Thursday, May 30, 2024

Dee Dee Bridgewater and SJI

Continuing with contemporary approaches to SJI, here are two Dee Dee Bridgewater interpretations of the song.

Bridgewater does some gender-bending in her version. She recorded this on 2015s remarkable Dee Dee's Feathers.

I have included two of her variations. Like jazz (or the blues) her approach to the song allows her musicians to have space. Space. SJI allows space for improvisation and interpretation, and Dee Dee takes advantage of that.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Interview with Debbie Burke re IWDtSJI

Debbie Burke recently interviewed me for her blog, "Debbie Burke - jazz author."

She hosts a remarkable site - I recommend checking it out! Her books can be found via amazon, and on her site.

Since she was the interviewer and I was the interviewee, there's not much I can add, except, of course, for the interview itself. So, for those of you interested in following further, here is the link:

Thank you, Debbie!

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Interpretations: St. James Infirmary & Simple Twist Of Fate

Back in September I promised a series of contemporary interpretations of St. James Infirmary. We started with a young Rufus Wainwright. This is the second in that series and you will find two variations this time (plus a delightful interpretation of "Simple Twist of Fate").

First, David Mattson.

David Mattson on guitar

Now living in Largo, Florida, David has lived in all but one of the U.S. states, and a few other countries. He currently uses a Joe Beck alto guitar, made for him by a friend. His interpretation of SJI is a charming reimagining, with the refrain "her left hand brushing back her hair" transforming into a tender conclusion. He would use his rewritten SJI when doing soundchecks, or as an opener for gigs, allowing lots of room for improvisation.

This is a beautiful example of how SJI can be adapted by creative artists; always recognizable, always different.

Raygun Carver
Our second example.

Raygun Carver - a band name for Michael Soiseth - released his first album, "Moon Fields Yawning," in 2020. Raised around Port Angeles, he has an idiosyncratic sound, with refreshing interpretations and beautifully crafted originals. Of the latter, his "Everywhere You Go Is Where You'll Be," suggests that regardless of where we live, regardless of where we move, we remain who we are - changing the place does not change the person. Ahhhh, but maybe, changing the person can change the place?

His take on SJI is invigorating.

And, of course, not only traditional songs are open to interpretation. Raygun Carver's phrasing and timing on Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate" opens us up for a new listen. (For instance, cue in to Carver's song at about 1:10 - "like a freight train ...")

I am always grateful for fresh air.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

About a 1930 lawsuit - you cannot copyright a song title

Inside cover of Denton & Haskins 1930 "St. James Infirmary."
Item should enlarge if clicked on.
In this blog entry - and in more detail in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary - I write about a 1930 New York court case where Irving Mills' music company sued the music publisher Denton & Haskins.

Denton and Haskins (D&H) were selling a song, "St. James Infirmary," that Mills Music had been heavily promoting over the previous year. (These were the early days of song recording when sheet music outsold records.) While the song published by D&H had the SJI title, the lyrics were much different. D&H hired Claude Austin to write new music and William J. McKenna to write a new lyric. (D&H also included current lyrics inside the front cover; see first image.) D&H were really pushing this issue. The cover title was St. James Infirmary or The Gambler's Blues also known as St. Joe's Infirmary. These were different titles for more or less the same song. So, they were confident in their assertion that they could market a song with a title that was already in use.

Cover Denton&Haskins SJI
Mills Music argued that Denton & Haskins was taking unfair advantage of their advertising and promotion, and thereby profiting from Mills' investment in the song. 

When I looked into this, the chief librarian at the New York Supreme Court kindly sent about 600 pages of testimony and legal argument. On trial and appeal Mills won the case, but when it was referred to the Appeals Court, he lost, and had to pay costs.

I had interpreted the judgements as supportive of Mills' claim, and only when I received an e-mail from a New York lawyer, Bruce R. Kraus, correcting my interpretation, did I realize that I had read the"dissenting opinion" as the court ruling.

Cover Mills Music SJI

Irving Mills did not appear in court, but submitted a signed affidavit. Among other admissions, he agreed that the song did not originate with him, or with Mills Music, or with "Joe Primrose." But since this was not a federal court, those admissions meant little as far as copyright and song ownership. As Kraus pointed out, this lawsuit served warning that Irving Mills and Mills Music were not to be fooled with; to challenge them could become an expensive proposition - Mills Music had deep pockets and were unafraid of confrontation.

Of course, this New York case was not about copyright, which is a federal and not a state matter. But, then again ... in the arguments for Mills Music, Irving was saying that I own this title, I have expended considerable effort, energy, and money in publicizing the song. It is unfair that another company gets to profit from my efforts.

Maybe it was due to this warning - the warning that Mills Music would aggressively challenge legal submissions - that the copyright for St. James Infirmary was never challenged in federal court, and Mills continued to profit from the song for many years.

As Bruce Kraus succinctly explained, "you cannot copyright a title." Copyright law considers titles or phrases to be too short; they contain insufficient creative effort to warrant copyright.

For instance, the Beatles famously recorded "The End" on Abbey Road in 1969. Two years earlier The Doors had recorded a song called "The End" on their 1967 eponymous debut album. So did Pearl Jam (2009), Kings of Leon (2010), and quite a few others.

How many songs have been titled "I Love You"?

From Bob Dylan's 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year speech:
“I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.” (italics extra)

"Everything belongs to everyone," Dylan said. Utopian. Undeniably true. And that's St. James Infirmary.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Rufus Wainwright does SJI ... or The Unfortunate Rake?

There are so many interpretations of SJI. So many.

I am planning to post a few recent variations, starting with Rufus Wainwright. This song was recorded in 1998, part of his first album but excluded from it and re-introduced on a 25th anniversary CD.

Rufus creates a link between The Unfortunate Rake and SJI. He mixes them together as a kind of gumbo, combining lyrical touches from SJI and Streets of Laredo. Mostly, though, it's The Unfortunate Rake that he references.

The song starts:
"Early one morning at the St. James Infirmary
Early one morning in the month of May
I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen
Wrapped in white linen, and as cold as the clay"

And later:
"Call for the doctor, come and heal my body
Call for the preacher to heal up my soul
For my poor head is aching and my sad heart is breaking
I'm a poor, rundown cowboy and hell is my doom"

Aside from the name of the institution (St. James Infirmary rather than St. James Hospital), this is pretty well The Unfortunate Rake - and nothing in this version, or any other version of The Unfortunate Rake, makes me think of SJI - either lyrically or melodically.

He delivers a good song.

This is not surprising: he is always brightly original, sparkling, in both his own compositions and his interpretations.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Tony Bennett's first recording: St. James Infirmary

Tony Bennett in the U.S. Army, 1945.
Tony Bennett, who died today at 96, made his first recording seventy-seven years ago:

After a distinguished career in the army (and a short-lived demotion for eating in a restaurant with a black friend, after which he was put on gravedigging detail), Tony Bennett recorded his first song. This was "St. James Infirmary," made in 1946. The song was on a V-disc, for American troops, and never released in the U.S. George Tannenbaum explains what V-discs are:

"V-discs were recordings done for American soldiers during World War II. Because there was a musicians strike in the U.S. at the time, V-discs were recorded but they never went on sale in the States. They were only for our overseas troops. Most of the records never came home and the masters of the recordings weren't treated with any special reverence. So for years it was rare to get a hold of a V-Disc recording--especially a rare one."

You can read about his army career here.

Bennett became Grandmaster of the Great American Songbook, a superb stylist whose recording history extended from 1952 ("Because of You") to 2021 ("Love for Sale," with Lady Gaga).

We miss you, Tony!

You can listen to the 1946 SJI here:

And here's a more contemporary version, from 1994:

Friday, June 16, 2023

Dylan, Rawls, McTell, SJI ...

Some of the people involved in the complex
and intriguing story of "St. James Infirmary."
MOMENTS BEFORE LAUNCHING INTO A PERFORMANCE of “St. James Infirmary” in 1941, jazz great Jack Teagarden referred to it as “the oldest blues I ever heard.” The first time I heard the song, sixty years later, it sounded utterly contemporary.

      I was alone in my apartment and listening to a new CD, The Finest in Jazz Vocalists. Lou Rawls was singing “St. James Infirmary.” I had been a Rawls fan as a teenager, and paid close attention. Rawls began with a mournful preamble, one that — I found out later — was written by Irving Mills in 1930 and is an infrequent addition to the song:

      When will I ever stop moaning?
      When will I ever smile?
      My baby went away and she left me
      She’ll be gone for a long, long while.
      I feel so blue, I feel heartbroken
      What am I living for?
      My baby she went away and she left me
      No no no never to come back no more.

      The band picked up the tempo and launched into the body of that version of the song (there are many versions):

      I went down to St. James Infirmary
      I heard my baby groan
      I felt so broken-hearted
      She used to be my own.

      Hearing that melody, I shot out of my chair and shouted into the empty room, “That’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’!” It brought to mind, with a jolt, the Bob Dylan song of that name. It’s not that the Rawls' melody was identical to  Dylan's, but there were similarities. For instance, both songs use the same basic chords. Thousands of songs are based on those chords, however, so it was probably in the pulse or the phrasing that the ­similarities revealed themselves. I have played these two songs to friends, who often hear no resemblance. For me, it was a revelation.

      Dylan recorded “Blind Willie McTell” in the spring of 1983 for his Infidels album, released in November of that year. “Blind Willie McTell” did not appear on the record, and neither did several others from those New York sessions ("Foot of Pride," "Someone's Got a Hold of my Heart"). “McTell” emerged on no official Dylan recording (bootlegs were another matter) until 1991, when Columbia released a three-CD set of alternate versions and previously unreleased material called The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1–3. This is where I first heard Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.”

      “Blind Willie McTell” is a magnificent piece of songcraft in which both the poetry and the music carry us into broad terrain. Dylan accomplishes this not through conventional narrative, but through a series of vignettes, a cascade of images that, coupled with a compelling melody, conveys a landscape of conflict and despair. The chorus summons the musician of the title: “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.” Asked why he had omitted the song from his album, Dylan said he didn’t think he had recorded it right. The first time he performed the song in concert was August 5, 1997, at Montreal’s Du Maurier Stadium, fourteen years after recording it in the studio.

      Standing there, listening to Lou Rawls, I remembered Dylan’s words near the end of “Blind Willie McTell” — “I’m gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel.” Here, in a song melodically reminiscent of “St. James Infirmary,” Dylan seemed to be paying homage. I made up my mind to find out more about “St. James Infirmary.” Little did I know that this was the beginning of a very long journey, eventually leading to I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

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 jeg 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."

Inquiries into the early years of SJI