material he claimed to be his was even copyrightable, since it came from the public domain. Then there’s the question of copyright in general and its societal value. As one who has seen my own work and that of colleagues similarly snaffled and locked up for an eon or two, I also have a dog in that particular fight. As clearly occlusive and reprehensible as it may seem, the “grab it and go” practice became common with musical compositions, as Tin Pan Alley grew and the music business became immensely lucrative. Certainly, Consolidated Music Publishing, the owner/operator of Chicago’s OKeh brand, routinely paid black composer-performers including Louis Armstrong $25 per selection for both the recorded performance and the publishing rights to the song. Louis spent the fee in a week, but the royalties went on for decades, and they didn’t go to him. Harwood makes a cogent argument that, since all artistic creation builds on the precedent body of work, the copyright process stops the creative and innovative process cold. As it was for Mills then, or for whomsoever today, it’s not about ethics or truth; it’s a question of who gets to the copyright office first.
The book is one of a kind. Bob Harwood states that this is the end of the story, as far as he has it in him to tell it. This work is unique, so if you don’t have it, get it.
     Malcolm Shaw, Vintage Jazz Mart Review, Summer 2016

Friday, April 29, 2016

SJI as inspiration for a major 21st century play

"Exhilirating ...  ingenious, impossible to resist!" (San Francisco Chronicle)

"A high energy hallucination ... one of the best musical productions I've ever seen at American Conservatory Theater!" (SF Weekly)

These are just two of many enthusiastic reviews of the musical drama, The Unfortunates. A surrealistic tale of gambling, war, inner (and outer) conflict, disease (inner and outer), the play emerges as a startling metaphor for the strangeness of 21st century life, and the historical flow of events that led us here.

The play's title is derived from the old British song, "The Unfortunate Rake," which - according to popular myth - traveled the ocean and eventually transformed into "St. James Infirmary." I am convinced that the connection between the two songs is more tenuous than has been generally assumed, and that SJI was more firmly rooted in American bedrock. But songs do travel strange paths. They influence each other. They immigrate and emigrate and evolve, the song of today standing squarely on the shoulders of its predecessors. And so SJI serves as a suitable metaphor. Big Joe ("In the corner stood Big Joe McKinney...") is the main character, although it is a strong ensemble production.

You can find a comprehensive overview here (as a pdf): "Insight into the play, the playwrights, and the production" of The Unfortunates.

Below, you can watch four of the five creators of The Unfortunates discuss their play, including its intimate connection to the historical movement of song, and the centrality of "St. James Infirmary" to the genesis and shape of the production.

(Double-click on these videos to see them in their proper dimensions.)

"Bold and bizarre ... diverse and electrifying!" (
"Richly imagined, slightly surreal ... a high octane mashup of music and modern-day myth." (San Francisco Examiner)
"Red-hot! Gospel, hip-hop and blues light this funky steampunk fantasy ... electrifies from start to finish." (Bay Area News Group)

Here is a trailer for an early version of the play, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (like Bob Dylan, they change things as they go along):

"A wonderfully demented antiwar parable steeped in Louis Armstrong's classic 'St. James Infirmary,' this is a surreal 90-minute frolic from the cabaret to the gallows and back. ... The healing power of music is a blessing for us as well as The Unfortunates." (The Mercury News)

"St. James Infirmary" continues to inspire, over a century later.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


On April 6th, 2016, Marjorie Moore is 100 years young! Through much of her life Margie was intimately involved with the big band scene during the jazz and the dance era, and then with the country music scene after World War II. The Moore name was attached, as co-author, to the first recording of "St. James Infirmary" (aka "Gambler's Blues") in 1928.

Marjorie and I have enjoyed several telephone conversations over the years. We have exchanged letters. She was most helpful when I was deeply into researching the first edition of "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary." There cannot be a more warm, welcoming, and dynamic woman.

Interested readers can find out more about Margie by searching her name on this blog.

For now, I simply wish to extend my thanks and admiration to Marjorie Moore on her one hundredth birthday. Congratulations. You have all my love and all my respect.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Looking for a new topic to research. Maybe Charley Case???

Since the publication of the second (and final) edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, I have been searching for another topic to write about. Perhaps Charley Case?

Case (1858-1916) was a blackface comedian I encountered while researching the history of SJI; he makes a brief appearance in the book.

Charley Case would stand alone on a stage and recount elaborate tales while twirling a bit of string between his fingers. His comedy was subtle; his audience often "got" the joke after Case had already launched into his next narrative, interrupting it with gales of laughter. Extremely popular in his time but forgotten now, he was, I think, the original American standup comic.

From a writer's perspective, the problem with Case is that very little is known about him. The most complete history is documented in twenty pages of the book Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919. This is not much to base an entire book upon.

So ... can anybody out there help? Case died tragically, unaware of his importance in the evolution of popular entertainment. Without Charley Case in the background, Richard Pryor (or Milton Berle) would have been an entirely different comedian. He was that significant.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Yo Yo Ma, Rhiannon Giddens, Michael Ward-Bergeman, The Silk Road Ensemble, and St. James Infirmary!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Readers of this blog might recall an entry, three years ago, about a gypsy variation of St. James Infirmary.  The New Orleans composer, accordionist (well, multi-instrumentalist), and performer Michael Ward-Bergeman wrote to me back then: "when I started doing 'St. James' I always felt there was a gypsy music connection both spirit and music-wise." As you can hear on his GIG 365 CD, "St. James Infirmary" sounds ready-made for gypsy musicians. As in much Roma music this SJI begins slow and melancholy, eventually opening into an exuberant, energizing celebration of life that will have you dancing in the streets (or in your living room) - reminiscent of New Orleans funeral music, although with different instrumentation.

Yo Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project commissioned Ward-Bergeman to arrange a version for them. With Yo Yo Ma on cello, Ward-Bergeman on accordion, the Silk Road Ensemble on an assortment of world instruments (for instance, the Roma cymbalom was replaced with a combination of marimba and yangqin, a Chinese hammered dulcimer), and Rhiannon Giddens on vocals, they collaborated on a penetrating version of SJI that transcends both time and place.

The musicians of Silk Road Ensemble are international and eclectic, presenting an amalgam of music that reflects our multicultural world. This new album from Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble will be available April 22. Called Sing Me Home, guest artists include many favourites of mine, including African Kora master Toumani Diabete, North Indian sitarist Shujaat Khan, U.S. banjoist Abigail Washburn, and many many other outstanding musicians from around the globe.

As a taste, here is a just-released video of Yo Yo Ma, Rhiannon Giddens, Michael Ward-Bergeman, and the Silk Road Ensemble performing St. James Infirmary. If this is any indication, the album will be outstanding!

(If you double-click on the video below, you can see it in its proper proportion.)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Second Edition of IWDtSJI is now available!

Cover (and interior) design
by Pamela Woodland
Finally, seven years after the first edition and eleven years after their precursor, A Rake's Progress, the second (and definitely final) edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary has returned from the printer. This edition is 75 pages longer, includes a comprehensive index, and has been extensively rewritten. Information not available back in 2008 has been stirred in. We are very proud of this book.
It is available through our website for $20 plus $9.50 shipping and handling (regardless of destination), or through for $35.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Yet another article about copyright

How long can you own a song?
image © Robert W Harwood  ; )
Writing about a song like "St. James Infirmary" inevitably leads one to consider the nature of copyright, including how copyright law relates to societal well-being. This is because SJI never had an original composer, and yet was saddled by copyright restrictions for decades. Those with a financial interest in copyright generally argue that its protection should be extended in order to protect the creative community. The artist is an original talent, this argument often goes, who should be rewarded; that will stimulate others to contribute their original creations.

But there are no original creations.

In January 2016 the "Association of Research Libraries" published a document illustrating where many creative ideas originated. Twain, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolkein, Bowie, Bach, Beethoven, Dylan, Lennon & McCartney, JayZ, Michelangelo, Manet, Picasso are among those cited. (Their 15 page pdf, a very engaging read, can be downloaded here: Nothing-New-Under-the-Sun.)

"... authors do not create in a vacuum" the document asserts. "The raw material for their creativity is existing works. Artists borrow themes, styles, structures, tropes, and phrases from works that inspire them. And if copyright overprotects existing works—if it restricts authors’ ability to build on the creative output of authors who came before them—it will be more difficult for authors to create."

Overprotection by copyright inhibits creative growth; it weakens our society.

In 1988 the U.S. House of Representatives published the following:
"Under the U.S. constitution, the primary objective of copyright law is not to reward the author, but rather to secure for the public the benefits derived from the author's labors. By giving authors an incentive to create, the public benefits in two ways: when the original expression is created and ... when the limited term ... expires and the creation is added to the public domain."

Internationally, the original intent of copyright law was to enrich the public - and so limits were placed on the period in which a creation was protected.

"St. James Infirmary" was removed from the public domain in 1929.Were it not for the fact that it so obviously is not an original composition, it would still be under copyright until 2024. If Irving Mills had been able to copyright the song under today's laws, the date it returns to the public domain would be 2055 - seventy years after his death, 127 years after its initial copyright. This is much too long.

(Mickey Mouse was copyrighted one year before "St. James Infirmary." You can read about that here: How-Mickey-Mouse-Evades-the-Public-Domain.)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

COMING SOON: The second edition of IWDtSJI

Portrait of author by Pamela Woodland
We here at Harland Press are excited. We are just about to send the revised edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary to the printer. This edition is much expanded, with new information and a full index.

We anticipate that this second edition will be available by late November. Advance orders can be made through the IWDtSJI website - click here. (It will be a few more weeks before the new edition is also available at

Of the first edition, we received reviews that included the following:

"A goldmine of information, with an amazing cast of characters. The definitive statement on the subject – and a very entertaining read to boot"
Rob Walker, author of Buying In and Letters from New Orleans

"What better way to honor a great song than to tell a great story about it?"
David Fulmer, author of  The Blue Door and Chasing the Devil's Tail

"...a fascinating study and anyone who has an interest in the way songs evolve and are passed along through history will find it an utterly compelling read. This critic ... devoured it with relish over a few days, though it will retain a favourite place in his library and remain a reference for years to come."
— Barry Hammond, Penguin Eggs music magazine

"No biography of (Irving) Mills has been written. The best short treatment of his life and work is in Harwood."
Terry Teachout in his book Duke: The Life of Duke Ellington

"A fascinating and well-written book ... Robert Harwood's book is not the first devoted to one song, but it is the first to cross so many stylistic fences in its attempt to trace the origins of a tune, one which is lost in the mists of time."
— Mark Berresford, VJM's Blues and Jazz Mart

In celebration of this second edition, here's a treat. From the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center earlier this month. (Double click to receive the proper video dimension.)

Monday, August 31, 2015

Have you seen this? Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase dance SJI

Televised in 1958, on the first of Astaire's NBC variety shows ("An Evening With Fred Astaire"). Jonah Jones supplied trumpet and vocals.

Astaire would have been 59 when this was televised. Barrie Chase was 24.

(Double-click on the video to see the full frame.)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A new album to celebrate Groanbox's tenth anniversary!

The roots / world music band, Groanbox, has long been a friend of this blog. If you search through these pages you will find them playing “St. James Infirmary” with flair and authority. You will find (from when they were a duo called “The Goanbox Boys”) a song called “Darling Lou,” which has SJI as its base. You will find Groanbox accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman performing SJI with a gypsy band in Bucharest, and with an experimental classical chamber group in Chicago. And now, Groanbox – grown into a quartet – are celebrating their tenth anniversary with the release of a self-titled CD.

This might be the strangest, the most ambitious of their six releases – and also their most accessible. Two years in the making, it started in 2013 in the forests of Northern Ontario where they found inspiration in the percussive possibilities of fallen trees. “Deep tree diving, oh.” In the echoes of deep bat-rich caves. “Adios Plato.” In the sounds and the quiet of the wild spaces, where a chipmunk took them far from the noise of the Demon Trucks that carry away the harvest of the forest. “Ohhh don’t press your luck, run run away from the demon truck.” In an encounter with a boulder split by the slow-growing root of a tree. “The prisoner of war will break free of the stocks/The root will one day split the rock.” Time spent in an abandoned cabin, said to have once been a hideout for Al Capone. “We’re all dressed in our best luck ... In the older days this room would be filled with smoke ... Ah, I just need a blanket for these bloody finches in my head.” And then into New Orleans earlier this year with its famous ninth ward that is still recovering from catastrophic flooding a decade ago. “Barefoot in the ninth....” With its continuing echoes of Katrina. “Katrina, I wish you’d come and listen to the music coming up through the floor.” That song features guest musician, New Orleans trumpeter Kenneth Terry (written about previously on this blog). Velvet-voiced Venezuelan singer Yulene Velasquez adds vocal flourishes that shape the “The Face That You Deserve” into a sweet exotic charmer. “Each and every drop never stops, till it’s found it’s way/Every single beam finds its meaning in another’s eye.”

