Inquiries into the early years of SJI

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.

2 comments:

Tuentibiker said...

(About Minnie the Moucher at Wikipedia)

The song has numerous influences and precuels not only the one mentioned. At 1920 started the Prohibition Era about selling and drinking alcohol. Nora Bayes publish "Prohibition Blues" in july of 1919 ( http://www.authentichistory.com/1921-1929/2-socialchange/1-prohibition/2-music/19190718_Prohibition_Blues-Nora_Bayes.html ). A band called The Missourians publish a cover of the theme without lyrics (same tittle) you can hear on youtube. They used to be the Cotton Club home band, when it closes they star playing as The Missourians and when they were thinking about broke it, Cab Calloway add them as main members of his own band in 1929. Most of their music is based on the Tiger Rag (as you can hear in some of the videos at http://www.youtube.com/user/borr126/videos ). With Cab they made a version of St. James Infirmary ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_XYweNu3oQ ) wich got good opinions using it briefly as his signature song. A contemporary of them, Jimmie Rodgers, make the pre-St. James Infirmary (with some "hi de ho" on it), Gambler´s Blues, also in 1930: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zs4jMC3uB60 As the Prohibition laws made drugs more popular, and based on St. James Infirmary and Prohibition Blues, mainly on the latest (which was about alcohol addiction) Cab Calloway composes Minnie the Moucher. (Prohibition Blues by The Missourians at youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXWk1UvTlXU ) Links to The Missourians and Cab Calloway: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/the-missourians-mn0000891081 and http://www.allmusic.com/album/cab-calloway-and-the-missourians-1929-1930-mw0000272379 Gustavo Ramis (AR)
Posted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Minnie_the_Moocher#Basis

Robert W. Harwood said...

Very interesting comment. Thank you!!

I was aware of the Missourians - a band that Calloway adopted as his own and then reintroduced into the Cotton Club. I am a bit puzzled about your Jimmie Rodgers note, though. Calloway's "hi-de-ho" refrain became famous through "Minnie the Moocher" which he recorded in 1931 - while Rodgers "Those Gambler's Blues" was recorded in 1930. To my ears, Rodgers is not so much he-de-hoing as yodeling, and his "Those Gambler's Blues" (which he later rewrote as "Gambling Barroom Blues") is no so much a nod to Minnie as it is to SJI.

Minnie The Moocher is an almost direct steal of the older song, Willie The Weeper, which achieved popularity in the U.S. West long before prohibition. Although I can see how prohibition might have increased the appeal of Minnie.

You can hear a recording of Willie at the end of this article:
http://iwentdowntostjamesinfirmary.blogspot.ca/search?q=willie+the+weeper

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments!