Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Sunday, December 28, 2008

St. James Infirmary piano sheet music

As you know, St. James Infirmary was composed by "Joe Primrose," who didn't exist. The song had been circulating for years, was firmly ensconced in the public domain, until copyrighted by the impresario and music publisher Irving Mills under the pseudonym of Joe Primrose. That was in 1928, the very early days of the song's commercial trajectory. The piano sheet music you see here, by far the most popular download on this site, was produced in 1929. I scanned this sheet music from an orchestral score, published by Mills Music, Inc. Clicking on the score should open a larger image, in which the notes can be clearly read. With all the people downloading this score - about 9,500 at the last count (March, 2012) - it would be good to read some of your impressions.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

SJI and The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong

Here's a very interesting (and long) essay about Louis Armstrong and his versions of "St. James Infirmary." I accidentally bumped into this blog on my way elsewhere. I'm flattered that this gentleman, Ricky Riccardi, refers to this humble site - and excited about the information he provides. Among the treats to be found here is a radio broadcast in which you can listen to Louis talk about Don Redman, Jack Teagarden, and "St. James Infirmary."

All this is a prelude to Mr. Riccardi's upcoming (2010) book about Armstrong's later years. Sounds like it will be well worth keeping an eye open for.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jelly Roll Morton - The Complete Library of Congress Recordings

An incredible collection of eight CDs is available from Rounder Records: Jelly Roll Morton - The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax. Even though there is nothing about "St. James Infirmary" to be found here, this collection is an important - and fascinating - look at music history. I first heard about the collection on Rob Walker's website, NOnotes. Back in 2006 Walker wrote a really interesting series of essays about this set, eight postings over a period of two months. His first one looked at Morton's comments on - a favourite topic of mine - copyright.

I bought this set last summer. Pam and I had spent some time traveling through southern Saskatchewan and Alberta with our friend James, photographing the incredible landscape of these prairie provinces. During a visit to Edmonton I saw this boxed set in the window of a second-hand record store and could not resist it. I had not long before finished reading Marybeth Hamilton's thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating book, In Search of the Blues. In one chapter Hamilton detailed the events leading up to Lomax's recording sessions with Morton, and turned it into a very interesting tale.

In 1937 Morton was living in Washington, D.C. His music was out of fashion, he'd been forgotten, and his records were no longer listened to; they were essentially worthless. Except to record collectors like Charles Edward Smith and his cronies. One of these cronies, William Russell, nursed ambitions to become a classical composer . . . until he heard his first Morton record. When teaching music composition to a high school class, Russell asked students to bring in records from home. Expecting to easily demonstrate the superiority of classical European music, he was not anticipating the music of Jelly Roll Morton. "From the first bars Russell was hooked. The sheer complexity of the music was what was most immediately striking - the dazzling, rich, polyphonic rhythms, as intricate as anything Arnold Schoenberg had devised but even more vital and free." What Russell was hearing "was so much more imaginative, so much more sophisticated, than anything he could possibly write." Russell became a record collector, hunting for Morton's recordings wherever he could find them.

Shortly after moving to Washington, D.C., Smith entered a dilapidated building on the top floor of which there "was a large, dingy room; the dank, chill air was barely affected by the coal-black iron stove. Only the bar, the jukebox and the battered piano indicated that it was a nightclub . . ." Morton was the bartender as well as the entertainment. He was ill but he could still play with fire. Smith and his friends became regulars at the club, and it was Smith who later introduced Lomax to Morton. Lomax was interested enough to book time at the Library of Congress for some recording sessions over several weeks in 1938. All Lomax had to do was ask a question and Morton, sitting at the piano, responded with a torrent of music and words that seemed inexhaustible. Tales of musicians and hucksters, stories fluid with sentiment or thick with obscenity; a glorious history told in words and music. It's as interesting listening to Morton talk as it is listening to him sing and play piano.

The content of these complete recordings was once the stuff of legend . . . until Rounder Records released this magnificently packaged set in 2006.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jack Shea recording from 1922 - Lovesick Blues mp3

Readers of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary know that the first song of his own that Irving Mills (aka Joe Primrose) published was "Lovesick Blues" in 1922. He shared the writing credit with Tin Pan Alley songster Cliff Friend. As you can see on the record label, though, only Cliff Friend's name is printed below the title. Was this a mistake? Or did Mills 'assume' partial ownership later that year?

Jack Shea's was probably the second recording of "Lovesick Blues" (after Elsie Clark's, earlier the same year). This song is much different from the one recorded by the yodelling blackface minstrel Emmett Miller in 1928. It was Miller's recording that inspired Hank Williams, whose version shot to the top of the charts in 1949.

To hear this song, click on: "Lovesick Blues" MP3.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Interviews on NOnotes

I am delighted and flattered to report that the esteemed NOnotes is posting a series of interviews with yours truly. Mr. Walker is a canny interviewer; answering his questions has been an enjoyable challenge. Part 1 can be found here and part 2 here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lonesome Lefty's Scratchy Attic

This might seem a bit off the track for this blog, but I just stumbled upon this site. Lonesome Lefty transfers old records to mp3 files, and posts them on his blog.

The first album I saw there was called Music Hall Memories, and features British music hall performances from as early as 1906 (and as recently as 1938). So, this is a kind of roots music and although you won't hear anything resembling "St. James Infirmary" here, you will hear tunes that were enormous influences on British popular music as well as on the music that came from American Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley.

In fact, the second major hit for Irving and Jack Mills' fledgling sheet music business was "Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Sean" - a song that would be very much at home on this collection. The Gallagher and Sean song ensured that Jack and Irving had enough money to continue buying songs, and so probably played a key role in the later drama of SJI.

I have an old 78 of "Mr. Gallagher and Mr Sean," the flip side of Jack Shea's 1922 recording of "Lovesick Blues." It's very scratchy, but I've just purchased an old turntable; my son, Alex, gave me an accessory that will allow me to create mp3 files from those records, and I shall be posting them in the near future.

Highly recommended here is the hilarious 1932 ditty "The Lion and Abert" by Stanley Holloway.

Friday, November 14, 2008

St. James Infirmary trumpet sheet music

The page of sheet music you see here was scanned from a 1929 orchestral score, published by Gotham Music Service Inc., sole selling agents for Mills Music, Inc., 148-150 W. 46th St., N.Y.C.

Clicking on the image should give you a larger, readable version of the page.

This particular score was almost certainly used by an orchestra of the period. An instruction pencilled in at the bottom of the page tells the player when to "stand up" during the performance.

In this orchestral score, music is included for drums, piano, 1st and 3rd alto saxophones, 2nd tenor saxophone, violin, trombone, 1st and 2nd trumpet, tenor banjo, bass, and 1st violin. The price for the entire score was 50 cents.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Carl "Deacon" Moore - "Nobody Knows Where She's Gone" mp3

It's time, I think, for another Carl "Deacon" Moore (and his orchestra) song. Like the rest of Moore's entire recorded output, this was recorded for Decca in 1938.

To paraphrase the big band historian Joesph E. Bennett, if one were simply to listen to a Moore performance, one would first hear Deacon's introductory remarks delivered in a broad hillbilly twang - and would expect, upon opening one's eyes, to see a country hick in bib overalls, chewing on a bit of straw. Instead there would stand "a handsome, slender young man immaculately arrayed in a spotless tuxedo, leading an orchestra which was equal in appearance to the most impressive New York ensemble. The band's music was tasteful and modern, with an impressive mix of popular up-tempo numbers and traditional lush ballads, all delivered with an obvious high degree of musicianship."

You can hear all of that in this selection. To listen to this song, click on: "Nobody Knows Where She's Gone" MP3.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Buying In and the selling of St. James Infirmary

When Irving Mills gained ownership of "St. James Infirmary" he did everything he could to make it a success. Mills did not expect the song to be more than a novelty hit with a short shelf life, so he saturated the airwaves with it - he wanted to make sure it was heard again and again, so that the song became familiar to as many people as possible. Of course, in the days before television and the Internet, media saturation meant something other than it does now. In the late 1920s radio was immensely popular (although it had been introduced to the general public only a few years earlier); live shows were broadcast from dance halls across the nation. Most households owned a wind-up Victrola or similar record player. (In 1929, the year OKeh released Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary" the Victor Company alone sold 35 million records in the U.S., which had a population of 120 million.) Dance was a major pastime, and dance-halls dotted the landscape.

Mills covered as many bases as he could. He gave orchestra scores to dance bands, free records to radio stations, discounted sheet music to newsstands. Bands he managed released versions of "St. James Infirmary" for both the premium record labels and the budget record labels, so whatever their income level there was probably a version of the song in the buyer's price range. And as you can see in an earlier entry on this blog, newspaper advertisements sometimes made no reference at all to the music, but instead hinted that cool dudes owned this record.

I found myself musing again and again about the selling of SJI when I read Rob Walker's recent book "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are." Song publicists in the 1920s were a creative bunch, often devising unusual ways of popularizing a product and could, "by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, mayhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has" see to it that the music was heard. While Mills was well ahead of his time in terms of advertising know-how and moxy, he hardly held a candle to the bright lights of today's advertising business.

Rob Walker is, of course, responsible for the remarkable NOnotes website, the best resource for SJI-related material on the web. He is also an authority on consumerism - by which I mean the means whereby we are convinced of the seeming advantage (or necessity) of owning a particular product, taking a particular point of view - and writes a regular column for the New York Times Magazine. I'm an occasional reader of his Murketing blog, where his musings are sometimes nothing short of brilliant.

We think of ourselves as a pretty sophisticated bunch these days. We're savvy to advertising tricks, immune to their various arts of persuasion. I thought of myself this way. Until, that is, I read Buying In. Cultural artifacts like, well, like "St. James Infirmary" should come to us of their own accord, because something about them resonates with our essential selves or with the spirit of the times. "St. James Infirmary" survived, I think, despite the efforts of Irving Mills. These days, though, one can be excused for wondering how much of what we buy into has any real weight outside that of the pen signing the advertising contract. It's good to be aware. This is a good book to read.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Marjorie Moore and "Deacon" Radio, revisited

Readers of this site will know that Carl Moore is intimately tied to the fascinating history of "St. James Infirmary." I received a telephone call from his wife Marjorie Moore this afternoon. Although we exchanged letters while I was writing I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, this is the first time we've actually spoken to each other. This was an exciting moment, and in celebration I am revisiting one of the earliest posts on this blog.

While Carl Moore was born in 1902 Marjorie Moore, who he married in 1941, was quite a bit younger than him. Margie, now 92, is a warm and energetic woman. About Carl she said, "He was one neat guy - very kind and loving and caring." Whether as a singer and big band leader or as a country music DJ, she says that Carl always had time for his fans. During his later career as a country dj, he hosted an influential amateur show on Sunday mornings. Margie told me that, "After a show people would line up to see him, and he would stay as long as they wanted to talk. He was a down-to-earth guy; he didn't put on airs." When I first wrote to her, asking about SJI, she wrote back, "'St. James Infirmary' is a mystery to me, also. I always understood that Carl wrote the words to it." She also remembered "Carl telling me that someone took several songs to Chicago and sold them but did not put his name on them."

Margie sent me a number of photographs and press clippings, including this photo that I did not include in the book. This is Carl as a California country radio dj "The Squeakin' Deacon."

Moore's first radio job was an early morning show on Cincinnati's WLW radio station. This station was originally built to help sell radios and used such a powerful transmitter that it interfered with Canadian radio signals. From Cincinnati the Moore's moved to St. Louis (where Carl hosted a country show called "The Shady Valley Gang"). By 1947 the Moore's (Carl, Margie, and their daughter Carole) made California their permanent home. The hillbilly persona he adopted in the dance halls of America served him well in the increasingly popular world of country music. It is still possible to see Carl "The Squeakin' Deacon" Moore on some of the Bear Family videos of the 1950s country TV show, Town Hall Party, making brief appearances to tell jokes and advertise his Sunday morning amateur hour. On the August 8th, 1959 show you can not only see the Deacon telling a couple of his jokes, but also watch a 27 year old Johnny Cash doing an impersonation of Elvis Presley.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dick Robertson - St. James Infirmary mp3

This is a version of St. James Infirmary that, as far as I know, has never been heard except on the original 78 rpm records. It was made somewhere between late 1929 and late 1930 for Brunswick Records. Dick Robertson, the singer, was very popular in that period and recorded with a variety of bands including Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. It is possible that Irving Mills was his manager for a while, but of that I'm not positive.

If you look closely at the label you will notice that Robertson is referred to as "Comedian With Orchestra." (When Fess Williams performed "Gambler's Blues" in 1927, he was also listed as a Comedian on the record label.) Robertson's delivery might be a little exaggerated, but from my perspective - almost eighty years after the record was made - I don't hear anything that makes me want to chuckle. His take on the song is interesting in that he starts with the complete Armstrong lyric, then he incorporates the changes Mills/Primrose included in his second copyrighted version, and concludes with a verse that is peculiar to this recording. You can hear an mp3 by clicking: "Dick Robertson, St. James Infirmary" MP3.

Blind Willie McTell bio

Visitors to this site (and I know there are one or two) might not be aware that Michael Gray recently published a biography of Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travellin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Bloomsbury, hardcover, 2007). It has just come out in paperback. Strangely, it is still only available in the UK.

A biography of McTell must have been a real challenge. Information about him has - until now - been uncertain and, depending upon one's source, contradictory. Michael Gray has accomplished a remarkable feat with this book, which will be a valuable and absorbing read for anyone interested in "roots" music, early blues, Blind Willie McTell or "St. James Infirmary." This is an important book about an important musician. The Sunday Times, for one, calls it “Shrewd, lucid and immensely well informed.”

McTell, of course, was responsible for resurrecting the remarkable SJI-influenced "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." McTell actually did record "St. James Infirmary" - in a small Atlanta record store owned by Ed Rhodes. That was in 1956. Unfortunately the CD, Last Session, is incomplete, and so his rendition is not generally available. (Although in 2004 record producers Laurence Cohn and Marino De Silva teamed up to create a box set of McTell recordings that was to include the complete Ed Rhodes tape, the complete John Lomax recording session, and many other treats. People who got wind of this kept their eyes and ears open through 2004 and 2005 and 2006 . . . the web site finally went down in 2008. There are odd rumours afloat about the cause of the project's failure, but the much anticipated box set is dead - and one wonders when these items will come into the light.)

I ordered my copy of Gray's book from amazon.uk and was impressed by both the final cost and the speed of delivery.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Carl "Deacon" Moore - "Evolution Mama" mp3

Some of my earlier posts discussed Carl "Deacon" Moore, a fascinating personality who became a central character in my book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Pictured here with his orchestra in 1940, Moore (leaning against the piano) was credited as co-composer on Fess Williams' 1927 recording of "Gambler's Blues." Born and raised in Arkansas, Moore adopted the persona of the hillbilly hick in his performances. His drawling vocalizations contrasted appealingly with the smooth sounds of his orchestra. He made only four records, all during the same session for Decca records on August 9th, 1938. None of his recordings have ever been reproduced since those early 78s. In upcoming posts I shall make these recordings available - here's the first one.

"Evolution Mama" is Moore's strangest record. Referring to the controversy over evolution vs creation ("Evolution Mama, don't you make a monkey out of me") the song was written by Terry Shand . . . according to the credit on Moore's record label, anyway. The song had been recorded perhaps three times between 1925 and 1927, generally credited to Doc Dasher and Eddie Heywood. Since then it has been recorded by the Even Dozen Jug Band in 1964 (credited as a traditional tune).

By clicking on the song title below, you can hear Carl "Deacon" Moore and his orchestra perform "Evolution Mama" MP3 - the song is courtesy of Moore's wife, Marjorie Moore, and was transferred to tape for me by the big band historian Joseph E. Bennett.

Lyrics to "Evolution Mama"

Well old Lucian Burn had a gal, way down in Tennessee
Now, she told Lucian all about evolution
While she was sitting down on his knee
When one fine day she got gay and started steppin’ out
Well sir, then ol’ Lucian started a revolution
And the neighbours heard him shout

He said, Evolution Mama, Evolution Mama
He says, Honey Lamb don’t you make a monkey out of me
'Cause Evolution Mama don’t you think you’ve got me up a tree
I remember the time you had me nice and tame
and I was eating right out of your hand
But some sweet day I’m going to take dead aim
And knock that peanut whistle right off your stand

‘Cause Evolution Mama, sweet smellin’ mama
Listen here while I get you told
This is odd, but you ain’t no organ grinder
And I ain’t a hangin’ on your chain
He says I got me a razor and I got me a gun
And I’m gonna cut you if you stand still
And shoot you if you run

‘Cause Evolution Mama, sweet smellin’ mama
Don’t you make a monkey out of me
Says, I ain’t half man and I ain’t half beast
But I can do you more good than this here store-bought yeast
‘Cause Evolution Mama, sweet smellin’ mama
Don’t you make a monkey out of me

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Buell Kazee

I recently received a letter from Richard Jenkins, who lives in Sheffield, England. Richard is one of those rare souls who has made a study of SJI; he had just finished reading I Went Down to St. James Infirmary and was kind enough to write, "I've really enjoyed it! Brilliant." He then asked, "Where, in the whole saga, would you place 'Gambling Blues,' recorded on 16 Jan 1928 by Buell Kazee, from Eastern Kentucky?"

Buell Kazee is not a name one would easily forget, so I had to admit that I'd never encountered him before. Although that's not quite true. I am very familiar with songs on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music that were performed by Buell: "East Virginia," "The Butcher Boy," "The Wagoner's Lad." I'd never noted his name, though. Thanks to emusic.com I was able to download Gambling Blues and am amazed. This is, lyrically, very similar to the song that Carl Moore (from Arkansas) and Phil Baxter (from Texas) - both white musicians - put their names to and which Fess Williams recorded in March, 1927. Kazee's recording date of January 1928 makes it, chronologically, the second recording in the "St. James Infirmary" canon, effectively moving Louis Armstrong into third place.

Kazee hailed from Eastern Kentucky. For the sake of posterity he transcribed the traditional songs of his family and neighbours, and recorded about fifty of them between 1927 and 1929. His "Gambling Blues," while lyrically similar to "Gambler's Blues" and "St. James Infirmary" has a different melody, a kind of simple rhythmic chant reminiscent of mournful Appalachian ballads.

What does this mean? Certainly it gives credence to the notion that SJI was all over the map in the first decades of the twentieth century. Where did this version spring from, though? Perhaps "St. James Infirmary" was originally a hillbilly song - or came to America from Britain fully formed.

But "crapshooters," "jazz band" - do these sound like lyrics from an indigenous Appalachian song? Also, that sudden change - without transition - between the fourth verse (her funeral) and fifth verse (his funeral) is odd. It's as if the verse that usually starts "When I die I want you to bury me," had been misplaced. Perhaps the song was adopted by Tennessee townsfolk after a minstrel show breezed through the region. Kazee's discography from 1927-1929 contains cowboy songs and original compositions, so he was not recording only regional tunes; perhaps he'd simply picked this up on his travels. Perhaps . . . there could be any number of possibilities. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Lyrics to Kazee's "Gambling Blues"

I went down to Joe’s barroom
On the corner of the square
A goodly crowd had gathered
And the drinks were flowing there

I sat down by McKinney
His eyes were bloodshot red
He leaned to me and whispered
And this is what he said

I went down to the infirmary
And looked into a window there
Saw my girl stretched on a white bed
So cold, so pale, so fair

Sixteen coal black horses
Hitched to a rubber-tired hack
Took seven pretty girls to the graveyard
Only six of them came back

Six crapshooters for pallbearers
And a chorus girl to sing me a song
Put a jazz band on my hearse top
Let ‘em play as I roll along

And now my story’s ended
Give me one more drink of booze
And I’ll be on my way boys
For I’ve got those gamblin’ blues.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

St. James Infirmary, Willy the Weeper, and Minnie the Moocher

In the early days of his career Cab Calloway used “St. James Infirmary” as his signature song. By 1931 – when he was the house musician at the Cotton Club – he was looking for something new, something a little more original to serve as his theme. His manager Irving Mills, like many of the music makers of the day, owned a copy of Carl Sandburg’s recently published collection of American traditional songs, The American Songbag. He happened upon “Willy the Weeper” and used this as the foundation upon which to build a new song. (You can hear a 1927 recording of "Willy the Weeper" here.)

Willy hailed, probably, from the days of the Wild West – from the days when, as Alan Lomax put it, “taking dope was not regarded as a much more serious habit than drinking or chewing tobacco.” The song developed many variations, most of them adding verses that described further drug-induced dreams. Inevitably, though, Willy wakes up and, weeping, has to return to his mundane life and his mundane job.

Irving Mills claimed he wrote "Minnie the Moocher" himself. He completed it in a couple of hours, using one of the Mills Music house musicians to transcribe the melody. Calloway then, according to a 1933 newspaper interview with Mills, “injected his catching musical personality into the piece.” The song has writing credit to Mills, Clarence Gaskin and Calloway.

Willy was a chimney sweeper. Minnie was a red hot hootchie cootcher. Willy and Minnie were both hopeless addicts and the songs recounted their drug-induced dreams. Willy’s dreams took him to Bulgaria where the queen gave him a car with a diamond headlight and a silver steering wheel. Minnie wound up with the king of Sweden, who gave her a diamond car with a platinum wheel. The queen of Bulgaria had a million dollars in nickels and dimes which she’d counted a million times. The king of Sweden gave Minnie a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes which Minnie sat around and counted a million times.

In both Calloway's 1931 and (especially) 1933 recordings, one listens to the orchestral introduction expecting to hear "St. James Infirmary." But then, as Calloway starts singing, a variation of the earlier "Willy the Weeper" melody emerges. This was a really big hit for Calloway, and other related songs followed in its wake, including: "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day," "Kicking the Gong Around" (a euphemism for smoking opium), "Minnie's a Hepcat Now," and "Ghost of Smoky Joe" (Joe was Minnie's boyfriend, who taught her how to kick the gong around).

"The Hi-De-Ho Man" was another song in this Calloway stream - based upon the Hi-De-Ho call and response chorus of "Minnie the Moocher." The audiences loved this. When singing "Minnie the Moocher" Calloway would call out "Hi de hi de hi de hi" and the audience would shout it back; gradually the call and response would become more complicated until Calloway returned to the story. Coincidentally (or not) the earlier "Willy the Weeper" had a call and response chorus of its own.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

St. James Infirmary on Bob Dylan's XM Theme Time Radio Hour

Back in May, 2006, Bob Dylan launched a weekly radio program on XM satellite radio. When Pam and I caught wind of the program, months before the first show aired, we bought an XM receiver. We weren't disappointed. Theme Time Radio can be something of a bonanza for aficionados of early American popular music. While the show leans towards music of the 40s and 50s, Mr. Dylan talks about and plays a considerable amount of music from earlier decades. There aren't many radio programs that can feature Jack Teagarden, Tom Waits, Charlie Poole, Percy Mayfield, Hank Snow, and ZZ Top on the same bill while maintaining a sense of continuity.

It's Dylan's talking that keeps things flowing. Good as his selections are, his patter is often the best thing about the program. He can be thoughtful, serious, self-mocking, sarcastic . . . often very funny. Always reverent. I think of Bob Dylan as one the the great exponents, and authorities, on early American popular music. So it was with some excitement that we listened as his February 20th broadcast veered into a discussion of "St. James Infirmary." The theme for this show was "Doctors" and Dylan said, "One place you’re going to find a lot of doctors is St. James Infirmary. This song’s history is convoluted and fascinating. Louis Armstrong recorded it as early as nineteen and twenty-eight, but it goes back much further. According to one study it got its start as a ballad called 'The Unfortunate Rake'..."

"According to one study," Dylan said. That was wonderful to hear, because most discussions of the song take the assumption of a direct relationship between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Unfortunate Rake" as established fact. That one study was probably A.L Lloyds 1947 article Background to St. James Infirmary Blues. (You can read more about it by accessing this link and searching for the section titled "Tracing a Ballad," a little more than half way down the page.) Far from factual, a direct connection between the two songs is more a tenuous assumption.

A few seconds later, however, Dylan referred to a 1934 song by James "Iron Head" Baker as "the real link between the folk ballad and the pop tune, ‘The Unfortunate Rake’ and ‘St. James Infirmary.’" I suspect this reflects some sloppiness on the part of his research staff, who used Kenneth Goldstein's liner notes to a 1960 Folkways record called "The Unfortunate Rake: A Study in the Evolution of a Ballad" - on which Alan Lomax himself sings the song, "St. James Hospital" - as their primary reference. John Lomax recorded the song (for a while the convict James "Iron Head" Baker served as John's substitute for the recently disaffected Leadbelly) and Alan touted it as a link between the two songs. Actually listening to the songs, however, does not bear this out. One gets the impression that Alan wanted to find a missing link between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Infortunate Rake, " but this is not it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Book availability

I was excited to hear that the book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, has finally been printed, and will be available within the week. There were some problems with the printing of the cover, and that caused the most recent delay. I wish to thank those of you who have - as long as two years ago - expressed interest in purchasing the book, and to reassure you that I shall be sending you an email as soon as I possibly can.

I spent about five years researching and writing this book. In the course of exploring the usual questions - the relationship between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Unfortunate Rake," for instance - other issues begged for attention. I found out, to my dismay, that Blind Willie McTell (with all his claims to the contrary) did not compose "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," that great homage to "St. James Infirmary." The fellow who did has been so ignored by music historians that the date and place of his birth have been (until now) unknown. In fact, many of the key players in the SJI drama have been pretty well forgotten. Phil Baxter, Carl "The Deacon" Moore . . . even Irving Mills, aka Joe Primrose, has never had a respectable biography written. The one in this book might be the most complete overview to date of his early life.

Some of the characters who appear in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary are shown in the picture here. Clicking on it should give you a larger image. I started this painting/collage many years ago (thank you, Albert Gleizes), modified it for the cover of the first incarnation of this SJI project - a small book titled A Rake's Progress - and have, in celebration, modified it further here. Many thanks to all who have helped along the way!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lady Day and SJI

Here is an example of song borrowing that used St. James Infirmary as its model. Billie Holiday, it seems, really liked the song and wanted something similar but 'original' that she could take into the recording studio. The result was a song called "Tell Me More" based on SJI but with writing credit to Holiday herself. Holiday recorded the song in 1940.

In his book Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, Donald Clarke quotes songwriter Arthur Herzog. Herzog is recalling the encounter beween Billie Holiday, himself, and his songwriting partner Danny Mendelsohn which led to the writing of the 'new' song:

"She came rushing in to Danny. She was a great artist, but creative - no. She said to Danny, 'Danny, I've got a great tune, take it down for me.’ And she sings, da-daing, 'St. James Infirmary'. So Danny says, ‘Yes, Billie, it’s a great tune, but it's St James Infirmary' .' ‘Oh, Danny, bend it a little for me, bend it.' So Danny took out his pencil, put it in blues time, four/four, attached a bridge to it and said, 'All right Arthur, give me some words.' So I popped the first thing that came into my mind: 'Tell me more and more and then some', inane kind of thing, so we scratched this underneath and forgot about it completely. Six months went by, and there's a record out - 'Tell Me More', words and music by Billie Holiday, sung by Billie Holiday, accompanied by the Billie Holiday Orchestra - of which there was no such thing, of course. There it was. 'Danny, what are we going to do about this? This idiot friend has done this to us and the song isn't worth a goddam.’ I mean, 'St. James Infirmary'. After she died, Herbie Marks called me up and said. 'I seem to remember that you had something to do with this song, and I'd like to do something with it,' and I said, 'Herbie, I can't prove anything, but this song was written by yours truly and the late Danny Mendelsohn.’ That's how it happened. It never made any money."

Donald Clarke continues: "Herzog is being unfair to their own hackwork, to say nothing of using the word ‘creative' in a very limited sense. Lady had commissioned the song and even told them how to write it; of course they should have got some credit. The song has a strong blues feeling, and its lingering resemblance to ‘St. James Infirmary' doesn't hurt a bit, so that it sounds as though you've heard it before but can't remember where. The way the words fall is pleasing, and with the arrangement's stop-time moments and a solo from Teddy, it's an unusual love song and a nice record."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Song and Dance

The versions of “St. James Infirmary” that appeared in Carl Sandburg’s collection of traditional American songs (The American Songbag – ©1927) were written in 6/8 time. They were ballads. One of the significant differences between these songs and the recordings that both included and followed the 1928 Louis Armstrong recording was a change in rhythm – to 4/4 time. With this change in rhythm the song had become danceable. More specifically, one could dance the foxtrot to it.

The foxtrot originated around 1914 in vaudeville, by dancer Harry Fox. As part of his act Fox was executing trotting steps to ragtime music. Referred to as "Fox's trot" the dance was set to a broken rhythm (slow-slow-quick-quick). Bit by bit the dance moves changed, and with remarkable speed the foxtrot came to dominate the dancehalls and the music scene.

The foxtrot became the dance phenomenon of the 1920s. And the 1930s. And the 1940s. One could whirl around the dance floor, or one could execute the steps in the crush of a crowded venue, dancing (oh, dear!) close together and more or less in place. In those days, before television and computer games and tupperware parties, people danced. Dancehalls were everywhere. It might not be too great an exaggeration to say that dancehalls littered the landscape like Starbucks franchises in the 21st century. Irene and Vernon Castle, the exhibition ballroom dancers pictured here, were among the main celebrities of the day. In fact, by including the scandalous foxtrot in their routines, they sped its popularity.

The "St. James Infirmary" we know was partly shaped by the passion for dance that swept the nation and the world in the decades after the First World War. The song had already become something of a dancehall staple before it entered the recording studio, coming north with traveling musicians looking for work with the big bands. As musician Claude Austin said in 1931 (as transcribed by a court stenographer):

“Well, if there was any lapse in the dancing and the entertainment that was going on, the boss had a way of playing things that they used to call the Rocks, and the Rocks is the same thing as you call the Blues now, and this just happened to fall into that category. It was just one of those things that you did not need any music for, because there was no music for it, that they were able to pick up at the time while they were searching for something else to play of a popular trend, but at that time it was just a general piece we would play, ‘St. James Infirmary.’”

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Charleston Cabin - our earliest link?

Although “St. James Infirmary” is undoubtedly a very old song, very few traces can be found that predate Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording. There is the Fess Williams recording of “Gambler’s Blues” the previous year, of course. And Carl Sandburg’s inclusion of two versions of “Those Gambler’s Blues” in his book The American Songbag – also from 1927. A song with lyrical similarities can be found in song collector Dorothy Scarborough’s On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs. We shall no doubt discuss that one further in a future post, but even if we acknowledge a direct connection that only takes us back to 1925, the year her book was copyrighted.

When researching “St. James Infirmary” I found anecdotal evidence that placed the song in minstrelshows around 1916, but not much that was more substantial than that. A little over two years ago, though, Rob Walker posted an interesting discussion about a song titled “In a Charleston Cabin.” It's well worth reading. "In a Charleston Cabin" was recorded – extensively – in 1924. Nothing in the lyric is reminiscent of our song, but the melody reminds one of “St. James Infirmary.” We don’t know, of course, if the melody was borrowed from SJI - but at the very least this extends our excavations back to 1924. (Since writing this over four years ago, I have uncovered much that places the SJI lyric much closer to the turn of the 20th century - RwH.)

For those of you who can read music, I am posting the sheet music to “Charleston Cabin” below. I would be most interested in any comments regarding how closely you find it resembles “St. James Infirmary.” By clicking on the images, you should be able to view larger, readable versions of the files.













Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Carl "Deacon" Moore advertisement

I thought it would be interesting to post a few old newspaper advertisements.

This one, from 1937, announces that on Sunday, for 40 cents a person, Carl "Deacon" Moore and his famous orchestra will be the grand special attraction. The woman pictured is Marge Hudson, one of the singers in his band. She is presented in this ad as "The singing artist's model. An exotic beauty of Spanish type."

But the most interesting part of this advertisement is the announcement that Carl Moore is the composer of "St. James Infirmary," "Bye Bye Blues," and "Ding Dong Daddy." As I've noted in earlier posts, Moore always maintained that he wrote the lyrics for "St. James Infirmary." A 1935 newspaper article, announcing the upcoming appearance of Moore and his orchestra, stated: "Moore and Phil Baxter were responsible for many popular melodies being composed. Among them were "Ding Dong Daddy," "St. James Infirmary," "Ride 'em Cowboy."

Louis Armstrong - St. James Infirmary advert

This advertisement, appearing in a February 1929 Texas newspaper, shows that the language of the minstrel shows was far from dead.

"Hot dancing . . .
"See dis Strutter!
"He's jess like that. Jess like that! And he don't give a doggone whut you say 'bout his clothes.
"Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five are playing No. 8657
"'St. James Infirmary,' 'Save It Pretty Mama.' Fox trots."

It's interesting that, unlike the ad below, this one does not talk about the music. It does suggest, though, that if you owned this record you might very well be a real cool cat.

King Oliver - St. James Infirmary advert

King Oliver recorded "St. James Infirmary" on January 28, 1930. This was the same day, in the same studio that Gene Austin recorded the song. (Their sessions were probably back-to-back; Oliver's catalog no. is 22298, Austin's 22299.) The ad on the left, for Oliver's record, appeared in a March 1930 newspaper:

"Here's a blazing, blistering 'blues' melody, brimful of primitive rhythm and plaintive fervor. Down in the land of cotton they've been singing it for two decades or more; it's the kind of tune you simply can't forget. Come around and listen to this record by King Oliver and His Orchestra. You'll give ear to some of the 'meanest' trumpet playing you've ever heard in your life."

There's no hint here that Oliver was on his way out. Gum disease was making it harder and more painful for him to play the trumpet. Henry Allen and Bubber Miley handle most if not all of the trumpet parts on this record. Still, this is one of my favourite versions of the song. From the opening bells it has a thoroughly composed feel, and yet it is full of vitality.

Other Victor artists mentioned on this advert include Rudy Valee and Maurice Chevalier.

honey, where you been so long?

This is quite incredible. I stumbled across a blog this evening where something like 110 versions of "St. James Infirmary" have recently been posted. Called honey, where you been so long, the site specializes in prewar blues, and has all sorts of pages devoted to, oh, female blues singers, country blues, field recording, and so on. Certainly worth a look.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Irving Mills: Song Plugger

Even as vice-president of Mills Music, president of Gotham Music Service, and music impresario extraordinaire, Irving Mills remained a song plugger at heart. He was a teenager when he first got into the music business and, together with his brother Jack, spent his early years pushing for the success of newly published songs. In 1919 Jack received a $500 bonus for his efforts in publicizing the song Dardanella (and creating, in the process, possibly the first sheet music million seller). This became the seed money for Mills Music, Inc.

In the late 19th century pluggers were known as "boomers," for their ability to belt out a song that could be heard over long distances. They would often sing through megaphones, with racks of sheet music for sale in front of them. Or sit at pianos behind 40 foot counters at the back of a department store, where shoppers could ask to hear samples of the sheet music on sale. By Mills' day the boomer had become a plugger. A good one would become a sort of advertising whirlwind who, in the words of Isaac Goldberg, "by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, mayhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has, sees to it that his employer's music shall be heard."

One of the tools at Mills' command was the recording studio and radio. In 1925 he became probably the first to advertise a song over the radio, when he and one of the songwriters on his staff, Jimmy McHugh, calling themselves "The Hotsy Totsy Boys," performed "Everything is Hotsy Totsy Now." Song plugging for the new electronic age.

Once he secured the copyright to "St. James Infirmary" Mills ensured that it received the widest possible airplay - the greater the number of recordings out there the more likely it would be played, the more popular it would become, and the more copies it would sell. (Mills looked at popular music as having a very short shelf life.) So, between his copyright in March of 1929 and the end of 1930, at least 19 versions of the song were recorded. These included two by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra - managed by Mills. For these recordings they were known as the Ten Black Berries, and the Harlem Hot Chocolates. Irving Mills served as vocalist for that last one. Mills Merry Makers (created for recording purposes only), with musicians including Charlie and Jack Teagarden, Harry Goodman (brother of Benny), and Ruby Weinstein recorded a version. Mills could not have had any idea how eternally popular the song would become.

The Power of Song?

This headline graced The Charleston Gazette on March 22, 1936. I suspect a song plugger might have been responsible for it, but that's only a suspicion. The article does make one curious about the song, though.

The occasion was the imminent publication of the sheet music to a Hungarian song called "Gloomy Sunday." The article described it as "a melancholy song supposed to have driven 18 Hungarians to suicide since it was first heard in Budapest six months ago."

The article continued: "Possibly to keep people from diving off skyscrapers, the American music publishers have given it a 'happy ending,' with the soothing line: 'Dreaming - I was only dreaming.'
"Henry Spitzer, who handles the song for the publisher here, said sadly today:
"Some of the Hungarians are supposed to have jumped into the Danube with copies of 'Gloomy Sunday' clenched in their fists, and some turned the gas on after they heard it over the radio for the first time. Most of them left notes saying they felt like the song.
"But I believe Americans are good, sound, healthy stock, and aren't likely to go killing themselves because a sad song haunts them. After all, this is the country where 'St. James Infirmary Blues' made a big hit."

The article then printed the entire song lyric. This would seem to kill my theory that a song plugger was responsible for the article. But . . . the last paragraphs of this newspaper piece went as follows:

"The only known dissenter with Mr. Spitzer's hope that his happy ending will neutralize the gloominess of the song is Dr. William Marston, well-known psychologist. He says changing the words won't make any difference, explaining:
"It's not the words to a song that have an emotional impact. It's the music."

So, if you wanted the complete story, the full emotional experience, you had to purchase the sheet music.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Harry Smith Anthology as a Google Map by The Celestial Monochord

The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music is one of the most influential collections of songs on the planet. Originally released in 1952 on 6 LP records, it is now available on a 6 CD set. Dave Van Ronk wrote that "without the Harry Smith Anthology we could not have existed, because there was no other way for us to get hold of that material."

The songs on this anthology were all recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. You can easily hear an example of musical borrowing by playing The Bentley Boys 1929 "Down on Penny's Farm" next to Bob Dylan's very early (1961) "Hard Times in New York Town." Anyway, this map is an attempt to show "the geographical origin of each cut on Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology." It appears on the site of The Celestial Monochord - Journal of the Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues.

Copyright Infringements Project

Fellow SJI enthusiast Rob Walker forwarded to me a letter he received from Charles Cronin. Mr. Cronin, among other things, runs a website from UCLA devoted to the question of music copyright infringement. This is a such a thorny issue. Music, of course, has a rich history of borrowing; that is essentially how new songs get written. But how to distinguish between borrowing and theft? And, are we in danger of mistaking the former for the latter, in danger of crippling the creative process in the service of business and profit?

This is an extraordinarily ambitious site. You can read an outline of a 1931-1932 court case that figures prominently in my book. This is in the "Case List" section, but it is also informative to browse the "Song List" section, where Mr. Cronin comments with both clarity and humour about specific songs. Read, for instance, his comments on the (in)famous case of "He's So Fine" vs. "My Sweet Lord."

Phil Baxter

Phil Baxter was a prolific and successful song-writer. Among his better known compositions we can include "Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas," "Piccolo Pete" (and the follow-up, "Harmonica Harry" - both were early novelty hits for Ted Weems and his orchestra), and "A Faded Summer Love" (which was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1931).

Baxter also claimed co-authorship for "St. James Infirmary." He and Carl Moore actually published the song in 1925, but they neglected to apply for copyright. Baxter, a pianist, was unable to perform after 1933 because of arthritis. On the verge of his leaving for Texas, the Kansas City Journal-Post ran a long article about Baxter, one of the town's favourite musicians, which included this comment: "Baxter has had some litigation over the authorship of one song, which has been in circulation as 'St. James Infirmary,' but which he said he composed long ago and called 'Gambler's Blues.' He said he published it privately in Texas years ago, and that a New York publisher picked it up." That New York publisher was undoubtedly Gotham Music, whose president was Irving Mills.

Information about Phil Baxter is very hard to come by. Recordings of his can still be found on CD, but in compilations with titles like volume 2 of Jazz the World Forgot, or Texas and Tennessee Territory Bands. If anyone has information about Phil, or Carl Moore, I would love to hear from you. I understand that Baxter's friend, Cliff Halliburton, wrote a biography of Phil, but I have been unable to find it and suspect it was never published.

Marjorie Moore and "Deacon" Radio

Carl Moore was born in 1902. Marjorie Moore, who he married in 1941, is a warm and energetic woman of 92. She remains very affectionate towards Carl, saying "He was one neat guy - very kind and loving and caring." She wrote, "'St. James Infirmary' is a mystery to me, also. I always understood that Carl wrote the words to it." She also remembered "Carl telling me that someone took several songs to Chicago and sold them but did not put his name on them."
Margie sent me a number of photographs and press clippings, including this photo that I did not include in the book. This is Carl as a California country radio dj "The Squeakin' Deacon."
Moore's first radio job was an early morning show on Cincinnati's WLW radio station. This station was originally built to help sell radios and used such a powerful transmitter that it interfered with Canadian radio signals. From Cincinnati the Moore's moved to St. Louis (where Carl hosted a country show called "The Shady Valley Gang"). By 1947 the Moore's made California their permanent home. It is still possible to see Carl "The Squeakin' Deacon" Moore on some of the Bear Family videos of the 1950s country TV show, Town Hall Party, making brief appearances to tell jokes and advertise his Sunday morning amateur hour. On the August 8th, 1959 show you can not only see the Deacon telling a couple of his jokes, but also watch a 27 year old Johnny Cash doing an Elvis impersonation.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Introducing Carl "The Deacon" Moore

When, in 1927, Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra made the first recording of "St. James Infirmary" it had the title "Gambler's Blues." The record label showed a writing credit to Moore-Baxter. Carl Moore and Phil Baxter had published the song two years earlier, when both were members of Baxter's band.

Carl was a drummer. By 1927 he had left Baxter's band and was leading his own orchestra. Born in Arkansas, Carl Moore adopted the role of the hillbilly hick, injecting jokes and skits into all his performances. He recorded, for Decca, only four songs in his career - and while he performed "St. James Infirmary" throughout his band career, he never recorded the song.

During World War II, when it became impossible to maintain a touring orchestra, Moore became a radio disc jockey, specializing in the newly emerging country music. Moore always maintained that he wrote "St. James Infirmary."