There are four instrumental pieces on this album of eleven songs. With titles like “Orchestrated Entropy” and “Graveyard of Pines,” they bristle with original ideas, unusual transitions, atypical harmonies. And with an instrumental arsenal that includes banjo, guitar, assorted hand percussion, accordion, trombone, bells, fife, throat-singing, thumb piano, bird calls, fiddle, piano, and the famous Freedom Boot, these multi-instrumentalists have created a sound that rewards close listening. This is stellar musicianship in which one can hear touches of Eric Satie, gypsy music, African and Middle Eastern rhythms and melodies, blues, New Orleans roustabouts, avant-garde experimentation ... and  much more.

Groanbox took a big risk here. Most of this album was recorded extemporaneously, and the band has rewoven the fabric of their music.

(You can investigate further at the Groanbox site.)

Below, I have been given permission to post an as yet unreleased video about the making of this album. Double-click in order to view it full-frame, or go to YouTube.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

And here is Hairy Holler (from Oshawa, Ontario)

To tell you the truth, I have never thought of Oshawa as a hotbed of musical inspiration. Located about 60 kilometers east of Toronto it has a population of 150,000 - including the eight musicians in Hairy Holler.

They have a rip-roaring version of "St. James Infirmary," which I encourage you to watch. It's a treat. A short and informative article about them, along with the video stream, can be found by clicking here. (excerpt: "Fusing folk, punk, blues, jazz, Roma and swing sounds into their unique music, the new video is an equally celebratory affair.")

It sounds like SJI will be part of their second CD release, later this year. Their first album is sold on the Bandcamp site. You can get a sense of their range by listening to, say, the samples for "Bourbon Blues" followed by "Love Is A Dog From Hell." The video below shows off their enthusiasm and musicianship. (Videos embedded on this site are usually truncated, losing some of the right-side edge. So, you might want to watch it on YouTube or at the Canadian music magazine site, exclaim . . . or, double-click on the video feed below.)

This is exciting. And, you know, they might not be out of place in New Orleans.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Merry Prankster riffs off St. James Infirmary

In this video Ken Babbs (Merry Prankster who was engineer and chief conspirator on that "psychedelic bus" called Further that rolled across America in the 1960s spreading a message that there are many many ways in which we can view our world) riffs off "St. James Infirmary." His lyric recalls his good friend and fellow Prankster Ken Kesey. Kesey died in 2001 at the age of 66. Babbs is still a force to be reckoned with at 76.

Babbs and Kesey are probably best remembered through Tom Wolfe's account of their journeys, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And so they are both forever linked to the popularization of LSD in Amerika. I think they felt that the country and the world, everybody, was in very deep trouble and needed a quick wake-up. They did not hold any notion that this substance could be used for entertainment; rather they saw it as a way of helping us see the urgency of our situation, and the need for personal change.

"Where is the Revolution at?" Babbs asks in this video:

Mercy comes before justice
The carrot comes before the stick
And Love is the only compass

You can trust to guide you
Down the mean muddy mad streets
Of Mainstreet America.

(You can see this full-frame at YouTube by clicking here)

Friday, June 5, 2015

Neil McCormick's 100 Greatest Songs

Neil McCormick - musician and music critic for the Telegraph - recently listed, with comment, his 100 greatest popular songs of all time. "Any such list will always be personal rather than definitive," he wrote, "we all have songs that sing in our hearts."

Not only do we find the usual names from these sorts of lists - Bob Dylan, The Beatles, David Bowie, and so on - but also Vera Lynn, Chet Baker, Julie London, etc.

Way up there at the number 7 spot is a song from 1928: Louis Armstrong and "St. James Infirmary."

Ahhh, Neil, you are a man of taste.

Interested? Click HERE for the link.