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.