Inquiries into the early years of SJI

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?

8 comments:

Mats said...

Very interesting story. I'm a great McTell fan, and I am quite surprised, because he indeed takes the credit for the song. I'm hoping to lay my hand on those Porter Grainger recordings, so I can hear for myself.

There's this other song McTell plays in Last Session; That will never happen no more, and if I remember correct, he states that he wrote it. As far as I know that's a song by Blind Blake... But who knows.

Anyway, I do believe that a lot of the blues players back then were sort of living jukeboxes. Played songs from anyone and gave them a twist.

On the overall subject; the roots of blues songs fascinate me over and over again. Think I'm gonna get your book, cause it seems mandatory reading.

Robert W. Harwood said...

Thanks for your note, Mats

Document records has CDs of the collected works of Viola McCoy and Martha Copeland, and Classsic Blues published The Essential Rosa Henderson - the three women who recorded "Dyin' Crapshoopter's Blues" in 1927. The composer, Porter Grainger, plays piano on the Copeland version. I think you can hear Copeleand and Henderson by typing "dyin' crapshooter" in the search engine at www.redhotjazz.com.

I agree with you about the jukeboxes. It's too bad they weren't allowed to record a large part of their repertory - it would have been neat to hear the blues singers performing tin pan alley standards, and the like.

Andrew Barrett said...

You might be interested to know that "Dyin' Crap-shooters" made it onto a few piano rolls as well. I'm trying to find out more about them (I haven't heard one yet).

Man, I love Porter Grainger's tunes. A few years ago, I got a whole stack of photocopies of his rare original sheet music from the Library of Congress. (not including the sheet to "crapshooters", but several other tunes anyway)

Actually, I didn't even know who he was at the time, but a lady who goes to the jazz festivals, Audrey Van Dyke, has connections to the LoC and she loves to just run off tons of photocopies of neat rare stuff and then just give it to musicians she likes. Now that I know who this fellow is, I'm glad I have the music and I hope to complete my collection of his music eventually (photcopies of course, unless I can find/afford originals).

Man, if you think Porter Grainger is obscure, try his friends Robert W. Ricketts (bandleader, pianist(?), led "Ricketts' Stars" accompanying many blues singers) and Everett Robbins (a FANTASTIC blues pianist and singer).

I don't know much about either one, but I am particularly interested in Everett Robbins after hearing one of his 15 or so piano rolls ("Hard Luck Blues") on a recording. In my opinion, it is the FUNKIEST piano roll ever made and struts like all get-out. I would give my left nut to play like this. I have been collecting his rolls now and have one original, plus a friend of mine has another he might loan to me to have recut so I can have a copy too. I also have MIDIs of two more of his rolls.

Last year, I was in touch with Mr. Mike Montgomery about a ragtime composer. This year I am trying to get back in touch with him regarding Everett Robbins, since he has done a lot of research on this man. I hope to find out more about this guy. Looks like he was closely associated with Mamie Smith and even gets a piano solo on one of her band records. I'll fill you in once I learn more, if you're not bored by now!

RAGards and keep up the good work,
Andrew Barrett

Robert W. Harwood said...

Thanks, Andrew. Very interesting stuff indeed - and by all means keep me updated!
Porter Grainger was an active fellow in his time. Alas, much of his most creative period preceded the entry of blacks into the recording studios. I am convinced he's been generally underrated - both as a performer and as a composer; and probably as an influence on popular music of the 1920s, too.
I might put up a small post about Grainger in the near future.
You've tickled my curiosity about Everett Robbins.

Wanielyo said...

Hmm, certainly I've heard Lomax recordings where blues men claimed their song was stolen by publishers or that they wouldn't play certain songs with other musicians in the room because they felt sure it would be stolen.

I say this only as another caution in assuming that we know anything for definite from this period.

please don't take my comment to be that I actually think Porter Grainger stole any tunes, I'd hate to be slandering an amazing musician and songwriter who wrote some of my favourite songs!

Robert W. Harwood said...

Well, in the book I do muse over where Porter Grainger found the song, how he came up with it. There's a good chance that "St. James Infirmary" was among his inspirations.

Alan Balfour said...

In about 1966 I borrowed from my local lending library in South London several issues of the periodical Keynote: The Music Magazine. One of these, January 1947, contained a five page essay entitled Background To St. James' Infirmary Blues researched and written by A. L. Lloyd. Having been a blues fan since 1962, and greatly interested in the lineage of songs such as Dyin' Crapshooter, I copied it for posterity!

The question I'm now asking myself is why only now have I got to hear of your book!

Robert W. Harwood said...

You know, Alan, I was looking for that publication for a long long time, could never find a copy. I did reference Lloyd's essay, though, having found it archived elsewhere. From a "St. James Infirmary" perspective that one essay is probably - well, more than probably - the one that defined our opinion about the origins of the song, and people as astute as Bob Dylan accept Lloyd's words as definitive. I also felt that way when I wrote a small book title "A Rake's Progress," - but later events and research convinced me otherwise. I think Lloyd got it wrong.
I'd love to see a digital copy of that original publication, Alan.

As to why you've only now heard about my book; that's probably because it's published by Harland Press, and Harland Press is a very small affair centered here in southern Saskatchewan where myself, Harwood, and my wife, Woodland, live (ie, therefore the name Harland). It does have a pretty good presence on the web - although one probably has to type in "St. James Infirmary" in order to stumble across the blog or the web site (www.stjamesinfirmary.ca).