Thursday, August 19, 2021

A 1951 cartoon, an 1887 poem, and St. James Infirmary

When my son Alex was a wee lad I would read him bedtime stories. One of our early books was Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955). Harold, dressed in sleepers, was about the same age as Alex.

Harold had a purple crayon, and when he went for a nighttime walk he drew a moon so he could see in the dark, and a path so he could walk. And so the story of Harold and his purple crayon progressed until he drew a bed and went to sleep.

I had forgotten about this book until I received an email from Philip Nel. Philip is working on early cartoons by Crockett Johnson, the author of Harold and the Purple Crayon.

In the 1940s, Johnson created a brilliant comic strip featuring another young boy called Barnaby. Barnaby ran from April 1942 to February 1952. Nel has been co-editing the Barnaby cartoons. He is now working on the fifth and final volume.

What does this have to do with St. James Infirmary?   

Well, in the July 30, 1951 cartoon Barnaby's rather inept and blustery fairy Godfather recited a variation of the opening lines of the song SJI:

"'Twas a balmy summer evening and a goodly crowd was there!
It well-nigh filled Joe's barroom, on the corner of the square."

Nel had recognized this as similar to the opening lines of many (or most) Gambling Blues/St. James Infirmary iterations. He wrote me, asking if I had encountered this lyric before. "No. It's new to me."

It presented a puzzle.

I searched more deeply and found that these are the opening lines of an 1887 poem by the poet, playwright, actor, and movie executive Hugh Antoine d'Arcy (1843-1925). The Face on the Barroom Floor (or The Face on the Floor, etc.) is a poem which became immensely popular in the early 20th century. People read poetry back then, and even attended poetic recitations for which they had to pay.

D'Arcy himself recited it in front of paying crowds. Charlie Chaplin made a short comedic silent film of the same name in 1917. Hank Snow recorded it as late as 1968. Joe Cocker's stage manager Sherman "Smitty" Jones recited it from memory during a break from the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1971. Charles Manson, who was once an ambitious singer/songwriter, recorded a recitation. Composer Henry Mollicone wrote a 1978 opera of the same name, based on the poem. The list goes on.

Despite its immense popularity I hadn't come across the poem until Nel brought it to my attention. 

Famous as it was, The Face on the Barroom Floor would not have been considered "serious" poetry. It is a kind of pop-poem. It tells an emotional tale that would resonate and excite, in the days before the easy-to-access entertainments of our era. It's the story of a homeless man, impoverished, poorly dressed, who wandered into a bar, and of whom a bar patron said (reflecting one of the discriminations of the time): "I wouldn't touch him with a fork, he's filthy as a Turk." 

For the price of a few drinks the man told his story of woe. He was once a successful portrait painter who fell in love with a woman "with a form like the Milo Venus, too beautiful to live; / With eyes that would beat the Koh-i-noor, and a wealth of chestnut hair." She, however, became distracted by a fair-haired dreamy-eyed youth he was painting, and she ran away with him. The artist fell into disarray and now, in this bar of attentive listeners and ever reinforced by drink, he offered to draw the face of his beloved on the floor with chalk the bar used to record baseball scores. In the final lines of the poem:

Another drink, and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began,
To sketch a face that might well buy the soul of any man.
Then, as he placed another lock upon that shapely head
With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture — dead!

This is an exciting find. This poem from 1887 supports the notion that St. James Infirmary was created from myriad sources: a couple of lines taken from The Face on the Barroom Floor, bits from a number of old songs like Let Her Go, God Bless Her, or Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her, or She's Gone, Let Her Go, and so on, interwoven with imaginative lyrics from which emerged a new story.

"Face Upon the Floor"
Engraving by John Held Jr. 1925
(John Held Jr. also illustrated the coffin
scene from the song
St. James Infirmary.)

Another poet, John Henry Titus (1853-1947), claimed authorship of the poem. He said he wrote it in 1872, fifteen years earlier. Titus was adamant that d'Arcy had re-written it and then claimed it as his own (making, I am sure, quite a bit of money). This poem continues for three single-spaced pages, is a more difficult read, and concludes:

Another as wil-o'clock dram..and
knelt with char askan at sketch
of one might bestir the soul of
any man: then a truant memory lock accent low, "Madgelene" thou
mistook one! struggles to rise and
with cry as phantom of dread..
leaps as in her arms forgiven; and
fell on the picture dead.

Titus recited it for a record series "Voices From The Past," on his 90th birthday.

These expressions of The Face on the Barroom Floor illustrate a common, dynamic aspect of creativity. Nothing arises from a vacuum. Everything depends upon what came before. The Face on the Barroom Floor lent a couple of lines to St. James Infirmary. In the same way, Bugs Bunny would not have existed without Mickey Mouse. Before Mickey there was Felix the Cat (of whom animator Otto Messmer credited the influence of Charlie Chaplin). Before Felix there was Krazy Kat. And before Krazy Kat all sorts of newspaper cartoons - all the way back to drawings on cave walls.

Love and theft. Imitation and flattery. St. James Infirmary.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Pass It Along

 Bob Bossin, from British Columbia's Gabriola Island, recently bought a copy of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. We exchanged a few emails and then he sent me this video he put together of the Scott Cook song, Pass it Along. It's a remarkable cooperative piece featuring an international array of musicians (and - in the case of Elizabeth May, past leader of the Canadian Green party - a politician) including Peggy Seeger and Canada's Connie Kaldor. The song is a rewarding listen. Starting as an homage to a guitar, it spreads its wings to include ... well, everything. 

Thanks for this, Bob Bossin. I shall say no more. The song speaks.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

RIP Leo Crandall

Celebrated innovative cellist, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Leo Crandall died on May 29. Obituary.

In memory, here is a performance with The Gonstermachers of St. James Infirmary.

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Carter Family, Ralph Peer, copyright ... and, oh, Lesley Riddle

A.P., Sara, and Maybelle Carter
The original Carter Family
The Carter Family, immensely popular musicians a century ago, helped usher in "Country Music." At the time it was labelled "Hillbilly Music." They have a fascinating history, including a long stay in Mexico where they performed live on a radio station owned by an entrepreneur who made most of his fortune by enticing men to travel to his "hospital" near the radio station, and have goat gonads implanted in their scrotums. A cure for impotence. Following a few deaths (and a few miraculous cures) Dr. Brinley lost his fortune and his radio station. The Carter's were popular draws to the station; adverts recommended the treatments.

The Carter Family might be best remembered these days from their relationship with Johnny Cash. Johnny married June Carter; but she insisted he kick his drug addictions first. At one point the Carters, with rifles at the ready, kept dealers away while Johnny went cold turkey.

 The Carter Family was managed by music publisher Ralph Peer, from the time he "discovered" them in 1927. Not long before, Peer had signed a contract with the Victor Recording Company through which he received an annual salary of one dollar but, "my publishing firm would own the copyrights, and thus I would be compensated by the royalties resulting from the compositions that I would select for recording purposes."

In order to make money Peer needed clients who wrote their own songs (and who would sign over to him ownership of their material). This worked well for his client, Jimmie Rodgers, who wrote his own material. But the Carters - Alvin Pleasant (A.P.), Maybelle, and Sara - were not songwriters. They were expert at interpreting Appalachian songs they had been brought up with. Peer instructed them to find and modify already existing songs. These would be copyrighted as new songs, with A.P listed as the composer of both words and melody. The royalties did not come directly to the Carters, though. The money was funneled through Ralph Peer. He gave the Carters a portion of the funds, enough to keep them loyal.

Because of this arrangement with Ralph Peer, A.P. Carter went on many journeys through Appalachia in search of songs they could add to the Carter's copyrights. A.P. found the material in people's backyards and kitchens and front porches, where they played the songs of their ancestors. He found them in hymnals and songbooks. The old songs that survived in the Carters' home state of Virginia and surrounding territory were raw material.

The original Carter Family made over 240 records between 1927 and their break-up in 1943. Almost all of these were based upon songs they did not write themselves (you can count exceptions on the fingers of one hand).

As an example, "Bury Me Beneath the Willow" was based upon a traditional folk song called "Under the Willow Tree."

Here is the opening verse and the chorus from the original:

My heart is broken, I am in sorrow
For the only one I love
I ne'er shall see his face again
Unless we meet in heaven above

Chorus: Then bury me beneath the willow
Beneath the weeping willow tree
And when he knows that I am sleeping
Then perhaps he'll come and weep for me

Here is the opening verse and the chorus from the Carter Family variation:

My heart is sad and I'm in sorrow
For the only one I love
When shall I see him, oh, no, never
Till I meet him in heaven above

Oh, bury me under the weeping willow

Yes, under the weeping willow tree
So he may know where I am sleeping
And perhaps he will weep for me

Many, maybe most, Carter songs were like this. The cash machine kept dinging for Ralph Peer, and the Carters received a bit of the profits. Enough to keep them loyal.

For a few years A.P travelled through Appalachia in search of "new" songs he could transcribe and copyright. For much of this time he travelled with his friend Lesley Riddle. Riddle was an innovative guitarist with a prodigious musical memory (A.P. had neither). Riddle taught A.P. to play guitar - but A.P. never progressed beyond rudiments. Riddle taught Maybelle a picking method which became famous as "the Carter scratch," which became the basis for Johnny Cash's musical style. In the Appalachian homes they visited, A.P. scribbled down the lyrics while Riddle memorized the melody and the chord changes, and then taught them to Maybelle and Sara. Riddle (who we shall revisit in an upcoming entry) was black and, due to his association with the Carters, one of the formative personalities in Country music. He is not much remembered today, though. I wonder why?

Monday, April 19, 2021

Bob Dylan, Jimmie Rodgers, Duke Ellington, etc., and the story of St. James Infirmary

Some of the characters who inhabit
I Went Down to St. James Infirmary
The history of St. James Infirmary is fascinating and complicated. Some years ago I put together an image (based on a painting by Albert Gleizes) showing a few of the people who have been central to the song, its history and its evolution. Some of the faces will be familiar to you. In no particular order the ones portrayed here are Phil Baxter, Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie McTell, Don Redman, Bessie Smith, Bob Dylan, Carl 'The Squeakin' Deacon' Moore, Daniel Decatur Emmett, Mamie Smith, Emmett Miller, Irving Mills, Duke Ellington, Porter Grainger, Jimmie 'Blue Yodeler' Rodgers. The picture also references the road, the city, sex, fate, magic, OKeh records (who introduced the notion of blues/race music to the world), mountains of mystery, trial, possibility...and music.

Here are excerpts from reviews of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary:

"A sparkling book."

"A goldmine of information."

"This is not the first book devoted to one song, but it is the first to cross so many stylistic fences in its attempt to trace the origins of a tune."

"The definitive statement on the subject - and a very entertaining read."

"It will retain a favourite place in my library."

"The book: wow. I'd picked up bits of the story from the blog, but the book was an absolute feast. These are wonderful stories and you tell them so beautifully."

"This work is unique, so if you don't have it, get it."

"I am thrilled beyond belief at your great story. You found things out about (my husband) Carl Moore that I didn't even know."

"The best treatment of Irving Mills life and work is in this book."

The book can, of course, be purchased here: I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

Friday, March 26, 2021

Irving Mills' Relentless Drive to Promote the Best Jazz Music


Irving Mills (c. 1982)
by Bruce Fessier
I have exchanged emails with Irving Mills' granddaughter, Beverly Mills Keys, for over a decade. Ms. Keys recently sent me a link to a remarkable article about Irving Mills by writer Tracy Conrad. 
Irving Mills, as you know, was the pseudonymous Joe Primrose, supposed composer of "St. James Infirmary." He was also a tireless promoter of musicians, a successful song publisher, and so on. Mills is part of a fascinating tale, recounted in my book  I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. 
Anecdotes about Mills are not easy to come by. He kept much of his life private, and so it is a pleasure to read about him. He was a significant force in the shaping of American music. Ms. Conrad has kindly permitted me to reprint her article on this blog:

* * *

Newspaperman Bruce Fessier chronicled an amazing story in 1982 as told to him by his friend Irving Mills. By then, Mills had retired to a big house in the south of Palm Springs and would regale Fessier with stories of the golden age of jazz. After all, Mills had been there for some of the most important moments, or really, had worked tirelessly to make many of those moments happen. 

For instance, Mills wrote the lyrics to “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) in 1929, but as Fessier recorded, Mills said it happened by accident. “‘I had an engagement in Chicago for a cafĂ© roadhouse that opened in the summer, and prior to the opening, he (Ellington) played for six weeks in theaters. After six weeks, doing four shows a day, five on Sundays, they became very stagey. I noticed the dancers weren’t dancing right. It wasn’t Duke Ellington’s dance music.’ Shocked after his first viewing, Mills said he ‘ran back to the dressing room’ and asked Ellington why he had changed his music. Ellington said the people liked it, but Mills told him to stop. "I said, 'It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,'" he recalled. And he said, “You know, Irving, you’ve got a lyric there. Let’s write it up." 

And write it up they sure did. Mills added some more lines, and Ellington’s trumpet player Cootie Williams came in with the music, "Do-whacka-do-whacka-do-whacka-do."

Born at the end of the 19th century in Ukraine and having immigrated to the United States as a child, Mills had a spectacular, if unlikely, career. His father was a milliner who died in 1905 when Mills was just 11 years old, forcing him and his brother Jack to work at exceedingly odd jobs including busboy, wallpaper salesman, telephone operator, and “song demonstrator” to support the family. 

By 1919, Irving and Jack Mills were in business together publishing music. Soon, they were the kings of Tin Pan Alley, cultivating songwriters and then hawking those tunes to radio stations. Both Irving and Jack discovered a number of first-rate songwriters like Sammy Fain, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. (Carmichael and McHugh would also retire to the desert.)

But Mills also had a keen eye for performers, and started, or boosted, the careers of Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Hoagy Carmichael, Lena Horne and the Dorsey Brothers. But most importantly, one evening in New York around 1925, Mills went to the Club Kentucky on West 49th between 7th and Broadway. Playing there was a small band of six musicians in from Washington, D.C., led by Duke Ellington. According to lore, Mills promptly signed Ellington, launching his career by managing to get the band booked uptown at the Cotton Club, and broadcasting those shows on radio.

Fessier noted that Mills did more than almost anybody to promote black musicians and singers. He was one of the first to record black and white musicians together, using twelve white musicians and the Duke Ellington Orchestra for a recording of “St. Louis Blues,” and was powerful enough to force the music label to release the record over their objections. He booked previously all-white auditoriums for black performers. Fessier recounts that one of the finest things he thinks Mills ever did was to hire a private Pullman car, with proper dining room and sleeping quarters, to take the Ellington band through southern states in order to spare them from having to endure the harsh segregation of restaurants and hotels. (Many Ellington compositions are known for conjuring train imagery.)

As was the practice at the time, many of Ellington’s most famous tunes were also credited to Mills, who was an able lyricist, including “Mood Indigo,” “(In My) Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady.”

Mills only produced a single movie, “Stormy Weather” in 1943 for 20th Century Fox starring an all-black cast including Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.

In addition to relentless promotion of the best talent, black or white, Mills was an innovator. He printed “small orchestrations” transcribed off a record, so that non-professional musicians could see how great improvised solos were constructed. And he conceived of the concept of a band within a band, a rhythm section who could go into the studio without the full orchestra and lay down cutting-edge sounds.

Mills was constantly making records, arranging tunes, selling and merging companies, until he was the head of what would become Columbia Records. At the time of his last sale, the total catalog of songs was estimated to number in excess of 25,000, of which, 1,500 were still producing royalties. In 1964, Mills was enjoying royalties in excess of one million dollars per year, equivalent to about eleven million today, and the company encompassed 20 music publishing subsidiaries as well as outlets in Britain, Brazil, Canada, France, then West Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain.

After that spectacular career, Mills retired to Palm Springs, but was still busy creating. Fessier recalls, “I was at Irving's house one night in December of 1981 when Hoagy Carmichael called. Irving had published Hoagy's ‘Stardust’ in 1929 after challenging his stable of lyricists to come up with the right words for Hoagy's beautiful melody. In the late 1970s, Irving said he couldn't find the right piano jazz for the kind of cocktail parties he liked to throw, so he produced a series of 15 albums featuring the music of some of his favorite jazz and pop composers. He called them ‘Musical Cocktail Records’ (a phrase he trademarked) featuring great pianists playing the music of Hoagy, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Van Heusen.”

Fessier continues, “Irving went into business mode when Hoagy called, telling him he wanted to promote the record he had made with him, featuring Paul Smith. Irving didn't get the response he wanted and I asked him what Hoagy said. He said Hoagy's reaction was, ‘Irving, are you still working?’” Indeed, he was. Nice work if you can get it.

Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to her at

Thursday, March 18, 2021

STACK-O-LEE - a new history


Image, 1910, courtesy Eric McHenry
SJI, of course, is not the only song with a long and convoluted history.

I thought I had tracked the earliest sheet music for "Stack-O-Lee Blues." I had discovered a silly song, copyrighted in 1920, showing that "Stack-O-Lee" or "Stagger Lee" or any variation of these titles had been performed long before anything else had been printed or recorded. It was an old old song.

But, from the 1920 sheet music, it was obviously already well-known:

"Stack O' Lee Blues. Play it over for me, I go crazy when I hear it, anywhere I may be, I long to hear them play that Stack O' Lee. Eeny, meeny, miney mo, they'll play some more, now let us catch a nigger by the toe."

And so on. Horrible.

A couple of days ago a friend sent me a really interesting article from The American Scholar website, detailing Eric McHenry's search for the origins of "Stack-O-Lee Blues." This is brilliant stuff, and a tale more than well worth the read!

Was Lee Shelton (aka Stacka Lee) really a bad man, the devil that Mississippi John Hurt portrayed? Did he ever exist? Was the man he killed, William Lyons, a real person? Did Lyons really have "two little babies and a darlin'' lovin' wife"?

McHenry pulls back the covers. Thank you.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Cab Calloway, The Beatles, St. James Infirmary

A young Cab Calloway
A friend sent a link to Cab Calloway and multiple video versions of his song "Minnie the Moocher." Check it out, it's a lot of fun: Minnie the Moocher.

Calloway's theme song was once "St. James Infirmary," but when he became the feature performer at Harlem's prestigious The Cotton Club, he wanted a song that was more, uhm, original. As detailed in my book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, he and manager Irving Mills cobbled together something that borrowed the orchestration and melody of "St. James Infirmary" and the lyrics of a traditional American song about drug dreams called "Willie the Weeper."

It was the biggest chart success of the year. 1931.

Three decades later, February 23 1964, Calloway appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show to perform, not "Minnie the Moocher," but "St. James Infirmary."

The Beatles were on that same Ed Sullivan TV show - performing three songs, including this:

It was an exciting Sunday night. Like most people I (and my family, parents included) were tuned in for the Beatles. Calloway was a diversion, a fill-in, as were the other acts that evening. When Sullivan introduced Calloway, though, he reminisced about the fantastic days when Cab captured everyone's imagination.

Friday, November 27, 2020

St. James Infirmary - musical mystery story

1925 cover of Baxter & Moore's
 Gambler's Blues sheet music

On the left you can see the 1925 cover for the original sheet music for Gambler's Blues, which later became known as St. James Infirmary. The song had long been popular, but it developed through an oral rather than a written tradition. 

Ostensibly composed by Carl Moore (lyricist) and Phil Baxter (music), this first sheet music is one small step in the evolution of the song we know now as St. James Infirmary.

Both Moore and Baxter are fascinating characters who figure largely in my book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. They are the first in a long line of musicians claiming ownership of the song Gambler's Blues / St. James Infirmary. However, they were certainly not the composers ... but, then, where did the song come from?

Baxter and Moore copyrighted Gambler's Blues in 1925 (in Little Rock, Arkansas), three years before Louis Armstrong released his definitive version in 1928; Armstrong's was the first recording released with the title St. James InfirmaryTwo titles, basically the same song.

The first-ever recording was by Fess Williams and His Royal Flush Orchestra in 1927, using the Moore/Baxter arrangement; it was a kind of tragi-comic interpretation, and still a pleasure to listen to.

A year later the Appalachian banjoist Buell Kazee put the song out with the title Gambling Blues, probably taking his version from Carl Sandburg's book of traditional songs The American Songbag (1927). But SJI had to wait for Louis Armstrong before it sped down the freeway.

Was the song always presented with different names, in the years before records, when it was played in disreputable bars and rode the band circuits from hall to hall across the continent? When did it receive it's definitive title, and who was responsible? It turns into a musical detective story.

The origins and popularization of St James Infirmary is a fascinating tale. Here we have less than scratched the surface. You can read more here, in my book I Went down to St. James Infirmary.


Sample of Kudos for the book:

"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, Editor of Jazz and Ragtime Records (1897-1942)

“Mr Harwood opened up so many musical alleys to explore. A sparkling book!” — “Digger,”

"What bettter way to honour a great song than to tell a great story about it!" David Fulmer, author of The Dying Crapshooter's Blues and The Valentin St. Cyr Mysteries.

"A goldmine of information, with an amazing cast of characters. The definitive statement on the subject — and a very entertaining read to boot." — Rob Walker, author of Letters from New Orleans and The Art of Noticing

"Robert Harwood’s book is not the first devoted to one song, but it is the first to cross so many stylistic fences in its attempt to trace the origins of a tune, one which is lost in the mists of time." — Mark Berresford, review for VJM’s Blues and Jazz Mart


 If you are interested in the sheet music for Moore/Baxter's "Gambler's Blues," you can find it elsewhere on this blog. (Type into the search area "Gambler's Blues," or even "sheet music," for there is a lot of that here.)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Love & Theft: Dylan, Harrison, Cave, Calloway, The Doors, Tchaikovsky, etc.

Musicians rely on each other for inspiration
(image © RwHarwood -- with thanks to
Albert Gliezes for his inspiration.
On May 12, 2020 NPR published an article by Tom Moon titled, "Trickster Treat: Bob Dylan's New Song Sounds Awfully Old ... And Familiar." The article describes the musical similarities between Dylan's 2020 song, "False Prophet," on the CD Rough and Rowdy Ways, and Billy "The Kid" Emerson's 1954 song, "If Lovin' Is Believing," illustrated with sound files and an analysis of how the musical structures between the songs are both alike and different.

Moon concludes:
"These specific instances might be defined as thievery only by the narrowest definition. In a fundamental sense, popular music is an ongoing conversation between the creators of the present and those who came before -- a circuit of inspiration to which successive artists contribute some kernel of truth, some new way of looking at an enduring element of human nature."

Nick Cave in his April 20, 2020 edition of The Red Hand Files, receiving a question about "originality in music," responded (in part):

"The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation -- everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It's a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music -- the great artistic experiment of our era.
"Plagiarism is an ugly word for what, in rock and roll, is a natural and necessary - even admirable - tendency, and that is to steal ... to advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.
"... We musicians all stand on the shoulders of each other, our pirate pockets rattling with booty, our heads exploding with repurposed ideas."

Cave asked his collaborator, composer Warren Ellis, how much he has stolen: "Everything, absolutely everything."

From a site called "hitchr" here are a couple of samples:
Abba's "Waterloo" next to The Foundations "Build Me Up Buttercup."
Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" next to Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down."

Ray Manzarek explains how his band, The Doors, adapted "Ghost Riders In The Sky" to create "Riders On The Storm":

There are thousands of examples: Radiohead "Karma Police" vs The Beatles "Sexie Sadie." One Direction "One Thing" vs The Clash "Should I Stay Or Should I Go." R.E.M. "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" vs Bob Dylan "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Bob Dylan "Hard Times In New York Town" vs Traditional "Penny's Farm."

The Carter Family are famous for having copyrighted songs from the musical traditions of Appalachia after minimally modifying them, sometimes only changing a few words.

In 1931 Cab Calloway had a major hit with "Minnie the Moocher," the song by which he is best remembered today. Cab Calloway, Irving Mills, and Clarence Gaskill cobbled the song together with bailing twine. Its orchestration and melody were from Cab's earlier recording of "St. James Infirmary;" its lyrical content from a turn-of-the-century song about a chimney-sweep and his drug-induced dreams, "Willie the Weeper." ("Minnie the Moocher" told the story of a woman and her drug-induced dreams.)

Famously, George Harrison was found guilty of appropriating The Chiffons "He's So Fine" when writing "My Sweet Lord." Copyright lawyer Charles Cronin has a remarkable website detailing song copyright arguments. A small part of the final decision said:

"What happened? I conclude that the composer in seeking musical materials to clothe his thoughts, was working with various possibilities. As he tried this possibility and that, there came to the surface of his mind a particular combination that pleased him ... in other words, that this combination of sounds would work. Why? Because his subconscious knew it had already worked in a song and his conscious mind did not remember."

Nevertheless, in a judgement that remains controversial, Harrison was found guilty of infringing copyright law. He probably was not helped by his former band mate, John Lennon, saying:

"He must have known, you know. He's smarter than that ... George could have changed a few bars in that song and nobody could have even touched him ..."

"Could have changed a few bars ..."

It's not just popular music. Tchaikovsky based the opening theme of his piano concerto in B-flat major on the songs of blind beggars he'd heard in the Russian village of Kalemko. Vaughan Williams and Antonin Dvorak and Bela Bartok scoured the countryside as song collectors, incorporating borrowed melodies into their own compositions. An Alexander Borodin melody from his opera "Prince Igor" became the Tin Pan Alley tune "Stranger in Paradise."

In a 1916 edition of Green Book magazine (1909-1921) songwriter Irving Berlin wrote: "There has been a standing offer in Vienna, holding a large prize, to anyone who can write eight bars of original music. The offer has been up for over twenty-five years. Thousands of compositions have been submitted, but all of them have been traced back to some other melody."

Berlin continued, "Our work is to connect the old (musical) phrases in a new way ..."

Anything we create is built upon something previous. The initial aim of copyright law was to give people an incentive to create, and then to return that creation to the common ground for others to build upon. Everything is based on something that went before, and so everything belongs to our commonality. Creative people will create. That's the nature of things. Copyright is useful in providing them with income. Extend copyright restrictions too long, though, and it can stultify the creative process. (Present copyright laws are responses to corporate, not individual or public, needs.)

Which brings us back to the beginning of this entry. That someone found a link between a song Bob Dylan recorded and another song ... well, that's music. That's love and theft.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Phil Baxter, 1925 co-composer of Gambler's Blues (aka St. James Infirmary)

Phil Baxter was a pianist and band leader in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a prolific song-writer. Among his better known compositions are the rather risque "Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas" (recorded by a host of musicians from Phil Harris to Louis Armstrong), "Piccolo Pete" and the follow-up, "Harmonica Harry" (both were major novelty hits for Ted Weems and his orchestra), as well as "A Faded Summer Love" (which was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1931).
Phil Baxter

Baxter and Carl Moore published "Gambler's Blues" in 1925. Four years earlier Baxter and Moore toured together as a duo.They would ride the train from town to town and perform skits and music, with Moore on drums, Baxter at the piano. Eventually Baxter settled in Kansas City where, leading a band at the El Torreon ballroom, he displaced the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks as Kansas City's favourite dance orchestra. Moore created his own band; with a mixture of sophisticated dance arrangements and down-home humour, he was a popular entertainer.

Baxter was unable to perform after 1933 because of arthritis in his hands. On the verge of his leaving for Texas, the Kansas City Journal-Post ran a long article about Baxter which included this comment: "Baxter has had some litigation over the authorship of one song, which has been in circulation as 'St. James Infirmary,' but which he said he composed long ago and called 'Gambler's Blues.' He said he published it privately in Texas years ago, and that a New York publisher picked it up." That New York publisher was undoubtedly Gotham Music, whose president was Irving Mills (aka Joe Primrose).

(In 1924, a year before Moore/Baxter published "Gambler's Blues," Carl Sandburg published a book of "traditional" American songs containing a very similar piece, "Those Gambler's Blues.")

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary includes a brief biography of Baxter. Information about him is not easy to find. Recordings of his can still be discovered on CD and on streaming services, in compilations with titles like volume 2 of Jazz the World Forgot, or Texas and Tennessee Territory Bands. If anyone has information about Phil I would love to hear from you. Baxter's friend, Cliff Halliburton, wrote a biography, but I have been unable to find it and suspect it was never published.

Phil Baxter's band with his 1929 composition "I Ain't Got No Gal Now."

Original recording of Phil Baxter's 1928 "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas."
Baxter's published version has seven verses, so this is a bit abbreviated.

Original recording of Phil Baxter's and Carl Moore's "Gambler's Blues"
(aka "St James Infirmary") 1927 - recorded one year before Louis Armstrong's
"St. James Infirmary" and two years after Moore/Baxter published it.

Louis Armstrong's original 1928 "St. James Infirmary." He recorded the song at
least twice more.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Backstage Virtuoso Improv - St. James Infirmary

Not long ago friend Michael Ward-Bergeman, renowned accordionist and composer, sent me a clip in which he and celebrated jazz trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, sitting backstage, were caught riffing off St. James Infirmary ... you know the song?

I wrote to Ward-Bergeman, and asked how this came about:

"Dominick Farinacci is a virtuoso jazz trumpeter that  I have been working with off and on for about a decade. Our most recent collaboration has been a sonata for poets and jazz ensemble titled 'Life and Loves,' produced by the Catskill Jazz Factory. We premiered an early version of this in London last spring.

"When Dominick first got in touch about the project he sent a draft program. It was a bit of a shock to see St. James Infirmary on there."

Ward-Bergeman has had a long association with St. James Infirmary. He has performed the song with Gypsy/Roma bands (featuring members of Taraf de Haiduks), with Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (including Rhiannon Giddens on vocals, Reylon Yount on yangqin), and has performed it, or variations of it, with a number of renowned chamber groups, roots bands, and so on.

"I said to myself " Ward-Bergeman continued, "'I can't escape this song!!'

"In London, Dominick and I worked with another collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Christian Tamburr, in putting the set together and arranging the songs.  We were arranging for a jazz singer and an opera singer.  Someone had the bright idea to mashup St. James Infirmary sung by the jazz singer with the violent Mack the Knife (with German lyrics) sung by the opera singer.  We pulled this off in one arrangement that was a highlight of the London performances.  There are some big things planned for this project over the next couple years.

"Dominick recently invited me to perform with him alongside some of his other collaborators in Easton, MD.  It was a show produced by "Jazz on the Chesapeake."  The program was a kind of 'best of" of the many projects Dominick has been working on over the past few years.

"About a half hour before show time he asked if we could do St. James Infirmary as a duo.  Cool!  After the show we were still messing around with the tune backstage and someone caught a bit on camera.

"Here it is."

(Double-click to get the full image via YouTube)

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Mysterious E and SJI

Many familiar with this site are also familiar with NO Notes - the other (presently paused) blog dedicated to St. James Infirmary and created by author Rob Walker. In NONotes, which I followed assiduously, Rob often referred to a person called "E."


E was a mystery.

A little later Pam and I read Walker's book "Letters from New Orleans" (profits going to victims of hurricane Katrina). Before Pam and I were finally able to travel to New Orleans, we read a lot of books about the place. As it turned out, Walker's was the best of the lot. A good read, in Letters from New Orleans the mysterious E kept popping up. Who the heck is E???? I became convinced that she went deep, beneath the waves.

I stumbled upon something unexpected, as these web searches go. E once lived in Savannah, Georgia, near military bases. She saw soldiers in shops, on the street, some recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. The artist in her must have asked, "How do you represent these people as individuals?"

Have you seen 19th century photographs, in which the subjects stare seriously back at the camera? In those days a portrait required a long exposure. One minute. Two minutes. It is almost impossible to hold a smile for that long. And so our ancestors appear to have been somber people. Photographically, a smile was a rare thing. In photos of civil war soldiers, they had this same demeanour ... although one could ask if they had much to smile about, anyway. Today, of course, we can take a dozen photos a second, and then choose the most attractive - perhaps a transitional expression. I would argue that the held pose, in which one does not move for a minute or so, is more resonant. More representative of the person. More revealing of the subject, more responsive than is possible with our digital fastness. You can't pretend for that long.

E used 19th century photo techniques to portray 21st century soldiers.

Eventually Pam and I met E. She and Rob were living in New Orleans. We knocked ... she answered. E. The mysterious E stood in the doorway and ushered us in.

Of course we chatted about St. James Infirmary. E cued up The White Stripes.

Sometime during the evening I asked her for her favourite recording of St. James Infirmary. She said something, I said something, and afterwards neither of us remembered. But, when I wrote to her later, she did recall the Hot Eight performing the song in New Orleans ... "I have a vivid memory of that performance and song. It was skillful, raw, and moving, in part because the performers were so young, so local, and so convincing in the way they sold the song. It was a magical, divey, sweaty evening. I don't think hearing a recording would have the same effect, but if a live performance can be said top be a favourite, I guess I could go with that."

So, here's the official video of Hot 8 - of course not what E experienced in a live performance. But you'll get an impression.

E & SJI.

Depth and mystery.

Some of E's collodion images have been selected for display, at huge size, in The National Museum of the United States Army, in Virginia. Slated to open in June, 2020. here's a rendering of the "Army and Society" section of the museum, where E's portraits will be featured..

Some of E's collodion portraits in the projected "Army & Society" space at the museum


All collodion images courtesy of Ellen Susan

Inquiries into the early years of SJI