Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Silliness of On-line Book Sales

It can be an odd experience, trying to sell books online.

Cover of current edition
Here's an example: We at Harland Press offer I Went Down to St. James Infirmary through our own website, through this blog, and through Amazon.com.
Via this blog, the cost outside Canada is $29.50 (including postage). On Amazon, the cost for the book alone is $35.00 - but, because of Amazon's percentage, plus the cost of mailing the book to them, and their annual fees, we actually lose money with each sale. Still, what point is there in writing a book if it can't be read?

We attempted to post the book on Canada's Amazon site (we live and publish/print the book in Canada), but the process was too onerous. So you can't find it there ... unless you are willing to buy from secondary sellers for up to $210. That's just silly.



Cover of previous edition
Things get more interesting. The first edition of the book (2008) is no longer available. The current second edition is a complete rewrite; it is longer, it is more accurate, it has greater depth, and it contains both a subject and a song index. Still, the earlier editions are for sale on the Web at sometimes extraordinary prices. Today, I could purchase an out-of-date copy via a secondary Amazon seller, if I was willing to shell out up to $1,057. (Plus $3.99 shipping.) That's right, $1,060.99!
If you look for it on Abe's books, it will only cost you $180. (For those interested, we have a few leftover copies, and will sell them for even less. ; ) )



First iteration of the book
But there's more. In 2004 I wrote a precursor to I Went Down to St. James Infirmary called A Rake's Progress. The title referred to both the song "An Unfortunate Rake," which depicted the death of a soldier from syphilis, and William Hogarth's series of eight eighteenth century paintings, "A Rake's Progress," which illustrated the moral and physical decline of a wastrel. Ultimately, the title was meant to signify the evolution - or progress - of the song "An Unfortunate Rake" as it transitioned into "St. James Infirmary." A Rake's Progress was based upon current knowledge. But I soon discovered that current knowledge was awry, was the crystallization of erroneous assumptions. The story was utterly wrong. I knew the tale had to be retold.

We printed fewer than a hundred copies of A Rake's Progress - none of which can be found on the Web, at any price. I still have a few copies. But, you know, I hope nobody is interested in them.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Irving Mills sings (with Jack Pettis And His Pets) 1928


Irving Mills
Correspondent Beverly Mills Keys sent a link to a song in which Irving Mills is the vocalist. Historically, of course, Mills was not known as a singer - although he did contribute to a few recordings, including some by Duke Ellington. Mills is better remembered as an entrepreneur who managed many artists in the 1920s and 1930s, including Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. In the realm of the song St. James Infirmary, of course, he was - as Joe Primrose - an alleged composer.

Therein lies another story.

Irving Mills is a central character in my tale of St. James Infirmary. So it is good to actually hear his voice.

Jack Pettis
Below is the YouTube video Beverly Mills Keys sent to me, a 1928 recording by Jack Pettis and His Pets. For this song Irving Mills assumed the pseudonym of Erwin McGee. In other records he sang as Sonny Smith, Goody Goodwin, and so on. The pseudonyms were sometimes necessary, as he often recorded with predominantly black musicians; racially mixed performing groups could be, uhm, difficult in those times. (Mills, to his credit, was one of the first to record racially integrated bands.)

Pettis, though, was Caucasian, as were the members of his bands; an innovative saxophonist, he recorded occasionally with Mills' "Hotsy Totsy Gang" alongside such youngsters as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa ...  all soon to become among the biggest names in jazz/pop music. Mills had an uncanny way of recognizing talent.

You can read more about Jack Pettis here.

It is likely that Mills was managing Pettis when this record was made. "Baby" was written by two of Mills' stable of songwriters, early in their careers, Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. Both were eventually inducted into the songwriters hall of fame.

Mills' vocal comes in at about 58 seconds.

Friday, February 9, 2018

SPOTIFY playlist for I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

Image by author, using sheet music for St. James Infirmary as background

All songs, all things, are connected.

While investigating the history of "St. James Infirmary," many other songs came into view.  Because of this I created a Spotify playlist of some of the songs mentioned in my book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. I couldn't find everything, though. Neither Daisey Tapley nor Florence Cole-Talbert are in the list. Aside from two or three women who were part of choirs, these were the first two black women to appear in recordings (1910 and 1919). I was able to include the first recorded solo black man (also, probably, the first solo male recording artist) - George W. Johnson with "The Laughing Coon" (c. 1894). Unfortunately, his first tune, "The Whistling Coon" (1891) is not on Spotify.

Neither are any of the songs by Carl Moore, aka "The Squeakin' Deacon." Moore was the first person, in 1924, to claim co-writing credit for SJI. From Arkansas, he adopted the persona of a hillbilly hick while fronting a smooth, swinging jazz orchestra. He recorded four catchy songs, but none of them migrated beyond their original 78 rpm discs. The only place you will find them today is on this site - enter "Carl Moore mp3" into the search box.

So far I have included 55 songs on the SJI playlist. You can hear Irving Mills introducing Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club on "Cotton Club Stomp." The Hokum Boys with their lost versions of "Gambler's Blues/St. James Infirmary." Gene Austin and "My Blue Heaven" (the best-selling song of all time ... until Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") - as well as his take on SJI. Bessie Smith. Blind Willie McTell's "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell." Cab Calloway. Alphonso Trent's 1930 SJI tantrum. Sophie Tucker. Hank Williams. Ward-Bergeman's 2011 gypsy version of SJI. Jimmie Rodgers. Victoria Spivey's 1926 "Black Snake Blues."

I shall add more from the book's song index as time goes on.

If you have a Spotify account, look for "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary" in the playlists, and enjoy.

Friday, December 15, 2017

"A Sparkling Book"

The Phil Baxter moustache
Musician and film-maker Digger recently read I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Here is part of his reaction, referencing characters and places that appear in the book. Thanks to author Gordon Bailey for forwarding this to me.

"This book makes me want to be at the El Torreon Ball Room dancing the Foxtrot with Irene Castle followed by a late date with Valadia Snow at the Noble Hotel where in the background I hear Don Redman's "Chant of the Weed." Mr. Harwood opened up so many musical alleys to explore. A sparkling book! One of the side-effects of this book is that I now sport a Phil Baxter moustache."

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Hot 8 Brass Band (and SJI)

Image from the Hot 8 website http://www.hot8brassband.com/
The Hot 8 Brass Band is a New Orleans staple. They have been playing for twenty years, and have stayed together through tragedies that include Hurricane Katrina, and the shooting deaths of four band-mates. They made their first recording in 2007, and have recently released their fourth album ... which includes a dynamic interpretation of "St. James Infirmary."

The Hot 8 Brass Band have just embarked on a European tour which will take them to Germany, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, and the U.K.

There is something special about The Hot 8 Brass Band. You can hear/see this special musicality in the video below.

(YouTube videos on this blog lose the edges, for some reason - double-click to see it in its full size ... or click here.)






Monday, August 21, 2017

The Original Sheet Music for SJI???

This, to the left, is the generic cover of the 1929 sheet music for "St. James Infirmary." The cover was designed so that a performer's image could be inserted without breaking the flow, as in the next picture. In those days images had to be set physically - that is, with an editor's hands placing the components in place. And so it was important for the Mills organization - and everybody else - to create flexible background images.

This is the first music score ever released for "St. James Infirmary." In the same year Mills Music (aka Gotham Music Service) also released an orchestral arrangement for SJI (which you can find elsewhere on this blog - search "sheet music"). The Mills music machine was fully engaged. The song had been subsumed.

Ahhh. But while it's the first music score for "St. James Infirmary," the sheet music for "Gambler's Blues," an earlier title for the song, had been printed four years earlier. The composer credits were to, not Joe Primrose, but Phil Baxter and Carl Moore. I wrote a bit about it here: The Golden Grail - you'll find more in the book.

"St. James Infirmary" aka "Gambler's Blues" had been around for many years before being taken into a recording studio. There were a ton of variations. There were many verses. The song, chameleon-like, changed its colour for the environment it stumbled into. The sheet music below, the first of its kind, gives us a taste of the song. But the song was more than this. It assumed many shapes; there were many versions.

This was just one of them.





Thursday, August 3, 2017

SJI on Ukulele

While researching the book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, I collected quite a few sheet music scores for popular songs of the 1920s and 1930s. While all contained the piano score, most included the chords for ukulele accompaniment. None of this sheet music refers to guitar accompaniment.

The ukulele is a relatively recent creation, Hawaiian in origin, it probably developed in the late nineteenth century - although with precedents in the Portuguese machete, which is probably related to the European lute (dating back about 800 years), which is probably related to the Arabic oud (dating back thousands of years) ... and so on.

It's doubtlessly a truism, but it bears reiterating: everything - including musical instruments and musical composition - is related to something that came before.

Following concerts in the U.S. by some Hawaiian bands, the ukulele became intensely popular in the early years of the jazz era. So, whether the sheet music was for  Phil Baxter's "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas," or Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," or "St. James Infirmary," it was likely to have the ukulele chords included.

Now, what does SJI sound like as played on ukulele?

I recently exchanged some brief emails with Toronto ukulele player, Jennifer Schmitt. She had just posted a recording of the song on YouTube, and was curious about how to credit the composer ... "it was a favourite of my father's. He died ten years ago today, and I used some of my Lake Opinicon time to record this in his memory."

I like Schmitt's treatment of the song. Direct, expressive, and sweetly melodic.
(To view in its proper aspect ratio, watch it on the YouTube channel.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

3 Favourite Bob Dylan Songs


Bob Dylan was a central figure in the writing of my book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary; it was his "Blind Willie McTell" that set the ball rolling ("I'm standing in the doorway of the St. James Hotel ...").  Here are three of my favourite Dylan songs. What would you include?

1. When the Deal Goes Down. 2006. In this song I imagine the singer at the bedside of a dying spouse, lover, holding her/his hand, and maybe whispering closely. ("I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true, I'll be with you when the deal goes down.")

2. Red River Shore. 1997. In which the girl on the Red River Shore represents a youthful ideal - say, a struggle towards understanding, or a religious striving, a Gurdjieffien goal, perhaps. But this is now lost to the aged singer. ("The dream dried up a long time ago; don't know where it is anymore ...")

3. Stormy Weather. 2017 - well, it was written in 1933 by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. When Dylan sings, "I'm weary all the time," you can feel it in your bones.

Brilliant.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A New Orleans country band does SJI


The New Orleans country band Loose Cattle has just released a video of their version of "St. James Infirmary." If you follow this link you can read about this interpretation, and watch the video. The song starts off slowly, and quickly builds, develops a country twang. You will like what you hear.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Interview with Michael Enright on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) "The Sunday Edition"


Michael Enright is one of the most celebrated hosts on Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) radio. His The Sunday Edition - with its mixture of revelatory cultural and political content - has a large and dedicated audience.

Last year a friend in the tiny village of Val Marie, Saskatchewan - the writer and performer Madonna Hamel (you can read her latest musings here) - traveled east to take care of business. On the way she stopped off at her old haunt, the CBC studios in Toronto. She gave Michael Enright a copy of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. A few months after that I received a message from Chris Wodskou, a CBC producer affiliated with Enright's show. And not much later I was in the CBC Victoria studios, chatting with Michael about "St. James Infirmary."

The interview, complete with snippets of sundry versions of SJI, is fun. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Thanks Michael. Thanks Chris. Thanks Madonna. Thanks to all of you!!


(In celebration we are able to offer Canadian customers a limited time special price on the book.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Copyright entries for SJI, etc.

I have been searching Library of Congress copyright records for an article I am writing about the original Carter Family. I took some detours into "St. James Infirmary" territory; here are actual song copyright entries for some of these songs.

The full music sheets are
elsewhere on this blog

Gambler's blues ; w C. Moore, m P.
Baxter, of U. S. © Jan. 15, 1925
2 c. Jan. 15 ; E 605070 ; Phil Baxter
and Carl Moore, Little Rock, Ark.
1159

The first version of SJI to enter the copyright books was "Gambler's Blues," in 1925. While credited to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter, this (under the title "Those Gambler's Blues") was collected as a traditional song by the poet Carl Sandburg, in his 1927 book The American Songbag. Hmmmm.

Phil Baxter and Carl Moore


St. James' infirmary ; words and musicby Joe Primrose. © Mar. 4, 1929 ; 2 c. Mar. 26; E pub. 4595; Gotham
music service, inc., New York. 6527

This copyright, to the fictional Joe Primrose, was registered in March, 1929.
The recording, by Louis Armstrong & His Savoy Ballroom Five, was recorded in December, 1928 - three months earlier than the copyright. Something was afoot.

Irving Mills aka Joe Primrose

Porter Grainger

Dyin' crap shooter's blues ; words and
melody by P. Grainger. © 1 c. July
27, 1927; E 672418; Porter Grainger,
New York. 13674

"Dyin' Crap Shooter's Blues" was recorded three times in 1927, and then abruptly forgotten ... until resurrected by Blind Willie McTell in the 1940s. McTell was very convincing when describing how he wrote this song - but, obviously, he didn't. Bob Dylan's lyric for his song, "Blind Willie McTell" - "I'm standing in the doorway of the St. James Hotel" - was partly responsible for the writing of this book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Silk Road Ensemble, live from Vancouver


Michael Ward-Bergeman in the Purgatory Garden

It might get better than this, but one wonders how.

Friend Michael Ward-Bergeman composed this brilliant interpretation of St. James Infirmary and is also the accordionist in the video. From the Vancouver TED talks in February 2016, the Silk Road Ensemble cooks at a high heat and the vocalist, Rhiannon Giddens, grabs the song impeccably. Together they run through fields and marshes, howl through trees, bend with the wind, fly across oceans and deliver an interpretation of St. James Infirmary that is fit for the world wherever we are.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sheet music for second trumpet

A reader let me know that, in posting the 1929 orchestral score for St. James Infirmary, I had neglected to include the part for second trumpet.

This score, probably the first published orchestration, included parts for piano, alto sax, bass, trumpet, drums, violin. trombone, banjo. You can find the other sheets scattered through this blog (search "sheet music").

Selling for 50 cents, the score was arranged by famed banjoist Fred Van Eps, and published by Gotham Music Service, an arm of Mills Music, Inc. Mills Music was co-owned by Jack and Irving Mills. Irving Mills was Joe Primrose, who didn't write the song.

Clicking on the image should enlarge it.