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?

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



Brilliant


All collodion images courtesy of Ellen Susan

Friday, August 2, 2019

Richard Jenkins on The Unfortunate Rake, Folklore, and St. James Infirmary


Logo for The Folklore Society
London, England
The British folklorist, Richard Jenkins, first sent me an email in 2008, in which he asked, "Where, in the whole saga, would you place 'Gambling Blues,' recorded on 16 Jan 1928 by Buell Kazee, from Eastern Kentucky?" That was an important question, and led me to a reevaluation of the chronology of SJI recordings.

I was glad to hear that, earlier this year, he was chosen to deliver the annual Katharine Briggs memorial lecture for the revered Folklore Society in London, England.


Jenkins' lecture focused on the song The Unfortunate Rake, tackling it from at least three perspectives. The one most pertinent to this site: Is there a relationship between The Unfortunate Rake and St. James Infirmary? Jenkins said,"As far as I know, Harwood was the first to question the link between St. James and The Rake." He's right. And, as he suggested, this was not an easy thing to do. When the authorities, the folklorists and scholars, have settled on an explanation, who dares to question their conclusions? Jenkins investigated this conundrum.



Which leads to another of Jenkins' approaches to this Rake controversy. Can scholars lose objectivity as a result of their own desires and biases? I wrote in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary that "each folk music researcher has his own motivation for undertaking the work, and this will influence both what he looks for and how he interprets what he finds." In his lecture Jenkins went more broadly into this: "There is also the role of what psychologists call 'confirmation bias': the role of preconceptions in the selection of evidence and the encouragement of unsupported, and often unacknowledged, speculation ... people find what they are looking for and what they already believe in, even if, in extremis, doing so requires fraud or invention." His elaboration on this theme is engrossing.

Jenkins also raised the question of The Unfortunate Rake's title. He explained the history of a song known, historically, as The Unfortunate Lad, and asked why a 20th century researcher might have been tempted to alter the title to something, well, a little more rakish. His discussion about this is both involved and thought provoking.


Jenkins's piece roams over much more territory than I have suggested in these few words. You can read his lecture here: The Unfortunate Rake's Progress. Highly recommended!


Richard Jenkins can be contacted at  r.p.jenkins@sheffield.ac.uk


PS Further thanks to Dr. Jenkins for saying, during his lecture: "Harwood's is the fullest account of the history of 'St. James Infirmary' and its relationship to other songs that we have." I wish I'd had his lecture as a reference when writing I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

________________________________________________

Here, a bit of fun - The Copperfield Ensemble use the word "infirmary" but, hey, it's the 21st century. Nicely done.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Betty Boop & St. James Infirmary (1933)

From Betty Boop's "Snow White" with
Koko the Clown (aka Cab Calloway)
A reader recently reminded me of Betty Boop and St. James Infirmary.

Back in the 1930s, because of his contributions to the animation department at Fleischer Studios, cartoonist Roland Crandall was given free reign to develop his own notion of a cartoon story. He chose the tale of Snow White (the title of his creation) and, working alone for six months, single-handedly drew and formatted a seven-minute fable of delirious invention. In those days each frame of the film had to be drawn by hand, so it was a most intense process.

The soundtrack was a Cab Calloway version of SJI.

For parts of the film Crandall drew over rotoscopes of Cab Calloway, in order to capture Calloway's idiosyncratic dance moves for Koko the clown - and the ghost that the witch turned Koko into. (There can be no doubt that Michael Jackson closely studied Calloway's moves.)

In 1994 Crandall's Snow White was voted into 19th place of the greatest cartoons of all time by cartoon animators. The Library of Congress, that year, selected it for preservation in the national film registry. The film is now in the public domain.

In 1999 the White Stripes started their adventurous interpretation of St. James Infirmary with the exclamation "Oh, Koko!"

If you are drawn in, you can find some pretty interesting stuff by visiting Rob Walker's (unfortunately now defunct but hopefully to be resurrected) blog NO Notes and entering "Betty Boop" in the search rectangle. Rob was/is fascinated by this bit of cinema, as am I.

The wild imagination of Roland Crandall. Mysterious, analogical, weird.

(Click on the video to take you to the proper framing at YouTube.)


Friday, May 24, 2019

Rhiannon Giddens & St. James Infirmary


Accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman once vowed to play a gig every day for a year. That took him through North America, Europe, and Asia. He did it. A gig a day. Maybe on the street, maybe in a concert hall.

You can hear some of these on his GIG 365 album.

During this period Bergeman wrote a Romany arrangement of St. James Infirmary: "When I first heard St. James Infirmary Blues performed live in the back room of a dingy London pub," he said, "I felt it was at once a blues song and something that would feel equally at home with my Roma musician friends." You can clearly hear the Roma instruments (and Roma instrumentalists) on the piece:



Since then Michael has performed this arrangement (or a variation of it) many times, including on recordings with chamber band "Eighth Blackbird," (who the Chicago Tribune declared "one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensemble on the planet") and with Yo Yo Ma's "Silk Road Ensemble" (a loose collective of musicians from across the geographical and musical spectrum of the Silk Road, a historical trade route through Asia and Europe).

Which brings us to Rhiannon Giddens. When "Silk Road" recorded SJI for their album Sing Me Home, they brought in Rhiannon for the vocals. Along with the Chinese percussive string instrument, the yangqin, the arrangement includes accordion, cello, shakulute, clarinet, bass, darbuka, violin.

By going to this site: http://compmjwb.blogspot.com/, you can view the Silk Road, featuring Rhiannon Giddens, recording/performing the song,. That's the first selection. The third selection features Giddens live at a 2016 TED conference in Vancouver, with the "Silk Road Ensemble" and with Ward-Bergeman again hoisting accordion.

More western, but no less exciting, here's an energetic duet with Tom Jones:



Maybe Rhiannon should record a variation of SJI with every album. Click here for a link to her latest venture, there is no Other (an exciting album, albeit sans "St.James Infirmary.")

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Elizabeth Cotton. Connections, eh?

In this photo you will see that Elizabeth Cotton (1893-1987) was a left-handed guitarist. Turning her guitar upside-down, she developed a peculiar picking style.

Elizabeth Cotton was nanny to the Seeger family, looking after Peter and Peggy and Mike and Barbara and Penny.

(Thanks to reader Mike Regenstreif for pointing out that Pete was an adult when, in the late 1940s, Elizabeth entered the Seeger household.)

Cotton worked for the Seeger family for a few years before they discovered she could play guitar. The mother, Ruth Porter Crawford Seeger, provided musical notation for "Those Gambler's Blues" - aka SJI  - in Carl Sandburg's 1927 American Songbag.

At the age of 11 Elizabeth wrote "Freight Train:"

Freight train freight train run so fast
Freight train freight train run so fast
Please don't tell what train I'm on
They won't know what route I'm goin"


At 74 she recorded "Shake Sugaree," giving the vocal part to her 12 year-old great grandchild, Brenda Joyce Evans.

Oh lordy me don't I  shake sugaree?
Everything I got is done and pawned.

Here's a version she recorded herself



"Shake Sugaree" was featured on Bob Dylan's radio show (episode 93).

Rhiannon Giddens recorded it in 2015 .





Time marches on. And "Shake Sugaree," unfortunately, has not lost its relevance.

Another interpretation: writer, biographer and friend of Dave Van Ronk (etc.!), Elijah Wald:
https://www.elijahwald.com/songblog/shake-sugaree/

Have fun.

Monday, December 17, 2018

St. James Infirmary at the 2019 Grammy Awards

Photo of Jon Batiste from his 2018 album,
Hollywood Africans
St. James Infirmary is up for a 2019 Grammy Award!

New Orleans jazz pianist, Jon Batiste, has recorded at least two versions of "St. James Infirmary." First, in 2013 with his band Stay Human. And this year, 2018, he reinterpreted the song for a solo album. (Batiste is an accomplished, nuanced, inventive, deeply committed musician and arranger.) Both recordings are remarkable.

His earlier SJI is the more anguished of the two, the most thick with sound, opening with an Arvo Part-like piano theme but ultimately driven by a relentless percussion that unfolds into an exuberant jazz abstraction.

His 2018 SJI is reflective, an interior monologue with apparently simple piano but unfolding with profound melancholy in orchestration and chorus. Deeply felt and intensely communicated.

The category for Batiste's recording is "best American roots performance."

There is another category called "best American roots song." I think the difference is that the song needs to be an original, contemporary composition with a rootsy flavour, while the performance might or might not be. Looking at the nominees, "St. James Infirmary" is the only actual olden-days song listed. All others in both categories are (arguably) in the "roots" style, but contemporary. For instance, Willie Nelson's "Last Man Standing," another contender in the  performance category, was written by Willie for his 2018 album of the same name.

Here's Batiste's 2018 interpretation of this timeless song:



SJI, eh?

Friday, August 31, 2018

The FIRST sheet music for SJI

The cover for Gambler's Blues, 1925
I had been looking for this sheet music for years. It was as if the object did not exist. It was a legendary thing.

But eventually I did find it ... it was a stroke of luck, for I've never seen it again.

This is an important historical document. It had been printed in such small numbers that it must have become a collectors' item. I was certain of that.

I bought it for ninety-nine cents. Obviously, others were not as eager as I was.

The composing credit was to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter - both of whom are major characters in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. The sheet music was published privately by Phil Baxter in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1925. Soon after, the publisher Harry D. Squires picked it up.  Squires convinced Fess Williams to record it (February 1927). That was the first recording of the song - which was next released by Buell Kazee in January 1928, and then - definitively - by Louis Armstrong in December 1928.

The sheet music with lyrics can be found elsewhere on this blog - just enter "Gambler's Blues" in the search box. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Original Lyrics for "I Wish I Was in Dixie" (you might be surprised)

The lower half of page 29 of the Atlanta Constitution
newspaper, Sunday, July 14, 1895.
I wish I was in Dixie; Hooray hooray!
In Dixie Land I'll take my stand
To live and die in Dixie
Away, away. away down south in Dixie


"Dixie" was a Confederate battlecry in the march against the Union. It had not been composed as a battle song, though.

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904) premiered this song for a minstrel show a couple of years before the American Civil War broke out. As I documented in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, while he was not the first blackface minstrel, Dan Emmett created the minstrel show (with his Virginia Minstrels) around 1841. At that time he wrote what is probably the United States' first homegrown popular hit, "Old Dan Tucker."

 Audiences usually assumed that minstrel songs were either original "negro songs," or written in the "negro style." Really, most were probably modified Irish ballads and jigs. The lyrics were printed in a sort of vernacular, to reflect speech patterns of the slaves. For instance, "I wish I was in the land of cotton / Old times there are not forgotten ..." was written as, "I wish I was in de lan ob cotton / Ole times dar am not forgotten ..."

Emmett's Virginia Minstrels toured Europe (to great reviews) but were short-lived, and by 1859 Daniel Emmett was working with Bryant's Minstrels as songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For a rousing close to their show the Bryant's asked him for a stirring melody, "a regular whopper that would wake things up." Emmett quickly composed "Dixie" (aka "Dixie's Land," "I Wish I Was In Dixie," etc.).

Two years after its composition, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter and the Civil War was underway. The song, already popular, caught on like wildfire. Confederate soldiers, inspired by the thrilling strains of the chorus, rushed into battle "to live and die in Dixie."

Much of the lyric had changed in those two years. Racial references were erased, four-line stanzas became two-line stanzas, and the song's comic patter became racially indiscriminate.  It had migrated from a "comic" minstrel stage performance into a folk song.

Regarding this, the July 14, 1895 edition of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper explained that, "the words of the song have undergone many additions and modifications during the thirty-six years of its existence, but a pencil copy in the author's own hand gives the following as the original version, as sung in New York in 1859."

And so we read, in one of the original verses, "In Dixie lan' de darkies grow / 'Ef  white fo'kes only plants der toe / Dey wet the groun' wid 'backer smoke / An' up de darkie's head will poke / I wish I was in Dixie, etc."

Incredibly (a sad comment on the times they lived in) the article praised the lyrics as having considerable value: "Those who seek for literary excellence in the homely rhymes will be disappointed, but recognition of the author's design gives the key to their merit, and one sees in them unsurpassed reproduction of negro thought and versification."

"Unsurpassed reproduction of negro thought and versification." How could anyone, reading the lyrics, have even thought that, much less published it in a newspaper??

Although Emmett could be an absurdist (as illustrated by these lines from "Old Dan Tucker:" "Old Dan Tucker was a mighty man / Washed his face in a frying pan / Combed his hair with a wagon wheel / Died with a toothache in his heel"), his lyrics were often uncommonly denigrating (again, from "Old Dan Tucker": "Tucker on de wood pile - can't count 'lebben / Put in a fedder bed - him gwine to hebben / His nose so flat, his face so full / De top of his head like a bag ob wool").

Here, as reproduced by the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1895, are those original lyrics to "Dixie."

I wish I was in de lan’ ob cotton;
Ole times dar am not forgotten —
In Dixie lan’ where I was bawn in,
Early orn ne frosty mawin.’

I wish I was in Dixie — Away! away!
In Dixie Lan’ I’ll take my stan’,
To lib an’ die in Dixie.
Away! away! away down souph in Dixie!
Away! away! away down souph in Dixie!

In Dixie lan’ de darkies grow,
Ef white fo’kes only plants der toe;
Dey wet de groun’ wid’ ’backer smoke,
An’ up de darkey’s head will poke.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

’Dey hoe an’ rake and dig de lan’
An’ plant de cotton seed by han’;
When master’s gone dey down will sit,
De young folks dey git up an’ git.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

You court de gals right on de squar’
An’ smoove de wool in deir curly hair;
Dey am not drunk, dey am not sober —
Dey try to faint, but dey fall cl’ar ober.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

Ole Missis marry Will, de weaber;
William was a gay deceaber;
When he put is arm aroun’ ’er,
He looks as fierce as a forty-poun’er.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

When Missis libbed she libbed in clobber;
When she died she died all ober.
Here’s a health to the nex’ old Missis,
An’ all de gals dat want to kiss us.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

_____________________________________________
Here are two contemporary (and necessarily sanitized) versions of the two songs mentioned here. First, Bob Dylan, from his film Masked and Anonymous:



And Bruce Springsteen, from a 2006 tour:



In each case, double-click to receive the full-frame video.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

WXDU Radio 88.7 FM - finishes every show with a different version of SJI

WXDU 88.7 FM
Michael Akutagwa hosts a weekly radio program. It's called Out There a Minute. For around eight years he has ended each edition of his show with a different rendition of "St. James Infirmary." It might be Ray Condo & Hardrock Goners, or Cannonball Adderly, The Doors, Marva Wright or Arlo Guthrie, Cab Calloway or Allen Tuissaint, Artie Shaw, James Booker, Pat Verbeke, Earl Hines, Throat Culture ... every week, for eight years. That's a lot of SJI variations.

His programs feature (to say the least) an eclectic mixture of songs. Sun Ra & His Orkestra, BB King, Bob Dylan, Link Wray, Iggy Pop, John Coltrane ... you can find a list of his archived programs here  and, if you check out some of the titles on, say, Spotify, I am sure you'll find much to stimulate further explorations. Remarkable stuff, remarkable program.

Addendum, June 27, 2018: Michael Akutagwa recently informed me that: It's been a hectic couple of months, but I have managed to make some additions to the STJINF ("St. James Infirmary") stash. Current count is 1217, but in truth I have expanded things a bit, and I've got some "Streets of Laredo" (and the like) in there, a handful of versions of "The Bard of Armagh," of "Tell Me More," and a couple of other songs that either somehow reference or allude to STJINF, and I'm about to add in the Tom Waits songs "Lucinda" and "Tango 'Till They're Sore" (all with appropriate, albeit brief notes in the accompanying spreadsheet).

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Silliness of On-line Book Sales

It can be an odd experience, trying to sell books online.

Cover of current edition
Here's an example: We at Harland Press offer I Went Down to St. James Infirmary through our own website, through this blog, and through Amazon.com.
Via this blog, the cost outside Canada is $29.50 (including postage). On Amazon, the cost for the book alone is $35.00 - but, because of Amazon's percentage, plus the cost of mailing the book to them, and their annual fees, we actually lose money with each sale. Still, what point is there in writing a book if it can't be read?

We attempted to post the book on Canada's Amazon site (we live and publish/print the book in Canada), but the process was too onerous. So you can't find it there ... unless you are willing to buy from secondary sellers for up to $210. That's just silly.



Cover of previous edition
Things get more interesting. The first edition of the book (2008) is no longer available. The current second edition is a complete rewrite; it is longer, it is more accurate, it has greater depth, and it contains both a subject and a song index. Still, the earlier editions are for sale on the Web at sometimes extraordinary prices. Today, I could purchase an out-of-date copy via a secondary Amazon seller, if I was willing to shell out up to $1,057. (Plus $3.99 shipping.) That's right, $1,060.99!
If you look for it on Abe's books, it will only cost you $180. (For those interested, we have a few leftover copies, and will sell them for even less. ; ) )



First iteration of the book
But there's more. In 2004 I wrote a precursor to I Went Down to St. James Infirmary called A Rake's Progress. The title referred to both the song "An Unfortunate Rake," which depicted the death of a soldier from syphilis, and William Hogarth's series of eight eighteenth century paintings, "A Rake's Progress," which illustrated the moral and physical decline of a wastrel. Ultimately, the title was meant to signify the evolution - or progress - of the song "An Unfortunate Rake" as it transitioned into "St. James Infirmary." A Rake's Progress was based upon current knowledge. But I soon discovered that current knowledge was awry, was the crystallization of erroneous assumptions. The story was utterly wrong. The tale had to be retold.

We printed fewer than a hundred copies of A Rake's Progress - none of which can be found on the Web, at any price. I still have a few copies. But, you know, I hope nobody is interested in them.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI