Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Old, Weird America - The much expanded Harry Smith anthology

I found this blog thanks to The Celestial Monochord.

The blog is called The Old, Weird America: My Exploration of Harry Smith's Anthology. The writer, who seems to be anonymous, has set him/herself the task of examining all the songs in the Harry Smith Anthology and providing:

1. commentary on each song
2. for each performer on the anthology, files of other songs he/she/they recorded
3. files of other variations of the song being discussed
4. other things

As there are something like 84 tracks on the anthology, this is quite a task. Still, the first 18 songs have been discussed already - pretty good going, as the project only came online in November 2008.

The most recent post is all about "Gonna Die with a Hammer in My Hand" (aka "John Henry") by The Williamson Brothers & Curry. Our ambitious blogger discusses the performers, offers the few recordings they made, gives links to other sites that discuss the song, offers 100 variations on "John Henry," and even posts some video.

This is really important stuff. Congratulations to The Old Weird America!

Addendum: I have just found out that the author of the blog The Old, Weird America is a fellow called Gadaya. He is actually quite active on the web, including this Youtube Channel in which you can watch/hear him perform a ton of songs like "Casey Jones," "Worried Man Blues," "Barbara Allen" and so on. All of these he does very well indeed, accompanying himself on guitar, banjo ukelele . . . Gadaya lives in France. And while one would think that his involvement in American roots music is large enough a bite for any one man, his blog "The World's Jukebox" shows him casting his net about as wide as anyone can.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Old Time Gambler's Song" - St. James Infirmary in 1926.

At the suggestion of John Garst (see yesterday's post) I searched for a copy of Songs of the Cowboys. The original edition, by Jack Thorp, was published in 1908. It was a mere 50 pages long, consisting of 23 cowboy songs. That edition contained a version of "Cow Boy's Lament" (aka "Streets of Laredo") that I had not encountered before:

My curse let it rest, let it rest on the fair one
Who drove me from friends that I loved and from home
Who told me she loved me, just to deceive me
My curse rest upon her, wherever she roam.

In this 'new' (1966) edition, Austin and Alta Fife elaborated on the original book, providing commentary and additional variations for each of the songs Thorp published. This edition is almost 350 pages long.

Within the chapter on "Cow Boy's Lament" is a song that I don't think really belongs there, but which is of great interest to me. By this time it had become a common assumption that there was a direct link between "The Unfortunate Rake," "Streets of Laredo," and "St. James Infirmary." And so we find a song called "Old Time Gambler's Song," with a lyric very close to - and very different from - the "St. James Infirmary" that has been popular from 1928 to the present.

One thing that intrigues me about "St. James Infirmary" is the relative rarity of alternate versions. I think this was one of the effects of Irving Mills securing copyright for the song. Because of legal restrictions, and of the immense popularity of the early recorded version, those alternate variations fell into disuse. This song was sent by Terence McKay to Robert Winslow Gordon in a letter dated April 5, 1926. Gordon was a song collector who would, two years later, found the American Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

Of the versions of SJI that we know, several refer to dying on the ocean, being killed by a cannonball. This song offers a more reasonable "I may die out on the ocean, be shot down in a gambling house brawl." The rest of the lyric is equally interesting.

Lyrics to "Old Time Gambler's Song"


I dreamed I went down to St. James Infirmary
Thought I saw my baby lying there;
Laid out on a clean white table,
So pale and yet so fair.

If she's gone, let her go, God bless her,
For she's mine wherever she may be;
You may search this wide world over
You'll never find another pal such as she

I may die out on the ocean
Be shot down in a gambling house brawl;
But if you follow me to the end of my story
You'll find a blonde was the cause of it all

When I die just bury me in a box back suit,
Blue shirt, roller hat, pair of shoes with toes so tall;
Put whiskey in my coffin, deck of cards in my hand;
Don't let them weep and wail, don't let them moan at all.

Put marihuana  in my coffin,
Smoke it as you carry me along;
Take even rolling crap shooters for pall bearers,
Coke sniffers to sing my funeral song.

Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch charm
So the boys'll all know I'm standing pat;
Put ice on my feet, for in that place where I'm going
I won't even be cool with that.

Just carve it on my tombstone
In letters bold and black,
"Here lies an old time gambler,
Pray God won't you please bring him back!"

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Let her go, God bless her - dated 1909

I've had a number of conversations in the past about those lines from St. James Infirmary, "Let her go, let her go God bless her . . ." and so on. They combine with the rest of the song to tell a very strange story. Where did these words come from, at what point did they enter the song? Were they original sentiments, placed there deliberately, or imported from elsewhere as the song evolved?

John Garst is an organic chemist and amateur folklorist, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia. He has recently (and very generously) sent me information about several songs that we shall discuss in upcoming posts, but I wanted to share this lyric as soon as I could.

John tells me that this song, "She's Gone, Let Her Go" comes from the Song Book of the Harvard Club of San Francisco, dated 1909. I'm not sure we could find a more Caucasian collection of people. There is no music, but here are the lyrics:


They say true love is a blessing,
But the blessing I never could see,
For the only girl I ever loved
Has done gone back on me.


She's gone, let her go, God bless her,
For she's mine wherever she may be,
You may roam this wide world all over,
But you'll never find a friend like me.

There may be a change in the weather,
There may be a change in the sea,
There may be a change all over,
But there'll never be a change in me.

It's easy to think of this as the likely inspiration for the song discussed in the entry below.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"God Bless Her" - Echoes of SJI in a WW1 song

Buried on the 348th page of American Air Service historian Edgar S. Gorrell's book Gorrell's History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919 (stored at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration - NARA) is a song with some resemblance to "St. James Infirmary." Gorrell assembled a few pages of songs enjoyed by the World War One airmen. These words introduce this section of the document (obviously written by someone with less than expert proficiency on a typewriter):

"One of the pleasantest recollections which the officers of the Ninetieth will carry with them from France back to the States is of the convivial evenings spent in the mess hall after the dinnerplates had been removed, cigarettes and Pierson's cigars lighted, and the cares of the day forgotten. With Conover at the head of the table leading the songs, assisted by Rohrer's dramatic tenor and Lakes melodious bass, the hours passed quickly. Sweethearts gone but not forgotten and the ties which bound us to the Ninetieth were the favorite but by no means the exclusive themes of our songs.

"We were particularly fortunate in having not only a glee club of such high ability, but also writers of such merit as Capt. Schauffler and Harvey Conover proved to be. Yet this collection does not pretend to be comprised of exclusively original songs. We have disregarded all copyright laws both as to words and music. For some of our songs we owe a debt of gratitude to the Ambulance Corps. Others will be recognized as mere naked parodies on well-known college songs. Our object has been merely to make a collection which would in future years refresh our memories of those merry evenings at Souilly and Bethelainville, and incidentally preserve from oblivion the genius of our aviator poets."

The song, "God Bless Her" looks as if it had been cobbled together, perhaps using the refrain of "St. James Infirmary" as its inspiration. This is one of the few concrete references to SJI that precede the 1920s. I am convinced there were many variations about, some of them probably quite daring - but these fell by the wayside, forgotten, after Irving Mills secured the copyright.

Lyrics to "God Bless Her"


Oh she turned me down last summer
For she said she didn't love me anymore;
But now she has written that she'll be my wife
An I've gone and joined the Flying Corps.

She has gone, let her go, God Bless her

She is mine wherever she may be

She may search this wide world over
But she'll never find another like me.

Oh there may come a change in the weather
And there may come a change in the sea.
And there may come a change all over
But there will never come a change in me.

She has gone, let her go, God Bless her.

She is mine wherever she may be

She may search this wide world over
But she'll have to fly to France to catch me.

Oh I've looked at the girls in New York
In London and gay Paris
And there’s one conclusion that I have got
There are other little fishes in the sea.

She has gone, let her go, God Bless her

She is mine wherever she may be

She wanted to marry a tin soldier

But a home-guard I never would be.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

WFHB Community Radio - yet again!

I can't believe I'm entering three posts in a row about WFHB, in Bloomington, Indiana. This must be quite the happening community radio station.

I have just heard that folklorist Margaret Lynn Steiner will be broadcasting on Tuesday, March 17th - St. Patrick's Day - from 9 to 11 pm (Eastern time). She says that her program will be split between songs from Northern Ireland (where I was born) and songs from Miramichi, New Brunswick (near where my brother lives). Of the former Margaret says, "Newtownbutler, in Co. Fernmanagh, Northern Ireland, had a very active living song tradition, certainly in the late 1970's. Local songs abounded, centering around hunting, Gaelic football,  and cockfighting, as well as songs celebrating the local topography, etc. All I had to do was walk into McQuillan's Pub, and I could just happen on a 'singsong.'"

Regarding Miramichi, Ms. Steiner has been attending their folksong festival since 1986. This is the oldest folk music festival in Canada. Dating from 1958 it has the primary function of preserving traditional songs and culture. One of the treasures of Miramichi has been Wilmot MacDonald, a singer with an impressive store of old songs  - and who is featured on a 1962 Smithsonian recording. Margaret Steiner contributed to a CD and book about MacDonald, that is available from the Maine Folklife Center, University of Maine.

Margaret Lynn Steiner: "Edward D. (Sandy Ives) has done a lot of work on the English-language tradition, especially focusing on 19th-century folk poets such as Larry Gorman and Joe Scott. Ronald Labelle, of the University of Moncton, has worked a lot with the Francophone tradition, and I've been working with singers who are bilingual and bicultural and looking at how they juggle their biculturalism musically."

Folklorists are important people. Song collecting is important work. In this - as Lucas Gonze puts it - age of copyright extremism, we need to broaden our base of inspiration. We need to be reminded that songs can be living things with a vitality and meaningfulness that, in terms of cultural and personal value, far outstrips the monetary lifespan of Mickey Mouse.

So, that's WFHB on Tuesday, March 17th, from 9 to 11 in the evening, Eastern time. I shall be scheduling an audio capture, so I can load it onto my iPod.

More about Border Radio on WFHB - Live!

The above image is from the web site of Bloomington, Indiana's Buskirk-Chumley Theater. This historic building will be the site for WFHB's March 27th live broadcast after the style of Border Radio - of interest here because of a) its historical context and b) it promises the first live performance after the style of Carl "Deacon" Moore in perhaps 70 years.

I was doing a bit of surfing this morning, and noticed that WFHB's home page had added the following notice:

WFHB holds live radio show at Buskirk-Chumley Theater March 27th
Remember the days when the radio announcer would say "Who's this on the Wolfman telephone?" or "Put your hands on the radio to feel the power of His love..."? Then you'll want to mark the date for WFHB's Spring Variety Show on Friday, March 27th at the historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater in downtown Bloomington. Local and regional musical acts, radio skits, live sound effects and more will transport you back to an earlier age when preachers, psychics, and purveyors of snake oil prevailed.

There is more detail here.

So, if you happen to live nearby, or are visiting Bloomington, Indiana, the live show is from 8 to 10 pm on March 27th. Those of us further away can catch it via their live feed at

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Coming soon: Border Radio - live feed - including Carl "Deacon" Moore!

I have been exchanging emails with Mike Kelsey, dj of a really interesting radio show at the WFHB community radio station in Bloomington, Indiana.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the name Carl "Deacon" Moore - and probably with the recordings I have posted here. Recently Mike played some of the Carl Moore records on his show - this is probably the first time they've been heard in broadcast since sometime in the 1930s! But later this month he will be doing something even more exciting!

Mark your calendars for Friday March 27th, between 8 and 10 pm Eastern Time. Turn your digital dial to for a live broadcast patterned after the Border Radio of the 1930s and 1940s. Among the songs to be broadcast will be live covers of at least one of the Moore songs. What will it be? "Evolution Mama?" "Nobody Knows Where She's Gone?" Place your bets at the window.

There are a number of books about Border Radio, but one in particular manages to sum it up nicely in its subtitle: "Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves." The broadcast promises to be a real treat so, see you there!
ps There is a good chance that Carl's wife, the vivacious 92 year-old Marjorie Moore, will be listening in, too.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jack Shea revisited - or should that be Irving Kaufman?

Back on November 23rd, 2008 I posted an article about Jack Shea, with an mp3 of him singing the Irving Mills/Cliff Friend song "Lovesick Blues" in 1922. This afternoon I received a note from Anonymous, declaring "Say, that's the prolific Irving Kaufman in a bluesy frame of mind as 'Jack Shea'."

Ah, the history of popular music does have its share of mysteries - and it seems plausible that Jack Shea never existed.

Irving (of the singing brothers Phillip, Jack, and Irving Kaufman) frequently recorded under aliases, with the agreement of his contracting record companies. Brian Rust, who listed only a handful of records he deemed of interest to jazz enthusiasts, included the aliases of Billy Clark, Sammy Burton, Harry Topping, Tom Nevill, Arthur Holt, Charles Dickson, Noel Taylor, and Brian Watt.

Kaufman was a prolific singer and performer, who made his first record in 1914 and his last record in 1974, when he was 84 years old. A good brief biography can be found on Tim Gracyk's Phonographs.

I did read a list of pseudonyms that claimed Jack Kaufman (Irving's brother) was Jack Shea. But others feel that Shea's intonation is more reminiscent of Irving's voice. Is the jury still out on the true identity of Jack Shea - or is Irving Kaufman's the voice we hear on that 1922 recording?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

More gems from Lefty's Attic

We've finally finished much of the work on the photo website (you can see that here, although it has nothing to do with St. James Infirmary) and so here's another post. I had been planning something about the song collector Dorothy Scarborough, but in the meantime came across this.

By way of explanation, we tend to think first of John and Alan Lomax when we consider song collectors. There were others who preceded them - in North America these include Harry Odum and Dorothy Scarborough. Scarborough's 1925 On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs includes a song that contains a verse with the familiar, "Let her go, let her go / May God bless her, wherever she may be." Her book is a fascinating document, as she comments on the songs and her relationship to them - and interesting in that many of the "Negro songs" she includes obviously came from the minstrel stage.

And then we have Ralph Peer. Peer was a businessman, with little love for the types of songs he was hunting. Still, he went in search of talent, and was responsible for discovering such luminaries as The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The records he made with them were profit-seeking ventures, and so we generally don't include them in the canon of discovered folk songs; we don't see them as equally representative of the non-commercial music of the period.

But here - now, this is a different story. When auditioning for Peer, the musicians would bring their own songs - the stuff they were playing and singing at home, or at the village barn dances. Eventually Peer would send A.P. Carter in search of Appalachian folk songs that he could "modify" and thereby declare as original compositions (all the better to copyright, my dear). But our friend, Lonesome Lefty, has made available some of the original 1927 Bristol Session recordings. Here are The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, The Tenneva Ramblers (Rodgers' band - they split up while arguing about auditioning for Peer), Ernest Stoneman and others, some of whom never recorded again. The sound quality is good, and the download includes the record covers and liner notes. A wonderful find - thanks, Lefty! You can download that album here.

(If you are interested in more detail about these sessions, I can recommend "The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music," published in 2005. Other highly readable resources include Nolan Porterfield's Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler and Mark Zwonitzer's Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music.)
Inquiries into the early years of SJI