Monday, December 19, 2011

"Stack O' Lee Blues" - the first sheet music (and more)

I have recently had some very interesting email exchanges with Max Morath, who I urge you to look into. I encountered him while ordering some sheet music that Mills Publishing produced back in 1924.

Irving Mills was, of course, Joe Primrose, pseudonymous and imaginary composer of "St. James Infirmary." Irving, along with his brother Jack, was also the proprietor of Mills Music, which early established itself as a purchaser and publisher of "blues" music. As I wrote in the book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, "Once it became clear to Irving and Jack Mills that there was money to be made from song copyrights, they were buying songs from black writers and reaping the profits from this newly popular musical form. . . . Musicians hoping to sell songs tramped the byways of Tin Pan Alley. They knew that if no one else would buy their songs, there was a good chance Irving Mills would."

As we know, Irving made a bundle off "St. James Infirmary" even though nobody in particular wrote it.

So I was intrigued when I saw this sheet music. This was the first time "Stack O' Lee" (or Stagger Lee, Stagolee, etc.) had been published, and I wondered if the Mills brothers were, back in 1924, attempting the same obfuscation they later performed with "St. James Infirmary." I mean, here was this old blues song, one that had arisen from the streets with no discernible original composer, being offered for sale as written by Ray Lopez and Lew Colwell. In fact, in a kind of synchronistic fashion, I had also been reading the recent book by Cecil Brown titled Stagolee Shot Billy (Harvard University Press, 2003) - an account of the history of the Stagolee song. Colwell wrote that, "In 1924 songwriters Ray Lopez and Lew Colwell published a sheet-music version called 'Stack O' Lee Blues.' This fact alone attests to the popularity of the song." (p 135).

I was surprised to find that this original publication of the "Stack O' Lee" song had almost nothing to do with its title. It is a silly dance tune which only mentions its supposed protagonist in the chorus: "Stack O' Lee Blues I don't know what it means. Come on honey let's be stepping, 'cause my feet won't keep still, I've just got to dance until I've had my fill. Stack O' Lee Blues. Play it over for me, I go crazy when I hear it, anywhere I may be, I long to hear them play that Stack O' Lee."

Here are some other lyrics: "Eeny, meeny, miney mo, they'll play some more, now let us catch a nigger by the toe, one more encore. We've got to left foot, right foot, hop and skip, Oh Lordy! hear that tune, ain't that a pipp . . ."

Oh dear me.

So, while this sheet music for Stack O' Lee wasn't an out-and-out ripoff, at least one of the authors had a history of entanglement in copyright issues. As recounted by one of the best music sites on the Web,, Ray Lopez had tried to copyright what is generally recognized as the first jazz record, "Livery Stable Blues," later known as "Barnyard Blues." The Original Dixieland Jass Band had neglected to copyright their smash hit, and Lopez scrambled to profit from it - although testimony showed that the Dixieland Jass Band had based their song on one of Lopez's earlier compositions.

Songwriting was like gold and prospectors everywhere were hoping to profit from it.

Here is the score for "Stack O' Lee Blues" as published in 1924. The pages should enlarge if you click on them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

MP3 Monologue 2 - The "Let Her Go" Verse

Well - as you can see from the comments section of the previous entry, the response to my question, "Is anyone interested in hearing more?" is a resounding "YES!" In fact 100% of respondents voted this way.

So, dear listeners, here is part two of this blog's SJI audio monologue series. In this episode, continuing where we left off, we consider some - and I emphasize "some" - of the history of the "Let Her Go" verse in SJI. It's about three minutes long. To listen, click on the following: "Let Her Go" MP3.

Next time, we'll take a break from these aural discussions and look at something else entirely.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

MP3 Monologue - Carl Sandburg and "Those Gambler's Blues" (aka "St. James Infirmary")

I am trying an experiment here. A little over two years ago a writer/broadcaster/music-historian asked me to record some monologues about "St. James Infirmary" for a possible radio show. I wound up recording sixteen entries, ranging in length from five minutes to one minute. Topics covered such areas as a history of the "Let Her Go" verse, Fess Williams, Don Redman & Louis Armstrong, The Hokum Boys, Irving Mills, and, of course, the significance of SJI.

The show, to my knowledge, was never produced, and having heard nothing lately I doubt it ever will be. So I have decided to post one, a few, or all of my entries on this blog.

First, though, I want to see if there is interest in this endeavor. I am including the first of those recordings: musings on Carl Sandburg's 1927 book of traditional songs, The American Songbag, which featured the first publication of "Those Gambler's Blues" (and which, as you know, would later become "St. James Infirmary"). This is, at five minutes, by far the longest of the entries. Is anyone interested in hearing more?

To listen, don your headphones and click on: "Monologue on Carl Sandburg and Those Gambler's Blues" MP3

Monday, December 5, 2011

MP3 problems??

I have recently discovered that, because of reorganization at the site I store the MP3 files for this blog, none of the music links were working. I have recently renewed those links and think I managed to find and fix them all. If you know of any MP3 files that still don't work, please let me know.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Max Morath and St. James Infirmary

This illustration is a detail from a painting by the author
Not long ago, in my continuing research into SJI, I bought some sheet music on eBay. (More about that in an upcoming post.) When the vendor informed me that the sheet music was on the way I wrote back, I don't know why, and told him the reason I had purchased the music. We've enjoyed a few email correspondences since then. He once told me, in passing, that "I forgot to mention that I recorded Porter Grainger's Ain't Nobody's Business...for George Buck's SoloArt label back in 1994. I re-wrote it a bit." Recorded? I looked into that, and lo and behold there he was on emusic, and any number of websites, many devoted to ragtime piano. That's when I found out I was chatting with the Max Morath, who Wikipedia introduces like this: (He) "is an American ragtime pianist, composer, actor and author. He is best known for his piano playing, and is referred to as 'Mr. Ragtime'. He has been a devoted and prolific performer, writing several plays and productions, as well as being variously a recording artist, actor and radio and television presenter. Rudi Blesh billed Morath as a 'one-man ragtime army' . . ."

Max, I found out, has quite a presence in places like and eBay - by which I mean he has recorded a lot, written some books, and so on. He seems a tireless fellow who also, I venture to say, feels a primal connection to music of the early SJI period. Max sent me the following delightful anecdote about playing SJI:

Years ago I was working with a melodrama company in Phoenix. After the show I'd stay late at the piano doing requests, hustling the drunks for tips. One night a well-dressed guy staggered over and asked me if I knew St James. I said yes, and sang two choruses -- "I went down..." and "Let her go...etc." He was ecstatic. "Nobody knows that song.!" He stuck a five dollar bill in my cup, (a huge brandy glass) and said he'd give me another five for every other verse I knew. I didn't know ANY more, but I figured by then I knew my donor well enough (and he was blotto enough) that I could increase my evening's net considerably if I took my time and used my imagination. . So I MADE UP three more verses on the spot. I have no idea what they were, but he kept the fives coming!  I venture to say we were both happy.

I'd love to have been there!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

MP3 Porter Grainger Song: "Nothin' But A Double Barrel Shot-Gun ('S Gonna Keep Me Away From You)"

As promised on a posting eight months ago, I am uploading an MP3 of a song Porter Grainger recorded on October 4, 1927. I have found this nowhere on CD (or anywhere else, for that matter).

I set up my old Revolver turntable, connected it to a USB interface and transferred the original 78 rpm recording to my hard drive. I did try to remove some of the scratches and other noises, but decided against it as the result was worse than you will find here.

So here is Porter Grainger, the composer of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," here billed as "The Singin' Piano Man," performing his composition (click on the title) "Nothin' But A Double Barrel Shot-Gun ('S Gonna Keep Me Away From You)" MP3. You can read along if you want - the lyrics are in the post below.

Lyric: Porter Grainger's "Nothin' But A Double Barrel Shot-Gun ('S Gonna Keep Me Away From You)"

I'm mad, I'm mad today
I can't see nothin' but red
So mad yes I'm sad today
I'd just as doggone soon be dead
My gal just said she was through with me
She didn't even say what for
I know there'd been some dirty work,
So here's what I says to her

T'ain't nothin' but a double barrel shot-gun
Gonna keep me away from you
Now sister you'll think I'm the Battle of Bull Run
If you quit me like you said you'd do
Now listen: Even if I didn't want ya'
Just get this under your hat
Ain't nobody else gonna have ya'
So momma that's that
'Cause nothin' but a double barrel shot-gun
Gonna keep me away from you

Now I'm mean and I'm evil
As a jealous man can be
When it comes to a piece of furniture
What belongs to me
And I don't mind no funeral
'Cause I ain't scared to die
And I couldn't be no different
If I doggone try

Neither lightnin' nor thunder don't scare me a bit
Bring on your six-shootin' pistols
I ain't even bothered about it
I'd just take my bare hands and hit a lion on his jaw, grrrrgh
I ain't even scared of a mother-in-law, no sir
Now I'll fight a nest of hornets with four rattlesnakes throwed in
I'll grab a tiger by his whiskers and I'll smack him on his chin
But two long steel barrels with its triggers pulled back
Make me run clean on down the railroad track, yessir
But nothin' but a double barrel shot-gun
Gonna keep me away from you

Friday, November 18, 2011

A.L. Lloyd and SJI

This interesting illustration accompanied Lloyd's article in Keynote Magazine, 1947.
Well, it feels good to be back on this SJI blog. I have been so busy over the past year renovating the small house Pam and I now live in, here in remote Southern Saskatchewan, that I have had no time to pursue much in the way of other interests. The main house, at a little over 800 square feet, is too small to comfortably accommodate visitors, and so I have worked hard over the summer to turn a shed into a comfortable living area. But winter is descending, the temperature today is -15C (5F), and it is too cold for me to work on further renovations to the small cabin which will eventually serve as our guest house. And so here I am, back at I Went Down To St. James Infirmary, after a pretty long absence.

Correspondent Alan Balfour (thank you Alan!), from the UK, recently wrote a comment on this blog mentioning that he has a copy of the original article that the revered music historian, A.L. Lloyd, wrote for the January, 1947 edition of Keynote: The Music Magazine. Although I had tried, I was never able to find the original article, but did read it through secondary accounts. Alan sent me scans of the original document.

Now, I have to emphasize that this article was a pivotal event in our understanding of the history of "St. James Infirmary." Written twenty years after the song was first recorded (and who knows how many years after it first appeared), A.L. Lloyd crystallized the notion that "St. James Infirmary" was a direct descendent of the much older song "The Unfortunate Rake." According to Lloyd "The Unfortunate Rake" also gave rise to the archetypal cowboy song "Streets of Laredo" (aka "The Cowboy's Lament," etc.) as well as to "St. James Infirmary." Since then the history of SJI has been traced, with nary a doubt, from "The Unfortunate Rake" to "Streets of Laredo" to "Saint James Infirmary."

Re-reading this article I was again struck by Lloyd's peculiar logic, for he concentrates on the relation (which is, I am sure, indisputable) between "The Unfortunate Rake" and "Streets of Laredo." Then, through some process of, uhm, magical thinking, inserts "St. James Infirmary" into the mix with very little in the way of transitional or supportive argument. Even so, this is the moment that SJI became fixed in history as a direct descendent of "The Unfortunate Rake."

But A.L. Lloyd was mistaken.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

1927 Porter Grainger songs

I've just received a 78 rpm record by Porter Grainger with side A titled, "Nothin' But A Double Barrel Shot-Gun ('s Gonna Keep Me Away From You)," and side B titled, "Song From A Cotton Field." This is OKEH 8516, and so recorded October 4th, 1927. That's the same year his "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" was recorded.

On the label of this record Grainger is called "The Singin' Piano Man." I plan to transfer these two songs into MP3 files, but we're still a little unsettled here in Saskatchewan. I've been busy renovating our new home while we live in friend James Page's house (aka Wild Prairie Man), and expect to move in in a couple of weeks. Then, once Pam and I get the study set up, and I'm able to find my trusty Revolver turntable, I will be able to, first, listen to this recording and then post it on this site. Meanwhile, if anyone has any information about these tracks we shall, of course, more than welcome your comments!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Emmett Miller, Hank Williams, Cliff Friend, Irving Mills, and "Lovesick Blues"

In 2008 I wrote on this blog an entry about the famous Hank Williams song, Lovesick Blues. Written in 1922 as a song in a play about lovelorn pilots called "Oooh Ernest!", it was recorded by the yodeling minstrel Emmett Miller in 1928, but did not become a hit until Hank Williams took it to the charts in 1949. The writing credit (at least after the first recording) was shared between Cliff Friend and Irving Mills.

In my book I wrote extensively about this song, including the following:

"Rex Griffin, an early country singer, had recorded the song in 1929, closely modelled on Emmett Miller's version. Hank had both this version and Emmett Miller's in his record collection. His 1949 release was credited to Griffin as composer, with Hank Williams as arranger. Acuff-Rose was listed as the publishing company. When Irving Mills heard about this he sued, and in winning the suit he ensured that the ownership remained with Mills Music ... "In the depth of the depression Cliff Friend was nearly penniless and sold all his rights to 'Lovesick Blues' to Irving Mills for a reported five hundred dollars. In 2004 it was one of fifty songs the American Library of Congress added to its National Recording Registry as having significant historical and cultural importance."

Correspondent Page Schorer aka Old_Cowboy recently wrote that he found a quote from Cliff Friend on this music site

"I was a fighter pilot in the First World War at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. I was impressed by the lovesick boys who left their young wives and sweethearts for the service, blue. I had been writing songs since I was 12. So I wrote 'Lovesick Blues.' After the war I went to New York City. Cliff Edwards (Ukelele Ike) recorded the song on Perfect Records—a good job, but the song, ahead of its time, was a flop. I took the song back from Jack Mills. Twenty years went by and fate stepped in in the guise of a stranger who met Hank Williams and sold him 'Lovesick Blues' as his song for $100. Fred Rose published it, but I had the copyright. When Williams' record hit the market, I flew to Nashville and took all the money, since I was also the publisher. Meanwhile, Frank Ifield in England had sold 4 million, and altogether, the song had sold 10 million."

Is this braggadacio on Cliff Friend's part, or is historical "fact" being once again fragile? By the time Hank Williams recorded the song Irving Mills reportedly had full control of the copyright. Jack Mills, cited by Friend in the quote above, was Irving's brother and president of Mills Music Publishing. It sounds like Friend was claiming he regained some rights to the song by the time of Hank Williams' recording.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Addresses of Porter Grainger

Mr. Walter J. Morrison III, who you can read more about in the post below, noted that at least one of Porter Grainger's hand-written pages of sheet music included his address. Mr. Morrison suggested that if we could discover when that particular song was copyrighted, we would know where he lived that year.

As it happens, the Duke Ellington Music Society (DEMS) contains the following entry: "Make Me Love You, with words and music by Porter Grainger and Jo. Trent, was deposited for copyright on 15Mar27. The song was recorded by Miss Evelyn Preer with Duke Ellington's Orchestra on 10Jan27; the title was never issued and the masters were destroyed; test pressings are unknown."

We now have a number of addresses for the elusive Mr. Grainger:
- The 1925 New York City telephone book notes that Porter Grainger and Robert Ricketts were a song-writing team, with addresses at 2347 7th Avenue, and 1547 Broadway Rm 204, NYC.
- Mr. Morrison's page of sheet music shows that in 1927 Grainger was living at 1809 7th Avenue, Apt. 20, in NYC.
- The 1930 census shows Grainger living at 2 W. 130th, in NYC.
- His World War 2 draft registration gives the same address as above, but notes the street as 120th - I think we can safely assume that one or the other is in error, and that Grainger was living at the same address for at least twelve years.

Does anyone know of Rita Arnold?

I recently received a letter from Walter J. Morrison III informing me that he owns quite a few pieces of sheet music that were handwritten by Porter Grainger. Many of these were made specifically for a Rita Arnold, who Mr. Morrison believes was a vaudeville/broadway singer. He purchased the music . . . wait, I'll let Mr. Morrison tell the story:

"I don't know much about Rita Arnold. I bought from the estate of - if I remember correctly - her granddaughter, many many years ago, a box of sheet music. It had to have 400-500 pieces. Most I traded off. These were period music sheets, marked with addresses in the NYC Tin Pan Alley, of which I'm sure you're familiar. I was told by the auctioneer that Rita Arnold had been a Broadway/vaudeville actress and singer, but I never pursued it because at the time I didn't know what was in the box.
"In the pieces I've kept, I have a typewritten lyric sheet for the song 'Fit to be tied,' the title of which was edited down from "I'm fit to be tied" (edit is on the page), and is copy-written 1934 . . . I also have typewritten lyrics for a song called 'Try gettin a good nights sleep.'

"In original hand written music, I have the following titles,

"The ones that are signed, state they are by Porter Grainger. The ones that are not signed are definitely written by the same hand, but I assume they may not be by him but are adaptations of songs for Rita Arnold, done by him."

It seems that Mr. Grainger wrote some music specifically for Ms. Arnold, and hence the hand written pages. I have searched for information about Rita Arnold, but nothing has turned up. If anyone out there has knowledge of Ms. Arnold, please drop a line. Meanwhile, Walter J. Morrison III was kind enough to send me scans of several pages of this sheet music (one of which you see here) as written by Porter Grainger.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI