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!
Inquiries into the early years of SJI