I was touched by some of Malcolm's comments: "Bob Harwood is a rara avis. That this Irish-Canadian finds within him the inspired doggedness to try and unravel this massive ball of tangled yarn not just once, but now for the third time in a decade and a half ... is an enigma in itself. He does it in amazing detail ... This work is unique, so if you don’t have it, get it."
Here is that review:
BOOK: I WENT DOWN TO ST. JAMES INFIRMARY (2nd edition)
By Robert W. Harwood
Harland Press, 1426 Newport Avenue, #306, Victoria, BC V8S 5E9, Canada
Softbound, 255pp., illustrated, US$29.50 incl. shipping
The creative process, that apparently aleatory, yet in hindsight demonstrably logical path by which works of art and entertainment evolve into new and different forms, is in itself as fascinating as the study of the works themselves.
Bob Harwood uses St. James Infirmary as a case study in musical genealogy. Works of art, he says, don’t come into being as unique flashes of inspiration. They are influenced by what went before, and this particular song blends elements from several antecedents. Forms of artistic expression, he says, (in this case tunes and lyrics) bump into each other across genres and cultural boundaries and lead to fresh, rather than new, creations. In opening the book, Bob quotes Jack Teagarden’s 1941 performance of the tune with the Armstrong All-Stars, where Tea calls it “the oldest blues song I know.” His reaction, to quote part of the book’s subtitle, is: “where did this dang song come from, anyway?” And thus begins the journey.
The book is about a musical enigma, but it could equally well be about any work of art in human history. Every creation is inspired by or bases itself on earlier works, says Harwood. The tune comes from … somewhere, but just where? It pops up in several differing forms, a series of tunes and airs in different eras and venues that bump into one another over time, culminating in one particular rendering’s emergence as an immense hit at the end of the 1920s. The song’s supposed antecedents go back before the turn of the century and in some cases, over the ocean; a cluster of concurrent hand-me-downs; selectively contorted and adapted to a greater or lesser extent by whomever was the performer, sometimes under similar and sometimes totally different titles. There are the supposed ancestors and congeners: The Unfortunate Rake; Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues; Gambler’s Blues; some with musical “branches” that reach out even to the western states where I now live, like Streets of Laredo. Which raises the question: did Billy the Kid know and hum some forebear of St. James Infirmary a hundred and twenty years ago, a few miles from where I sit? Go on, tell me I’m weird.
Although clearly “traditional” and part of the public domain, the version of the song we all know is then legally registered, claimed and defended as the creation of one Irving Mills, under the name of Joe Primrose. Even at the time of the claim, it was obvious that Mills’ claim to have written the tune was as valid as Ferd Morton’s to have created jazz. It was well known in the music world of the day that there were other, earlier versions even within that decade, several of them on record, some attributed to different authors or different sources; some with similar words, others with similar melodies; each version, it seems, spawning the next. Harwood meticulously follows each thread of supposed origin; supports some of them and debunks others.
A handful of names we all know pop up as principal players in the story: Don Redman, Blind Willie McTell, Fess Williams. There are many others, less familiar to jazz and blues enthusiasts, whose fingerprints are also all over the story. Incongruously, even Bob Dylan enters the story late in Act V. It’s a fascinating tale.
Bob Harwood is a rara avis. That this Irish-Canadian finds within him the inspired doggedness to try and unravel this massive ball of tangled yarn not just once, but now for the third time in a decade and a half (the first was Harwood’s A Rake’s Progress, in 2002; then this book’s first edition, six years later) is an enigma in itself. He does it in amazing detail, following each trail to a conclusion or… in some cases, to none. I won’t tread on Mark’s very fine review of the 1st Edition in 2008’s Winter issue, because the substance of the work is the same; but rather point out what the changes and differences are between editions. First, this one is longer, because it has new stuff about some of the actors in the drama. And there is an index, where previously there wasn’t. There is closer documentation of the origins of the different lyrical strains in the song, especially the “Let her go, let her go…” verse. The text of each chapter has been entirely rewritten, end-to-end, for clarity (did I say Harwood was dogged?) And in particular, the relationship of the song to The Unfortunate Rake, stated by some to be the indisputable root source of the ditty, is reevaluated and found to be no more solid in that category than anyone else’s theory of the song’s origin.
There is also a discussion in depth about Mills’ assertion and defence of his claim to copyright on the work, or whether the material he claimed to be his was even copyrightable, since it came from the public domain. Then there’s the question of copyright in general and its societal value. As one who has seen my own work and that of colleagues similarly snaffled and locked up for an eon or two, I also have a dog in that particular fight. As clearly occlusive and reprehensible as it may seem, the “grab it and go” practice became common with musical compositions, as Tin Pan Alley grew and the music business became immensely lucrative. Certainly, Consolidated Music Publishing, the owner/operator of Chicago’s OKeh brand, routinely paid black composer-performers including Louis Armstrong $25 per selection for both the recorded performance and the publishing rights to the song. Louis spent the fee in a week, but the royalties went on for decades, and they didn’t go to him. Harwood makes a cogent argument that, since all artistic creation builds on the precedent body of work, the copyright process stops the creative and innovative process cold. As it was for Mills then, or for whomsoever today, it’s not about ethics or truth; it’s a question of who gets to the copyright office first.
The book is one of a kind. Bob Harwood states that this is the end of the story, as far as he has it in him to tell it. This work is unique, so if you don’t have it, get it.
— Malcolm Shaw, Vintage Jazz Mart Review, Summer 2016