Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

MP3 Monologue 10 - The Hokum Boys 1929

"St. James Infirmary" was first recorded in February 1927, as "Gambler's Blues," by Fess Williams And His Royal Flush Orchestra. The composer credit on the record's label went to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter. It was next recorded as "Gambling Blues" in January, 1928 by the, uhm, hillbilly Kentuckian Buell Kazee. There was no composer credit. The third recording occurred in December 1928. This time it was titled "St. James Infirmary," the recording artist was Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, and the composer credit went to Don Redman. Until, that is, the second pressing of the record; that's when Joe Primrose made his first appearance on a record label. The fourth and fifth recordings, October 1929, were by The Hokum Boys. The songs were called "Gambler's Blues 'St. James Infirmary Blues'" and "Gambler's Blues No. 2." There was no composer credit. There were at least 23 recordings of "St. James Infirmary" released in North America up to the end of 1930, and most of these bore the composer name "Joe Primrose." Mattie Hite attributed her version to "Nobody," meaning it was in the public domain - but that was challenged, and Primrose appeared on later pressings of Hite's version, which was really a combination of the two songs Carl Sandburg documented as "Those Gambler's Blues" in his book American Songbag.

The Hokum Boys, though. These were quite different songs. I sometimes think of them as the last vestiges of a folk process that, before the copyright took firm hold, was still evolving the song. The one you will hear below, "Gambler's Blues 'St. James Infirmary Blues,'" initially follows the commonly known lyric, and then veers off into strange territory. The musicianship is, I think, extraordinary, and the song is a real pleasure. The second version, "Gambler's Blues No. 2" is odder, and well worth a listen - these songs can be found by clicking here.

To listen to this monologue (less than two minutes), with music (more than two minutes), click here: The Hokum Boys, Gamblers Blues 1929 MP3


Many thanks to Document Records for keeping all these songs available and alive.