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
Inquiries into the early years of SJI