Tuesday, May 2, 2023

RIP Gordon Lightfoot

As a music lover (and fellow Canadian), I need to mark Gordon Lightfoot's passing.
He died yesterday, May 1, at the age of 84.

                                                        "Ring Them Bells"

Most remembrances will mention "In the Early Morning Rain," "If You Could Read My Mind," "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," and so on. He wrote hundreds of songs with nary a bad one among them. I prefer to include a couple of more obscure songs. His cover of Dylan's "Ring Them Bells," and "Black Day in July," a song that was banned in the U.S. due to sensitivity over the 1967 Detroit race riots (from which the city has not recovered).

                                                      "Black Day in July"

It is difficult to overestimate Lightfoot's importance to North American folk/popular music.

You're a singular talent, Gordon! Keep on singing!!!

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Gallimaufry and SJI

Gallimaufry. I'd never heard this word until I encountered the website, The Attic of Gallimaufry. The word has a French origin and derives from a kind of 16th century stew. Hash. Hotchpotch. Jumble. Jambalaya. Grab bag. Conglomeration. Pastiche ...
As the site says, the entries are: "Things found by the way, Beyond the temporal horizon, Halcyon shades of kindled times."

Such as? Well, you'll just have to pay it a visit. You will find something that grabs you. I am reading about When WWII paratroopers shouted "Geronimo!"  and When Jazz Was Cool.

Among this fascinating menagerie I was pleased to find my book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

The head page for The Attic of Gallimaufry article


All images in this entry are from The Attic of Gallimaufry. This article is heavily illustrated; you will find Janis Joplin, Carl Sandburg, Josh White, King Oliver, Jack Teagarden, Allen Toussaint, Coleman Hawkins, Washboard Leo, Django Reinhardt, Eric Clapton, and many others.

Rob Walker, founder of the
first blog dedicated to SJI

The entry also features a 45-minute The Sounds in My Head program guest-hosted by Rob Walker, creator of the first-ever blog dedicated to St. James Infirmary. Here Walker presents variations of the song with a relaxed, informed commentary. This one's a lot of fun so put some time aside and give it a listen.

This is good stuff! Thank you, Attic of Gallimaufry, for your attention.

Great web page! Give it a try.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

"Dylan-Related-Books" presents, live on stage, "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary"

Poster for the concert
Marco Demel and I have ongoing email exchanges due to his enthusiasm for I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, and my enthusiasm for his DylanHour radio program from Radio Darmstadt, Germany.

Demel also publishes German language Dylan related books. Many of these are translations, such as Louie Kemp's recollections of his long friendship with Dylan: Dylan & Ich: 50 Jahre Abenteuer.

And he has a book of his own, Tempest Under Control subtitled Mit dem Mond im meinem Auge ("With the Moon in my Eye"). Although Dylan is never mentioned, he is obviously the subject of this engaging book, part biography, part fiction, part commentary.

Marco is a busy man! He is also sponsoring a live concert series, starting December 9, 2022, at the HoffArt Theatre in Darmstadt.

The first of these concerts is actually called "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary," featuring musical guests Candyjane and Lesung. There will be readings from my book.

This from Marco a few minutes ago:
Your book will be part of the concerts at all dates of the series. In March, when the series continues, I
will have Winfried Klima with me, who will perform "Blind Willie McTell," or in April with a Darmstadt Quartet, Hot Jazz Company, who will perform "St. James." The leader is in his 70s and has a voice like Louis Armstrong. Then, in May, Roland Heinrich takes the stage with his German Jimmie Rodgers adaptations, and so on.

That's exciting, Marco! I wish I could be there for all of them!!

Friday, October 21, 2022

From Norway - could this be how the "St. James Infirmary" melody arrived in the U.S.?

Van Gogh
Gypsy Camp near Arles (1888)

The song, "St. James Infirmary" is so utterly American, so utterly Blues and Country and Jazz. It feels born in the southern U.S. And yet, and yet ... things migrate and resonate and percolate and integrate and odd things emerge from the substrate. Could the melody for SJI have originated with Norwegian gypsies in the nineteenth century?

Nicolay Gausel is a professor of Social Sciences at Universitetet i Stavanger, on the southwest coast of Norway. His studies include researching present and historical abuses of minorities.

Nicolay sent us a Norwegian song, probably from the turn of the 20th century, with the St. James Infirmary melody.

He wrote:
"You don't know me, but I came over some information you might like. There is some debate about the origin of the folk/jazz tune 'St.James infirmary'. I just would like to let you know that it resembles a great deal an old Norwegian/Swedish Tater song (Scandinavian word for Gypsy) entitled "Nu står jag på resan så ferdig" ("Now here I stand ready to travel"). It's a song about a man leaving a woman he used to court, asking her to remember him but not for his faults. 

"If you like to listen to the song you can find it on Spotify. It's a rare take based on a social anthropology field study to record what is left of the old Norwegian Swedish Gypsy songs. Here's the link to the song:"

You can also listen to it on YouTube, here.

Tatars is another name for gypsies. They were heavily persecuted in Norway, Sweden, and probably every other country on the planet. As lads living near Belfast, Northern Ireland, my brother and I, sixty-five years ago, climbed a grassy hill one evening and looked down at a gypsy camp. This was an extraordinary sight resplendent with colorful carriages arranged in a circle, horses reigned to posts, a fire burning in the middle of the encampment. We ran home to tell our parents and they warned us to stay away. "These are dangerous people." Our parents believed that gypsies kidnap little children. Ethnic minorities are routinely accused of horrible things, the better to justify their persecution.

In a later email Nicolay wrote:
"This song is most likely from the period when Norway was in union with Sweden (1814-1905). In this period there was great emigration from Norway to the US starting in 1820 with a peak in 1860 ending around 1920. The Taters were heavily persecuted with organized hunts by hunters and local communities. So many of them would probably seek safety and a better life as far away from danger as they could get. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tune got song on these boats crossing the Atlantic, especially since the lyric is about taking goodbye to someone dear – and the song is melancholic (like all Tater songs) so it would surely fit the situation people on the boats were in."

This melody, then, could not have travelled from North America to Norway. People were migrating in a single direction, escaping persecution, forced sterilization, murder. They had no reason to travel in the opposite direction, which would have been fatal, They were travelling from east to west. From Norway to the U.S. Bringing their songs (and melodies) with them.

Could the melody for SJI have originated with the Norwegian gypsies?

As Professor Gausel added, "I played the songs to a musician I know. He said there’s a very low chance a theme like this can be duplicated by chance."

Readers of this blog will recall that a Romany/Gypsy/Tatar version of "St. James Infirmary" was arranged by accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Michael Ward Bergeman, who recorded it with a gypsy band and then with Yo Yo Ma. He felt the melody suited the gypsy style. And maybe there is good reason for that.

The entry below features N. Gausel's translation of Nu står jag på resan så ferdig.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

N. Gausel's translation of "Nu står jag på resan så ferdig" / "Now here I stand ready to travel."

In the above entry Nicolay Gausel identified an old Norwegian/Swedish folk song with the same melody as "St. James Infirmary."  He kindly transcribed the lyric and sent along his own literal translation of "Nu står jag på resan så ferdig" / "Now here I stand ready to travel." The song ends each verse with the poignant "Forget my wrongs, but never forget me."

Nicolay added that the lyric is in a combination of old Swedish and old Norwegian. Both songs, "Now Here I Stand Ready to Travel" and "St. James Infirmary," are about saying goodbye.

This, Nicolay says, is probably the first time the lyric has either been written down or translated.

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.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI