Inquiries into the early years of SJI

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.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Irving Mills sings (with Jack Pettis And His Pets) 1928


Irving Mills
Correspondent Beverly Mills Keys sent a link to a song in which Irving Mills is the vocalist. Historically, of course, Mills was not known as a singer - although he did contribute to a few recordings, including some by Duke Ellington. Mills is better remembered as an entrepreneur who managed many artists in the 1920s and 1930s, including Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. In the realm of the song St. James Infirmary, of course, he was - as Joe Primrose - an alleged composer.

Therein lies another story.

Irving Mills is a central character in my tale of St. James Infirmary. So it is good to actually hear his voice.

Jack Pettis
Below is the YouTube video Beverly Mills Keys sent to me, a 1928 recording by Jack Pettis and His Pets. For this song Irving Mills assumed the pseudonym of Erwin McGee. In other records he sang as Sonny Smith, Goody Goodwin, and so on. The pseudonyms were sometimes necessary, as he often recorded with predominantly black musicians; racially mixed performing groups could be, uhm, difficult in those times. (Mills, to his credit, was one of the first to record racially integrated bands.)

Pettis, though, was Caucasian, as were the members of his bands; an innovative saxophonist, he recorded occasionally with Mills' "Hotsy Totsy Gang" alongside such youngsters as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa ...  all soon to become among the biggest names in jazz/pop music. Mills had an uncanny way of recognizing talent.

You can read more about Jack Pettis here.

It is likely that Mills was managing Pettis when this record was made. "Baby" was written by two of Mills' stable of songwriters, early in their careers, Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. Both were eventually inducted into the songwriters hall of fame.

Mills' vocal comes in at about 58 seconds.

Friday, February 9, 2018

SPOTIFY playlist for I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

Image by author, using sheet music for St. James Infirmary as background

All songs, all things, are connected.

While investigating the history of "St. James Infirmary," many other songs came into view.  Because of this I created a Spotify playlist of some of the songs mentioned in my book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. I couldn't find everything, though. Neither Daisey Tapley nor Florence Cole-Talbert are in the list. Aside from two or three women who were part of choirs, these were the first two black women to appear in recordings (1910 and 1919). I was able to include the first recorded solo black man (also, probably, the first solo male recording artist) - George W. Johnson with "The Laughing Coon" (c. 1894). Unfortunately, his first tune, "The Whistling Coon" (1891) is not on Spotify.

Neither are any of the songs by Carl Moore, aka "The Squeakin' Deacon." Moore was the first person, in 1924, to claim co-writing credit for SJI. From Arkansas, he adopted the persona of a hillbilly hick while fronting a smooth, swinging jazz orchestra. He recorded four catchy songs, but none of them migrated beyond their original 78 rpm discs. The only place you will find them today is on this site - enter "Carl Moore mp3" into the search box.

So far I have included 55 songs on the SJI playlist. You can hear Irving Mills introducing Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club on "Cotton Club Stomp." The Hokum Boys with their lost versions of "Gambler's Blues/St. James Infirmary." Gene Austin and "My Blue Heaven" (the best-selling song of all time ... until Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") - as well as his take on SJI. Bessie Smith. Blind Willie McTell's "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell." Cab Calloway. Alphonso Trent's 1930 SJI tantrum. Sophie Tucker. Hank Williams. Ward-Bergeman's 2011 gypsy version of SJI. Jimmie Rodgers. Victoria Spivey's 1926 "Black Snake Blues."

I shall add more from the book's song index as time goes on.

If you have a Spotify account, look for "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary" in the playlists, and enjoy.

Friday, December 15, 2017

"A Sparkling Book"

The Phil Baxter moustache
Musician and film-maker Digger recently read I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Here is part of his reaction, referencing characters and places that appear in the book. Thanks to author Gordon Bailey for forwarding this to me.

"This book makes me want to be at the El Torreon Ball Room dancing the Foxtrot with Irene Castle followed by a late date with Valadia Snow at the Noble Hotel where in the background I hear Don Redman's "Chant of the Weed." Mr. Harwood opened up so many musical alleys to explore. A sparkling book! One of the side-effects of this book is that I now sport a Phil Baxter moustache."

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Hot 8 Brass Band (and SJI)

Image from the Hot 8 website http://www.hot8brassband.com/
The Hot 8 Brass Band is a New Orleans staple. They have been playing for twenty years, and have stayed together through tragedies that include Hurricane Katrina, and the shooting deaths of four band-mates. They made their first recording in 2007, and have recently released their fourth album ... which includes a dynamic interpretation of "St. James Infirmary."

The Hot 8 Brass Band have embarked on a European tour which will take them to Germany, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, and the U.K.

There is something special about The Hot 8 Brass Band. You can hear/see this special musicality in the video below.

(YouTube videos on this blog lose the edges, for some reason - double-click to see it in its full size ... or click here.)