Monday, December 6, 2010

Blind Willie McTell biography

I want to point out a very sweet - crisp, detailed, and well written - online biography of Blind Willie McTell. Readers of this site will know that McTell, because of the popularity of his rendition of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," figures fairly prominently in the history of "St. James Infirmary" - for the same reason there are a number of posts here about Porter Grainger.

It is not easy, not by a long shot, to write a concise biography as well as Mr. Obrecht has done. You can find it via the link above, or by going to

Friday, October 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Porter Grainger

Anonymous just dropped me a line, reminding me that Porter Grainger was born on this day, October 22, in 1891 (a birth date, by the way, that was discovered right here, at I Went Down to St. James Infirmary).

So - Happy Birthday, Porter Grainger.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Moving to Saskatchewan

In a little over a week Pam and I will be cramming our belongings into a U-Haul truck and driving three thousand kilometers to a village in southern Saskatchewan. A couple of years ago I climbed to the top of a grain elevator and took the panorama of the village posted above.

We shall be spending a lot of time settling in - most of all, renovating a small house on the edge of the town, Val Marie. There will not be much time for SJI musings. I do, however, intend to eventually revise the book that this blog is an extension of - but one does need to be careful about embarking on too many projects at one time.

Common As Air - a reading recommendation

I have been away from this blog for some time, and this will be one of my last posts for some time yet. More about that later - for now, though, here is a reading recommendation.

Lewis Hyde's book Common As Air - Revolution, Art, and Ownership was released about a month ago. The book offers a stimulating discussion of copyright and ownership of "intellectual property," areas that I have found unavoidable in my researches into "St. James Infirmary" and its ilk. We know something about how a song like "St. James Infirmary" grew organically, and what happened to the song when it was suddenly transformed into an owned thing, "protected" by copyright from the very processes that gave it life.

"Common As Air " brings a fresh perspective to questions - today more important than ever - arising out of ownership of the intangible. I recommend it highly - although I doubt that Irving Mills would have given it much praise.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ethel, Portia, and Porter - Porter Grainger's family?

As I try to find out more about Porter Grainger, the view becomes murkier where one would hope for clarity. For example, there are plenty of references to Ethel Finney (or Finnie - even the census reports record her surname differently; Finney seems to be the correct spelling), with whom he recorded a number of songs between 1923 and 1926. With Ethel he (apparently) had a daughter, Portia Grainger. In his excellent book "Never Sell a Copyright"about Joe Davis (with whom Grainger collaborated), Bruce Bastin wrote, "When renewing the copyright for "Wylie Street Blues," Davis claimed it in his name and that of Portia Grainger, daughter of the late Porter Grainger. When first published by Triangle Music in 1927, Davis and Grainger were credited as writers. Upon renewal, more than one might have been tempted to drop the name of the deceased co-writer."

The suggestion here, of course, is that Davis was being kind, as Portia could now receive royalties. The song, however, never made much of an impression, and her royalties must have been close to nil.

Still, Portia Grainger and Ethel Finney (or Finnie) Grainger remain elusive. Bastin's reference is one of the few that suggests Grainger had a family. In researching U.S. census records, I have found Ethel Finney in 1900, 1910, 1920, as well as 1930. In 1920 she was living in New Orleans, with her father Noble (a butler), her mother Mary, and her brother, also named Noble and a pastor. Ethel was a grammar school teacher. She was 22 years old, and single. In 1930 she was (again or still?) living with her parents at the same address. She was now Ethel Grainger (her parents' name is recorded as Finnie, rather than Finney as in the earlier census records). Her daughter Portia was five years old, and she had a step-son called Marion LeBlanc, aged 6. (As a sidebar, a young couple called LeBlanc - Joseph and Mattie - were neighbours in 1910.) She reported her age as 30 (2 years younger than in previous census records), and that she had been married for 10 years. (Meanwhile, in New York City, Porter Grainger declared he had been married for five years.) Ethel was working as a cook in a private home - nowhere in the 1920 and 1930 records does she claim the profession of musician.

It seems unlikely that these census results are coincidental (although, of course, that is a possibility). What they suggest is intriguing. We could create a variety of scenarios. Perhaps Porter was correct, and they had been married a mere five years - that is, after Ethel became pregnant with Portia. Returning home - having become disillusioned with the music business, or with her husband (who, remember, is reputed to have been homosexual), Ethel altered the wedding date to something more socially acceptable.

Then again, there is no solid evidence that the Grainger in question with these census results was Porter (aside, that is, from the striking similarity with Ethel's daughter's name). Coincidence seems unlikely but not implausible.

Thanks to reader Andrew Barrett for leading me to Bruce Bastin's most interesting book, Never Sell a Copyright: Joe Davis and His Role in the New York Music Scene 1916 to 1978 (Storyville Publications, 1990)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Phil Baxter, bandleader, 'co-composer' of Gambler's Blues (aka St. James Infirmary)

Today, I'm revisiting an earlier post about Phil Baxter, a pianist and band leader who was active in the 1920s and 1930s. Phil Baxter was a prolific and successful song-writer. Among his better known compositions we can include "Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas," "Piccolo Pete" (and the follow-up, "Harmonica Harry" - both were early novelty hits for Ted Weems and his orchestra), and "A Faded Summer Love" (which was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1931).

Baxter also claimed co-authorship for "St. James Infirmary." He and Carl Moore actually published the song in 1925, but they neglected to apply for copyright. It is possible that around 1921 Baxter and Moore toured together as a duo.They would ride the train from town to town and perform skits and music, with Moore on drums, Baxter at the piano. Baxter eventually settled in Kansas City where, leading the house band at the El Torreon ballroom, he displaced the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks as Kansas City's favourite dance orchestra.

Baxter was unable to perform after 1933 because of arthritis. On the verge of his leaving for Texas, the Kansas City Journal-Post ran a long article about Baxter which included this comment: "Baxter has had some litigation over the authorship of one song, which has been in circulation as 'St. James Infirmary,' but which he said he composed long ago and called 'Gambler's Blues.' He said he published it privately in Texas years ago, and that a New York publisher picked it up." That New York publisher was undoubtedly Gotham Music, whose president was Irving Mills.

Information about Phil Baxter is very hard to come by. Recordings of his can still be found on CD, but in compilations with titles like volume 2 of Jazz the World Forgot, or Texas and Tennessee Territory Bands. If anyone has information about Phil I would love to hear from you. I understand that Baxter's friend, Cliff Halliburton, wrote a biography of Phil, but I have been unable to find it and suspect it was never published.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A bit of a departure - Josh Ritter, Stagger Lee, Delia, etc.

This is a bit of a departure - an article that has no real connection to St. James Infirmary. Unless, that is, you see murder ballads like "Stagger Lee" (aka "Stackalee," etc.) and "Delia" as connected to SJI via their hallowed positions in the pantheon of American roots music.

Josh Ritter has just released a CD, So Runs the World Away. I have to admit that I am a big fan of Ritter, and was delighted, excited to hear a piece on that album titled "Folk Bloodbath." He's done, I think, something remarkable here. As Ritter acknowledges in the liner notes, he started with a tune Mississippi John Hurt recorded in 1928, "Louis Collins." That's the basic melody, and the refrain. Ritter incorporates references to "Delia," "Stagger Lee," and even "Barbara Allen" in building a contemporary and charming song, pulling references from those songs lyrics.

Comparing the original tunes, it sounds like Mississippi John Hurt, in the grand folk tradition, might have incorporated bits of "Delia" when he wrote "Louis Collins." Hurt's reference to funereal red dresses is transmuted into red suits and ox-blood Stetsons in the Ritter song.

There are some interesting plot changes; the fellow who shot Delia enters Ritter's song this way:

The judge was a mean one, his name was 'Hanging Billy Lyons,' He said, "You always been a bad man, Stag, I'm gonna hang you this time." And the angels laid him away.

By the end of the song, Louis Collins, Delia, and Stagger Lee are all dead, as they were (albeit separately) in their earlier incarnations. The closing lines are a treat; I won't reveal them here.

This kind of creative referencing is of the sort that is difficult with copyright-protected songs. Back when "St. James Infirmary" was owned and protected by Irving Mills, nothing remotely approaching this could have been done with it. In fact, SJI might just be coming into its own in this century. You might want to check out NO Notes for some, uhm, notes about more modern versions.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Looking for George Clardy (and a bit more about Porter Grainger)

Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, George Clardy co-wrote a song called "Quit Throwin' It, McGivern!" with Porter Grainger. Bob Hutchins, who has commented on this blog about Clardy, is researching his life .

According to Mr. Hutchins, George Clardy was born in Dubuque in 1886. He worked as a lyricist and a cartoonist/illustrator, living in New Jersey and in New York City. He wrote campaign songs for Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey. Along with Willie "the Lion" Smith he wrote the songs, "It's the Breaks," and "Down in Chicazola Town."

Clardy's aunt was Mr. Hutchins' grandmother. In 1948 Clardy wrote a letter to his aunt, mentioning briefly Porter Grainger (and, separately, Willie "the Lion" Smith). Clardy had suffered a couple of strokes, and this might account for some of the syntax in his letter:
"The enclosed song, 'Quit Throwin' It, McGivern!" was with Porter Grainger. Twenty years ago, Porter put on his colored musical comedy in 'Lucky Sambo.' Like a rest of others cleaned up 2 1/2 Million Dollars when he sold out to Hurtig & Seamon's Theatres. Then he saved his money, bought wisely in real estate in Bowling Greene, Kentucky."

This suggests that Grainger struck it rich with "Lucky Sambo," and invested wisely in his home town of Bowling Green. Neither Mr. Hutchins, nor music historian Elliott Hurwitt, believe that 2.5 million dollars is a remote possibility for a black songwriter of that period. "Lucky Sambo," an all-black musical comedy, had a one week run at New York's New Colonial Theatre in 1925. It might have also had life as a traveling show. It seems that Grainger co-wrote all the music and songs, and probably played piano during the performances.

If you have any information about George Clardy, please leave a message - either at this blog or to Mr. Hutchins himself at

Monday, March 29, 2010

Moving towards (or away from?) a biographical outline of Porter Grainger

No entries on this blog have generated as much response as the ones concerning Porter Grainger. This is kind of odd, because - aside from a few copyrighted songs and a few recorded performances on which he plays piano in the background - nobody knows much about Grainger.

(For those of you new to this site, Grainger is connected to "St. James Infirmary" through a song he wrote in the 1920s: "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues.")

There are a few tidbits of information about him - enough to suggest a talented songwriter whose role in the development of American popular song has been consistently underrated, if not outright ignored.

When researching I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, I discovered both where and when he was born. This was not a particularly difficult thing , and reaffirms the general lack of interest in this man. We have yet to discover when he died. One contributer to this site, Andrew Barrett, noted that Grainger renewed the 1926 copyright of a book he co-wrote with his friend Bob Ricketts, How to Sing and Play the Blues Like the Phonograph and Stage Artists, on October 7th, 1954. As a result, one might assume that he was alive in 1954. In 1955 though, a writing partner reportedly renewed the copyright for a song they wrote together, replacing (the now deceased) Porter Grainger's name with his daughter's, Portia Grainger.

This last bit of news, that Porter might have had a daughter, does not necessarily fly in the face of descriptions of Porter Grainger as an openly flamboyant homosexual - but it does give us pause for reflection. The 1930 census lists an Ethel and a Portia Grainger living in New Orleans. Portia was then 5 years old, and her mother 30. It adds that Ethel - although not living with her husband at the time of the census - was married, and had been for 10 years. Ethel Grainger, Howard Rye states in the liner notes to the CD Porter Grainger 1923-1929, recorded under the name Ethel Finnie. Porter played piano on these recordings. I have noted in the book, though, that Grainger claimed (on the 1930 census) that he had been married since he was 33, which would have been around 1924, rather than Ethel's statement of about 1920. Grainger also claimed on his WW1 draft card that he was already married (that is, before 1920), but this could reflect a reluctance to being drafted (having dependents could affect one's priority for the draft). It's slippery, isn't it?

The evidence that Porter had a daughter Portia, as far as I can tell, is not definitive, and we cannot even claim with assurance that (census statements notwithstanding) Porter was ever married. Nor can we claim, aside from some circumstantial commentary, that he was homosexual. If he did not have a daughter Portia, the likelihood increases that he was still alive in 1955, when the copyright on his song was renewed.

I would be delighted to be told that I am incorrect, that we do have more substantiated information about his life.

Correspondent Bob Hutchins wrote to me about a letter his grandmother received in 1948 (see the post above) suggesting that Grainger could have returned to Bowling Green once he made a bit of money. Music historian Elliott Hurwitt notes that we have mostly looked for clues to Grainger's later life elsewhere, in places like New York and Chicago - perhaps Tennessee might serve as a good hunting ground, at least as far as discovering the place and date of Porter Grainger's death.

(ps Andrew Barret sent me a scan of a photograph showing Porter Grainger posing with a large crowd of other musicians/songwriters, including Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton and over a dozen others (many unidentified). Morton died in 1941, so the photograph obviously predates that event. Grainger's inclusion in this collection suggests, to me at least, that he was regarded highly in some music circles.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

SJI on old-time radio - Again!

You will recall, a year ago WFHB public radio in Bloomington, Indiana, hosted a live radio show featuring none other than Carl Moore, early claimant to the authorship of "St. James Infirmary."

They're doing it again!

No, no, no - not the same show! Carl Moore will be (as far as I'm aware) nowhere in sight (or sound) - although my erstwhile contact, WFHB alumnus Mike Kelsey, assures me that Cab Calloway will be there. And that a Calloway tribute will feature a version of SJI (which was, for many years, Cab's signature song).

According to music charts compiled by Record Research Inc., for the days before there were any record charts, Cab Calloway was the first (and last???) person to have a top 40 hit with St. James Infirmary - in 1931.

So cuddle up to your radios for a live broadcast, from the famous Buskirk-Chumley Theater in beautiful downtown Bloomington, at 8 pm (Indiana time), for "Digital Daze" - including a tribute to the master of scat, the wizard of radio dance music, Cab Calloway.

Or . . . tune your desktops and laptops here for a live feed. Saturday, March 13th, at 8 o'clock p.m. - Indiana time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ruminations on "Let Her Go"

Readers of this blog will be familiar with quite a few recent entries discussing various incarnations of the verse that begins "Let her go, let her go, God bless her."

Over at No Notes, Rob Walker has posted a lengthy rumination on "St. James Infirmary" and its "Let Her Go" verse. As always, his writing is vivid and captivating. I too had been pondering the almost - or seemingly - haphazard injection of the "let her go" sentiment, and how it gives the song its peculiar aura. Rob's conclusion is well worth reading, but I advise none to rush to the end of his narrative - there is great pleasure to be had in the journey.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI