Friday, September 30, 2022

Irving Mills' birth name - from fallacy to fact on the Internet


Irving Mills
The Wikipedia post on Irving Mills opens:

"Irving Harold Mills (born Isadore Minsky; January 16, 1894 - April 21, 1985) ..."

This comes from my research into Irving Mills, during which I scoured census records and ships logs (they emigrated from Odessa). The family name in the United States was Minsky; they  Americanized their names. The family can be found in the 1900 U.S. census living at 176 Essex Street in Manhattan. Many of their neighbours were fellow Russians.

BUT - regarding the name Isadore I wrote, based on that 1900 census:
"Hyman (Irving's father) was thirty-four years old that June and headed a household consisting of his wife Sophia (thirty years old), and sons Jacob (eight years old) and another son of six whose name is barely legible but could have been Isidor (italics mine)."

I made a mistake writing this. First, neither Isidor nor Isadore are Russian names (although rare in the Jewish diaspora, the names are usually found in England and France). Second, as you can see from the census record (it should expand if you click on it), the writing is indistinct. All of the other family members can be clearly read (with a bit of concentration) but Irving's entry is, well, illegible.

1900 U.S. census - the Minskys are listed near
the bottom at 08 (possibly meant to be 108)

I had stared at this entry for long periods. In the end I thought "the name is barely legible but could be Isidor."

Now it has become "fact" that Irving was born Isidor (or Isadore).

From supposition to fact.

It is certainly untrue. I should have simply written that the name is indecipherable.

Irving Mills was the pseudonymous "Joe Primrose," who was given credit for writing "St. James Infirmary," the only song that has his name. Among many other clients (including Milton Berle), Mills managed the careers of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. He started a record company. With his brother Jack he ran one of the most successful music publishing houses of the era.

On the 1896 ship's log which brought the family to the U.S. from Odessa, when Irving was two, their names were recorded as Chaim (a hatmaker), Schifre, Jacob, and Isaac. That should have been enough.

Ps Terry Teachout in his biography of Duke Ellington, Duke: The Life of Duke Ellington, wrote "No biography of (Irving) Mills has been written. The best short treatment of his life and work is in Harwood."

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Genius Music Books - from "The Great White Wonder" bootlegs, to Traveling Wilburys, and beyond

Earlier this year I Went Down to St. James Infirmary was picked up by Genius Book Publishing, in the United States.  Of course I became curious about other music books they are selling and bought some for myself. They have some exciting stuff! Here are a couple of examples.

Trade Mark of Quality (click here to find the book) is the most famous maker of bootleg records. The first of all bootlegs was Bob Dylan's Great White Wonder. I remember seeing that double lp, with its stark white cover and blank labels, in an Ontario record store in about 1969. "The Underground Story ..." devotes a couple of dozen pages to the creation of this album, including photographs of labelled tape reels, recording grids, etc. They devote as much attention to other Dylan bootlegs they created, plus the Stones, Beatles, Hendrix, The Who, and so on. How did they get the master tapes? How did they record live performances without getting caught? What equipment did they use? How did they adapt to a burgeoning market? All of this is recorded in minute detail in this book, including photos, news clippings, track listings, and more. At 320+ pages of a large format volume (8.5"X12"), it is a well-written and exciting read.

Tales of actual bootleg excursions are so thorough, you might think that one of the authors is the notoriously anonymous Pigman himself!

Maybe that's a question for the author of the next book.

Jim Berkenstadt is "The Rock and Roll Detective." He investigates mysteries and puzzles, secrets and hoaxes, myths and intrigue in the world of rock&roll.

What is the story behind the formation of The Traveling Wilburys? Did the Beach Boys steal a song from Charlie Manson? Who really discovered Elvis Presley? What tales lie behind Nirvana's "Nevermind" album?

These and more are addressed in "Mysteries in the Music."

This is a well-researched book. Well written. I found it thoroughly enjoyable.

So thank you, Genius Books, for  these offerings.

It's a pleasure to find I Went Down to St. James Infirmary in such good company.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Nate Wilcox, "Let It Roll," and an interview about "St. James Infirmary"


Here is an interview I had with Nate Wilcox for his "Let It Roll" podcast - which aims at "putting together a history of popular music in America with a focus on the social, technological and business forces that drive the culture."

Wilcox is an engaged, very knowledgeable historian of the evolution of popular music. The interview went to some extraordinary places.
The interview is about an hour long and focuses on I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, published by Genius Books.

Nate Wilcox's podcast can be found here.

The interview can be caught here.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

St. James Infirmary played on a carrot

 A friend brought this item to my attention, prefacing it with "And now for something completely different."

The musician in the video below is Hugh Levey. He writes: "My grandson quite often picks up a toy and pretends to play it like a clarinet, so last week I thought we could make a carrot clarinet together ..."

Mr. Levy runs Woodwindly, a music store in the UK. He also has a Facebook page. And he plays a darned good carrot!

Friday, March 11, 2022

Bob Dylan and St. James Infirmary


Above, Blind Willie McTell and Bob Dylan, from a collage by the author.

I am aware of three times Bob Dylan has sung or spoken about "St. James Infirmary."

The first was in his 1983 song, "Blind Willie McTell," which closes:

I'm gazing out the window
Of the St. James Hotel
And I can tell you one thing
Nobody can sing the blues
Like Blind Willie McTell

Readers will recall that McTell claimed authorship of "The Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" which was long thought to have been inspired by "St. James Infirmary." McTell did not write the song, which was recorded two years before the first version of "St. James Infirmary." But he sure sang it well.

The second was in a Feb. 20, 2008 radio broadcast. It was the 69th episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour, the theme was "Doctors," and Dylan spoke for quite a while. I have written about this elsewhere on the blog, so suffice it to say Dylan played Snooks Eaglin's 1959 interpretation of the song.

The third time was in the song "Murder Most Foul," which he recorded in 2020.

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Play that Only The Good Die Young
Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung
Play St. James Infirmary in the court of King James
If you want to remember, better write down the names
Play Etta James too, play I'd Rather Go Blind
Play it for the man with the telepathic mind

Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" lyric was a key reason I began researching the byways of "St. James Infirmary." It's a grand journey!

Friday, February 18, 2022

3rd Edition launched by Genius Books!!!!

February 18th, 2022. Today is the launch date for the 3rd edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Updated with new material, it is now being published by Genius Books.

Operating out of Los Angeles, Genius is developing an impressive array of music-centric volumes, along with, of course, other genres. Their music books will have historical impact.

For instance, there is author/photographer Michael Cooper's photo book on Brian Jones, Butterfly in the Park.

Another is a pictorial history titled  A Pig's Tale: Open Edition, by Ralph Sutherland and Harold Sherrick. This is about the folk who created, among others, Dylan's "Great White Wonder" bootleg, and spawned an underground industry.

There's the "Rock and Roll Detective," Jim Berkenstadt, who "examines the secrets, myths, legends, hoaxes, conspiracies, and the widely inexplicable events that are such an intriguing part of rock and roll history," in Mysteries in the Music: Case Closed. Including tales of Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and more. 

And others enticing titles. Including, now, this 3rd edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

This is an exciting publisher on an exciting journey, and I am happy that SJI has settled here.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Owners Of El Torreon Ballroom, Home of Phil Baxter, Have Big Plans For Renovations

The El Torreon lives!

This is where Phil Baxter, the first registered co-author (along with Carl Moore) of "Gambler's Blues" - aka "St. James Infirmary" - held sway from 1927-1933 (with his big band, "The Texas Tommies.").

In the previous post we visited the resurrection of the famous mirrored ball which reflected light onto the ceiling in the days of dance bands and huge dance floors. And now, news of the renovation of the dance hall itself!

You can read about it here:

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Resurrection of the El Torreon mirrored ball!

Cover for 1925 sheet music.
Phil Baxter (music), along with Carl Moore (lyrics), were the first of many to claim authorship of the song "St. James Infirmary." They printed the sheet music (then named "Gambler's Blues") in 1925. This was three years before Louis Armstrong recorded it with writing credit to Don Redman (well, until the second pressing, when Joe Primrose emerged as the "author").

Phil Baxter and Carl Moore

Both Baxter and Moore are important characters in the tale of "St. James Infirmary," and both are detailed in the book  I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

Phil and the Texas Tommies in 1926, a year before they
became the house orchestra at the El Torreon Ballroom.
Trombone. Trumpet. Drums. Piano. Clarinet. Banjo.

Phil Baxter, a Texan, and his band "The Texas Tommies" roamed the land dressed in Stetson hats and cowboy boots, performing hot jazz in the many dance halls that spotted the landscape. Forgotten today, they were a major draw. In the years 1927-1933 they served as the house band in Kansas City's hottest dancehall, the El Torreon Ballroom.

Phil and the Texas Tommies in Kansas City c 1927 
Photo taken at the El Torreon Ballroom.

Here is an excerpt from I Went Down to St. James Infirmary:

"The El Torreon was huge. It had room for two thousand dancers. It was decorated in an exotic Spanish motif. Clouds, projected onto the high vaulted ceiling, floated across glistening stars. The dance floor was illuminated by a massive mirror ball of a hundred thousand facets that hung from the ceiling. The El Torreon's opening night featured a double bill. The Texas Tommies, now an orchestra of sixteen musicians, had traded in their cowboy gear for tuxedos. At the opposite end of the dance hall stood the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks, back in Kansas City for a three-week stint. The Nighthawks were once the most popular band in the city but had relocated to Chicago three years earlier."

That mirrored ball struck me as extraordinary, prefiguring the decorations of the disco era. It must have been a fantastic sight in the 1920s, giving the dancehall an exotic, unforgettable atmosphere.

Almost a century later the mirrored ball has been resurrected. The El Torreon underwent many changes since Phil Baxter's day. From a 1920s fancy ballroom ("the tallest building in Kansas City") to a skating rink to a rock 'n roll arena renamed "The Cowtown Ballroom" in the 1970s - where Frank Zappa, Ravi Shankar, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, The Byrds, BB King, King Crimson, Captain Beefheart, and many others performed.

And then the mirrored ball was taken down and put into storage.

In subsequent years (after 1974) the El Torreon served as a flea-market venue, a church, etc.

The mirrored ball has been resurrected, 45+ years later. You can see it in the Kansas City Museum.

These days, the El Torreon hosts weddings, business meetings, and special events.

Here is a link to an article about the resurrection of the mirrored ball.

Here is a link to its present incarnation.

And here is a preview to a movie about the Cowtown Ballroom of the 1970s - when the mirrored ball still spun above the stage.

  St. James Infirmary.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Borges, tattoos, conspiracy notions, and SJI

A quick post, here. Three items that I've had on the burner.

1. Jorge Luis Borges, singer of St. James Infirmary

Are you familiar with Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)? Argentinian, he is often considered one of the premier fiction writers of the age. While he received many international awards, many think it atrocious that he was not given the Nobel prize for literature.

Borges' short story collection, Labyrinths, had a big impact on me.

And, abstract writer par excellence, he was a big fan of St. James Infirmary. He enjoyed singing it.

2. A tattoo artist imprinted stop-motion impressions of the cartoon featuring Cab Calloway circa 1932. 76 inkings on 76 bodies.

3.  Conspiracy theorists put forward the notion that the the SJI cartoon predicted Covid-19.

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?

Inquiries into the early years of SJI