Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

And yet another "Let Her Go, God Bless Her" post

Over the past three months I've written at least six posts focusing on songs containing the "Let her go, God bless her" lyric so famous in "St. James Infirmary." These have ranged, chronologically, from their appearance in a 1909 university song book to a recording by the Louvin Brothers in 1958. Thanks to readers of this blog, I have two more examples to share in this, yet another posting about "Let her go, God bless her."

Reader Jesse said "Nelstone's Hawaiians recorded a song called 'You'll never find a daddy like me' which has the same chorus and is contemporary to or earlier to the Burnett & Foster recording." Jesse added that s(he) had only heard it on 78 rpm record.

The Rutherford and Foster song, "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her" was recorded in 1929. The song Jesse referred to, by Nelstone's Hawaiians, was recorded September 21, 1928. Neither Hubert Nelson nor James Touchstone were Hawaiian. They came from Alabama, they sounded like they came from Alabama, but their music featured wonderful Hawaiian-style guitar playing. Our friend "The Old, Weird America" has an excellent article about them, which you can access here. You will also be able to listen to "You'll Never Find a Daddy Like Me;" keep an ear out for:
There's been a change in the ocean
There's been a change in the sea
If they'll give me back my sweet mama
There'll probably be a change in me

Reader Root Hog Or Die informed me about the version by Rutherford and Foster, which I covered in an earlier posting. He also mentioned "J.E. Mainer and his Mountaineers (pictured here), of North Carolina, who did a version of 'Let Her Go, God Bless Her,' from 1935, that also bore the 'Sometimes I live in the country ...' verse, but otherwise employed all different - although equally common - floating verses."

One of those "floating verses" again includes mention of the ocean:
She may ramble on boats on the ocean
She may ramble on boats on the sea
She may travel this wide world all over
But she'll never find a friend like me

According to liner notes for the JSP CD J.E. Mainer - The Early Years, as a teenager Mainer labored in the cotton mills. He was an experienced banjo player, but one day watched a man playing fiddle while leaning against a telegraph pole at a railway crossing. As he walked across the track, the man was hit by an incoming train. Mainer returned to the scene that evening to find the broken fiddle lying in a ditch. He got it repaired and learned to play it - that might be the same fiddle he's holding in this photograph. Fiddle, guitars and banjo - those are the Mainer Mountaineer instruments. Mainer's fiddle playing is one of the highlights of "Let Her Go, God Bless Her."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blind Willie McTell and the authorship of Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues

Last November, shortly after we finally published I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, the remarkable Rob Walker posted the first part of a five part interview with me on his blog NoNotes. Those interviews appeared intermittently on his site until January of this year. The interviews cover a lot of territory, from Irving Mills to John and Alan Lomax. The first of them centered on Blind Willie McTell and his famous song "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues."


Q: One of your many original discoveries is that “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” is not, as I among many others had assumed, Blind Willie McTell’s re-invention of SJI. Turns out the way he sings that song is almost identical to the way Porter Grainger wrote it years earlier. How did you make that particular discovery?

A: It was a real shock to me when I found out about the earlier versions of Crapshooters’ Blues, Rob, but in retrospect it’s surprising that this is not generally known. I assume part of the reason is that McTell was very convincing when he said to John Lomax on a 1940 recording, “This is a song that I wrote myself . . .” and then in a 1956 recording, to Ed Rhodes, “I started writing this song in twenty-nine, tho’ I didn’t finish it — I didn’t finish it until 1932 . . .” In other words, there is no reason to look for a song’s composer if we know who the composer is.

The first book that I wrote about “St. James Infirmary,” A Rake’s Progress, made the assumption that McTell was completely responsible for “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues.” In fact, the entire history of “St. James Infirmary” as we know it is rife with incorrect assumptions. In the first months after I had finished A Rake’s Progress I discovered that much of what I had written was incorrect. That book followed the well-trodden path, but as I looked more closely at the “facts,” the tale started to unravel. Realizing that one can accept nothing on assumption, I started to reinvestigate the history of the song and rewrite the book. In part, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary is an attempt to correct the record — to place the song in a more accurate historical context.

And so, in this second phase of research, nothing was taken for granted. If I read, for instance, that Irving Mills was born on such-and-such a date, I checked the census records. Regarding the origins of “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” the information has been fairly easily available since the mid-nineties. In 1990 the Document record label was created by Johann Ferdinand Parth, with the notion of reproducing the complete recorded output of blues and gospel singers from the late 19th century to the early 1940s. This was an immense project to be sure, but by 1995 two of the CDs Document released contained versions of “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” that had been recorded in 1927. This was two years before McTell claimed he started writing the song, thirteen years before he first recorded it.

These artists remain pretty obscure even today, though, and are unlikely to enter the collections of people interested in the likes of McTell, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and so on. Some listeners might even consider them to be jazz songs. I think the jazz folk and the blues folk don’t cross into each other’s territory that often — which is odd, seeing as it was all mixed together in a bubbling gumbo at the beginning of time, in the 1920s.

Anyway, I actually found one or two of these old recordings on the jazz site www.redhotjazz.com. In the process of checking all my “facts,” I entered “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” in their search box and was given a list of artists to search including Ma Rainey, Lucille Bogan, Ida Cox and a host of others who never recorded the song. But eventually it turned up, as did the name of the original composer. As you know, Rob, Porter Grainger is an interesting character. He’s one of those people who have almost been rejected by history, but about whom small scraps of information can still be found. But there’s very little out there. I think the bit I wrote about him in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary triples what was previously known about Grainger.

When I learned about the authorship of “Crapshooter’s Blues” I was excited, of course. But I was simultaneously dismayed. By all reports, McTell was an honest, bright, and well-intentioned man. He did not, however, write that song, and yet he was adamant that he did. This symbolically underscores the relationship we have with everything of potentially commercial value. If something — be it an object, an idea, or a song — can be “owned,” it can be sold. The incessant flogging of songs, particularly when the song grew of its own accord, emerging out of the earth, seems wrong. If enough people can be made interested in something, it’s worth selling. Often it’s worth stealing. And that leaves me wondering if that’s just the way we are, or have we somehow lost our way?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

One more "Let Her Go" lyric

Over the past couple of months we have looked at several turn-of-the-twentieth-century songs that contain the infamous "Let her go, God bless her" lyric. Here's one more. (Many thanks to Root Hog or Die for telling me about this one!)

In 1929 the fiddler Leonard Rutherford and the guitarist/singer John D. Foster teamed up to record a handful of tunes for Gennett Records. One of those songs bumps into "St. James Infirmary" at least a couple of times.

The chorus of "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her" sounds familiar:

Let her go, go, I'll meet her
Let her go, go, I'll meet her
Let her go, go, God bless her so
She is mine wherever she may be

The song is also one of the few that reflect the odd sailor verse that appears now and again in versions of SJI. Mattie Hite, for instance, phrased it like this:

I may be killed on the ocean
I may be killed by a cannonball
But let me tell you buddy
That a woman was the cause of it all

The Rutherford & Foster variation puts it like this:

I have a ship on the ocean
A boat that sails on the sea
A pretty girl that lives in the country, boys
Has sure made a fool out of me

Admittedly, those are fairly far apart, but close enough to be entered into the list of possible influences in the early evolution of "St. James Infirmary."

As with the Louvin Brothers version (see below), "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her" contains the "Sometimes I live in the country" verse which is most famous as part of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene."

To hear this song click on: "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her" MP3

Lyrics to "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her"

LET HER GO, I'LL MEET HER
- Recorded by Rutherford and Foster, 1929

Oh where did you stay last night
Yes, and the night before
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines
And shivered when the cold wind blew

Let her go, go, I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , God bless her so
She is mine wherever she may be

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I take a fool notion like this
To jump in the river and drown

Let her go, go, I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , God bless her so
She is mine wherever she may be

I have a ship on the ocean
A boat that sails on the sea
A pretty girl that lives in the country, boys
Has sure made a fool out of me

Let her go, go, I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , God bless her so
She is mine wherever she may be