Monday, December 31, 2012

Look Out Mama - MP3 (Happy New Year)

Illustration by Pam Woodland
Here is an entry entirely divorced from the usual theme of this blog. But I write this in the spirit of the New Year.

Pam and I, since October 2010, live in a fairly remote area of southwest Saskatchewan. The village we live in has a population of under a hundred people. The nearest population centre, of 15,000, is a ninety minute drive away, and the nearest large book store or movie theatre is a four hour drive from here. We have had snow since late October, and the morning temperature this December averages about -20C (or about -5F).

What does one do in these circumstances? Among other things, I belong to a musical trio that practices weekly for about four hours. Our lead guitarist is the noted nature photographer James Page, and our multi-instrumentalist (rhythm guitar, ukelele, accordion, tin whistle, etc.) is the painter Colleen Watson. I play hand percussion (African drum, bongos, sticks, rattles, and so on).

The name of our trio was derived from the opening lines of Neil Young's song "Powderfinger." So, we are known as "Look Out Mama." I have been writing quite a few songs, too, of which we now include three in our regular practices. What I want to do here is include one of those songs.

I wanted, early this summer, to write something that was based both upon our trio's name, and upon  the history of the area we live in. So, the song "Look Out Mama" was born. While I wrote the lyrics and the melody, Page helped me work out the musical structure, and of course "Look Out Mama," the group, worked out an arrangement.  The only similarity with SJI is the fact that the song has no chorus. The link here is to a recent practice, pretty darned crude, with James Page on electric guitar, Colleen Watson on rhythm guitar, and me on percussion and lead vocal. And so, as the clock turns over from 2012 to 2013,  I present it to you with no further ado, "Look Out Mama" by Look Out Mama. Happy New Year.

Look out mama
The sun is sinking low
Look out mama
The sun is sinking low
I can hear Blackfoot calling
And pounding hooves of buffalo

Look out mama
The water is rising fast
Look out mama
You know the water is rising fast
Wolves are in the river
Don't know if they're gonna last

Look out mama
The wind is blowin' strong
Look out mama
The wind is blowin' strong
Hawks circlin' up above
I fear we done something wrong

Look out mama
The moon is high in the sky
Look out mama
The moon is high up in the sky
Y'can see those tepee circles
Remnants from a long lost time

Look out mama
Coyotes are on the prowl
Look out mama
Coyotes are on the prowl
When that evenin' sun goes down
Whoa whoa listen to them howl

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Carl Moore as The Squeakin' Deacon - photograph

Moore as radio personality "The Squeakin' Deacon"
Back in the mid nineteen-twenties Carl Moore, along with Phil Baxter, claimed authorship of "Gambler's Blues" (aka "St. James Infirmary"). You can read more about each of those fascinating individuals elsewhere on this blog (and, of course, in the book).

I recently received a message from Cecil Warren, who noticed that once upon a time I started to create a family tree for Carl, at Moore was one of the central characters in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, and I closely researched his early years.

When he was a young lad ("in the 1947/1948 time period when my parents took me to his radio program"), Mr. Warren once sat on Moore's knee, and received the photograph you see here. "Too bad it got torn," Warren wrote, "probably a result of a fight between my sister and I over who got to hold it while we listened to his radio show. It is still a piece of history that has survived these 60 plus years."

By this time, Moore had given up leading a dance orchestra (many dance orchestras dissolved due to supply and personnel shortages during World War Two), and had become the country radio personality, "The Squeakin' Deacon." The Deacon was living in California at this time, not far from Hollywood. In fact, he had a (very) minor film career, including an uncredited appearance as the Toastmaster in the Rock Hudson/Elizabeth Taylor/James Dean movie Giant. He was once considered for the title role in the Will Rogers film biography, but Rogers' son eventually played that part. Moore would have been a natural, with his down-home humor and country hick persona.

Mr Warren added, in response to my writing, that  "I am glad that his role in music history is being preserved." Thank you, Cecil

ps In her late nineties, Moore's wife Marjorie is very much alive and energetic - she will be thrilled to see that you remember Carl Moore, The Squeakin' Deacon.

Monday, December 24, 2012

. . . So God Took Caruso Away - sheet music

Cover of  the 1921 sheet music from Jack Mills Inc.
I am posting this as a kind of Christmas gift to you, readers of this blog. This post will contain a bit of history, related to (what else?) "St. James Infirmary." And - with a nod to all those who come here for my occasional postings of sheet music - there will also be some, well, sheet music.

I suspect that most readers of this blog know that Irving Mills was intimately entangled with the history of the song "St. James Infirmary" - as the fictional "composer" of the song (Joe Primrose), as the manager of various performers who recorded the song, as the impresario who publicized the song, and as the vice-president of the company that published the sheet music.

In the years prior to the rise of Elvis Presley, sheet music routinely outsold records, and was a major source of revenue for those involved with its publication. It was much more important to retain revenue from sales of sheet music than from the sales of records.

In 1921, the Mills brothers (not the singing group) were struggling publishers. Rising from poverty in New York City, largely on the strength of their ability to promote - or plug - other people's songs, Jack and Irving Mills eventually became owners of one of the most productive and important music publishing companies in North America - Mills Music. Formed in 1919, it was initially called "Jack Mills Inc." and in 1921 the company struck gold. The opera singer Enrico Caruso was the most beloved, revered, and top-selling artist of the era. He had just died, and Jack Mills Inc. bought the rights to a song titled "They Needed a Songbird in Heaven (So God Took Caruso Away)."  The song became so popular that in 1925 Time magazine described it as: "a ditty that was scratched from every phonograph, mewed through the sinus cavities of every cabaret tenor who could boast a nose, caroled by housewives at their tubs and business men at their shaving." (I should emphasize here that "housewives at their tubs" refers not to bathtubs, but to washing tubs -where the laundry was done by hand.)

It is possible that, were it not for this ditty, Mills Music would not have survived to, seven years later, discover and promote a gritty folk song called "St. James Infirmary."

Popular as "They Needed a Songbird in Heaven" was then, I have been unable to unearth a single vocal recording of this song, either by contemporary artists or on CD compilations of old songs. So . . . while it once enjoyed the heights of popularity, it has been forgotten today and, thus, is probably new to you.

So, without further ado, below you can see the three pages of the sheet music from 1921 (which should enlarge if you click on them). Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

MP3 Monologue 9 - Don Redman (part 2)

This is the second part of a monologue about Don Redman. The first part can be found here: MP3 Monologue 8.

In this episode, it is 1928 and Don Redman is about to travel to Chicago to help (as both an arranger and an instrumentalist) Louis Armstrong record a few songs. At a local ballroom he hears Al Katz and his band perform St. James Infirmary and . . .

To listen to this monologue (about 3 minutes) click here: Don Redman Part 2 MP3

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tony Bennett's first recording: "St. James Infirmary"

After a distinguished career in the army (and an eventual demotion for eating in a restaurant with a black friend), Tony Bennett made his first recording. This was on a V-disc, for American troops. You can read a bit about V-discs here, in a touching article by George Tannenbaum. You can read about his army career here, and here. All of these items are very interesting.

The record was made in 1946 or 1947. Bennett would have been about 20 years old. He was backed by the army orchestra, in Germany. The song was not released in the U.S., due to a musicians' strike. If you can't afford the Tony Bennett Complete Collection ($400 at Barnes & Noble), and want to hear the first recording Bennett made, "St. James Infirmary," you can find it here (although you will need Spotify). Wonderful.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Old Westbury Web Radio at

Here is something unusual; maybe you can explain it to me.

Residing at the web page is a web radio show that can be downloaded. The shows feature a variety of songs ranging from middle-of-the-road pop music to old blues songs, and much in between. The selections are certainly interesting, and could only have been selected by a true music fan. A true music fan?? What do I mean by that? Well, look at the lists and I have no doubt that you will agree with me.

Each show (there must now be over fifty of them) is divided into two parts, in which the first (or occasionally second) song of the first part is "St. James Infirmary." The really odd thing is that the "St. James Infirmary" in the various broadcasts is always, without exception, the one recorded by Alan Toussaint. Actually, Toussaint's 2009 version is one of my favourite recent recordings of "St. James Infirmary," along with Van Morrison's (2003) and Hugh Laurie's (2011). The shows are recorded at 128 kbps.

But, hey, the dj - a dentist by the name of Michael J. Mand - talks over Toussaint's piano at the beginning of the broadcasts, in fact chats with his audience (in an informal, meandering - appealing - way) before moving into the subsequent playlist, which really is a fascinating cornucopia of popular music past and present. Check out the site, listen for a while; I am sure you will discover something you like.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

More copyright questions: "Grist for the Mills"

Ratzo B. Harris
Well, this seems to be a day for copyright issues! Hours after I had written the article below, I received - from one of my readers - a link to another discussion that muses about copyright

The "Mills" in the title above refers, no doubt, to Irving Mills. And that part of the title is also the title (are you following?) of an article by bassist Ratzo B. Harris. The article concerns a number of things, in part a confession of a painful misunderstanding, but ends up discussing concerns about how financial difficulty or professional relationships can result in misattributed copyright assignments. (From another article by Ratzo Harris, but pertinent to this discussion: "there is the problem of whether something agreed to vis-à-vis economic coercion is actually a matter of mutual consent.")

For those unfamiliar with the music of Duke Ellington - who figures prominently in this article - let me say here that Billy Strayhorn was a gifted composer, pianist, and arranger who was, for many years, part of the Duke Ellington organization. While he and Ellington worked closely together, it is often difficult to determine which compositions Strayhorn originated (and were credited as a collaboration between Ellington and Strayhorn), which ones Ellington originated and Strayhorn modified (but for which Ellington retained copyright credit), and so on. In the same way, sort of, that there is controversy over how much Irving Mills contributed to the many Ellington tunes on which he receives co-composer credit (likely more than is generally opined).

Okay, here I shall take a deep breath. And let Ratzo B. Harris tell his own story. His article can be found here, at The New Music Box website: "Grist For The Mills"

Copyright article - from "Brain Pickings"

Maria Popova
Readers of this blog will be aware that the history of "St. James Infirmary" is intimately entangled with issues of copyright. There is an argument, easily sustained, that rigid copyright law is antithetical to a culture's creative evolution - and, by extension, contributes to stagnation and decline.

I have just encountered an article from . . . well, a most interesting blog called "Brain Pickings," managed by Maria Popova. The article can be found here: Transformation As Authorship. Well-written and concise, it is definitely recommended reading.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Saxophone sheet music for St. James Infirmary

I recently had a request to show the sheet music scans I have for the saxophone section of the orchestra, in the 1929 arrangement that Fred Van Eps made for the Gotham Music Service - aka Mills Music.

There are actually several saxophone parts, so I shall include them all here. At the top of this entry is the 1st saxophone part, written for alto sax.

The also sax also served as the third saxophone, and that music is immediately below:

And, finally, the music for the 2nd saxophone, written for tenor sax:

All these images should enlarge if you click on them.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hugh Laurie and SJI

Last year Hugh Laurie - a very talented fellow best known for his portrayal of House on the Fox television series - released a CD called "Let Them Talk" on Warner Brothers Records. The first song on this CD is "St. James Infirmary" and clocks in at 6:23. I have to tell you that I really like this rendition - Laurie's piano playing is superb, and he respects the deep history of the song in his vocalizations. In fact, this song alone is worth the price of the CD. No kidding.

Every now and again one can bump into Hugh Laurie on YouTube, playing and talking about the song. For instance, in this YouTube snippet Laurie declares that "St. James Infirmary" was "based on a much older English folk song in which the St. James of the Infirmary is actually what is now St. James' Palace in London where the queen eats cucumber sandwiches. I find that interesting; almost no one else in the world knows."

That's too bad. It is most unlikely that the St. James of the song had anything to do with St. James' Palace, although that - along with its (erroneous) connection with the song "The Unfortunate Rake" - have hung around the neck of "St. James Infirmary" like a dead albatross for decades. In the case of St. James' Palace, the culprit is possibly the Wikipedia entry on "St. James Infirmary Blues" or most likely the liner notes to the Folkways Records disc, "The Unfortunate Rake," which contains about twenty variations of the song. Here is an excerpt from Kenneth S. Goldstein's long and very interesting liner notes:

"It is, perhaps, a bittersweet historical irony that the 'St. James Hospital' which provides the setting for this series of ballads is known today in London as St. James Palace, the home of the 'Court of St. James.' The original St. James Hospital was a religious foundation for the redemption of 'fourteen sisters, maidens, that were leperous, living chastely and honestly in divine service.' Now known as St. James Park, the grounds on which the palace stands was acquired by Henry VIII in 1532. During the whole reign of George III, the royal court was held at St. James."

In fact, the real story of SJI is much more interesting.

Friday, August 10, 2012

MP3 Monologue 8 - Don Redman (part 1)

The St. James Infirmary we know would not have been possible without Don Redman. And, it would not have been possible without the dance called the Foxtrot.

Don Redman, now almost forgotten, was among the most important of influences on American popular music. In the next Monologue we shall hear how Redman, about to leave for Chicago to help Louis Armstrong record some songs, encountered the "St. James Infirmary" that he then arranged for Armstrong's 1928 recording. For now, though, here is a little background information on Redman himself.

It might be interesting to note that, in this monologue, I made mention of a band called "McKinney's Cotton Pickers" (which Don Redman took over after leaving the employ of Fletcher Henderson) . . . here, you can see how black bands, even in the 1920s and 1930s, were being advertised. Dem ol slaves jus a pickin cotton. Even Duke Ellington, when recording under a pseudonym for Irving Mills, adopted names like "The Ten Blackberries." Even so, "McKinney's Cotton Pickers" were one of the most popular bands of the era.

To listen to this monologue (about 3 minutes) click here: Don Redman Part 1 MP3

Sunday, June 10, 2012

MP3 Monologue 7 - Buell Kazee: the second recording of St. James Infirmary

From an article I wrote in 2008, when first alerted to Buell Kazee.:

"This is, lyrically, very similar to the song that Carl Moore (from Arkansas) and Phil Baxter (from Texas) - both white musicians - put their names to and which Fess Williams recorded in March, 1927. Kazee's recording date of January 1928 makes it, chronologically, the second recording in the "St. James Infirmary" canon, effectively moving Louis Armstrong into third place.
"Kazee hailed from Eastern Kentucky. For the sake of posterity he transcribed the traditional songs of his family and neighbours, and recorded about fifty of them between 1927 and 1929. His "Gambling Blues," while lyrically similar to "Gambler's Blues" and "St. James Infirmary" has a different melody, a kind of simple rhythmic chant reminiscent of mournful Appalachian ballads."

To listen to this monologue (about 2:30 at 256 kbps) click here:
Buell Kazee and SJI/Gambling Blues MP3

Monday, April 23, 2012

More sheet music for St. James Infirmary: drums, banjo, piano, trumpet

By a very long margin, the most popular posts on this site are the ones that offer the sheet music for "St. James Infirmary." From what I can tell, these visits are increasing in frequency; perhaps this reflects a corresponding increase of interest in this song?

The first music I posted from the orchestral arrangement was the piano score. The only other sheet music for "St. James Infirmary" that I have so far posted, the trumpet music, is the second most popular item.

I doubt many of the people who visit this site to download the music stay to contemplate the history of the song - which, of course, is what this blog is all about. But that's okay. Since this is the first orchestral score that was published for SJI, just by looking at the sheet music you are gazing into the past, into the early days of the song's commercial popularity.

The sheet music I have posted comes from an orchestral score published in 1929 by Gotham Music Service, Inc., a branch of Mills Music. After all the arguments have been exhausted, Mills Music was primarily responsible for popularizing this song and ensuring its survival. The arrangement of the score is attributed to the legendary banjoist Fred Van Eps (1878 - 1960).

Aside from the piano music and the trumpet music, I have scanned (but not yet posted) the sheets for bass, drums, banjo, saxophone, trombone, and violin. So, for all those who are looking for the sheet music I have already posted, you can click to find the piano sheet music or the trumpet sheet music.

I shall post other music sheets later. To start, here is the banjo music sheet:

And here is the drum music from that 1929 score (clicking on the sheets should give you a larger version):

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Happy Birthday, Marjorie!

Marjorie Moore, the young bride of bandleader Carl Moore (later Country DJ "The Squeakin' Deacon") turned 96 earlier this month. Marjorie was very supportive of my book, and sent me a number of photographs and press clippings. I spoke with her over the 'phone  yesterday and she was - as usual - bright, enthusiastic, and energetic.

Happy Birthday, Margie!

Friday, March 30, 2012

MP3 Monologue 6 - Fess, Phil, and Carl: the first recording of St. James Infirmary

Here is monologue 6 from the ongoing series. These were recorded two or three years ago, when I was living in urban Ontario rather than rural Saskatchewan. Here we explore (with a number of period sound clips) the first recording, from 1927, of "St. James Infirmary" - then called "Gambler's Blues."

You might be startled to hear, in this monologue, that Phil Baxter and Carl Moore wrote "Gambler's Blues." Well, they did, in a way. The song had been floating around the music halls for some time. They wrote a version of the song and had some sheet music printed. But, of course, they weren't the creators of "Gambler's Blues."

I know that a sample of their sheet music lies somewhere in the files of New York's legal vaults, where it served as evidence in a 1930 lawsuit initiated by Irving Mills (unrelated to Moore-Baxter), but search as I might I have never been able to find an actual copy. I am sure, though, that Irving Mills did have his own copy, before he disguised himself as Joe Primrose.

To listen (about 4:45 at 256 kbps) click here: Fess, Phil, Carl, and SJI MP3

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The female as protagonist in SJI - meet Shanimal

Cover designed by the artist, Shannon Kerner
There is a lot of good, well-crafted music around these days. The best of it is in a genre that I have come to think of as "portable music." Portable music does not require, for instance, a constellation of drums that takes three roadies to set up; percussion can be accomplished with, oh, djembe hand drums, or cajons, or sticks and rattles and cardboard boxes. The performance of portable music does not require huge amplifiers, elaborate stage sets, video projectors, platoons of dancers, explosions, acrobats, elephants, pigs, dirigibles, catwalks, tightropes, inflated tongues, personal trainers, or investment bankers. Portable music is not music of spectacle; unless we believe that there is a spectacle of the ears. This aural spectacle is described by the interplay of the instruments, the connection between the musicians, and the focused concentration of the listener.

All the instruments in Shanimal's 2011 CD, rough & tumble, can be carried onto the stage by the performers. Shanimal is Shannon Kerner, songwriter, vocalist, and kazoo player, and her talented band.

Shanimal's rendition of "St. James Infirmary" features an unlikely combination of portable instruments - including banjo, accordion, and clarinet - and the mourning patron in Old Joe's Barroom is an equally unlikely (up until now) Big Joan McKennedy. In fact, most of the characters are female, from the body stretched out on the table to the girls goin' to the graveyard. The singer wears, in her coffin, not a Stetson but a flapper hat. However, Old Joe remains Old Joe, while at the grave-site the singer asks for "a chorus boy to sing me a song." Shannon sings with deep passionate restraint, clearly communicating the cinematic arc of the song. I detect no percussive instruments - rather, the downward stroke on the guitar gives much of the rhythmic shape, the accordion maintains the pulse, banjo describes filigrees in the background, and the clarinet, often echoing the accordion through the song, takes the first instrumental solo, and a couple of verses later lends support to a tastefully complex acoustic guitar solo. I like this song more with each listening.

This CD rewards the listener. Shannon sparkles, and on "Wedding Song" inhabits two characters, imbuing each with a distinct voice. But this is not a record review. This is about "St. James Infirmary" and here we have another worthwhile contemporary take on a once old song.

To listen (5:50 at 256 kbps) click here: Shanimal's "St. James Infirmary" MP3

(Thank you, Shanimal, for permission to post this.)

ps If you like this song, I really recommend that you purchase the CD. It's a treat.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Willie the Weeper - a Max Morath MP3

In the 1930s and 1940s, Cab Calloway was one of the biggest singing stars in the U.S. His manager, Irving Mills (famous in the story of SJI), secured him a position in Harlem's Cotton Club where Calloway used "St. James Infirmary" as his signature tune. Calloway might even be the only singer to have achieved a top-forty hit with the song, in 1931. (As an interesting tidbit, Calloway, dressed in a white tuxedo, performed a dynamic version of "St. James Infirmary" on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 23rd, 1964, the date of the Beatles' third appearance on the program. Cab was 56.)

Cab's search for a more "original" signature song led him to the very old folk song, "Willie The Weeper" which he and his songwriting collaborators transformed into "Minnie The Moocher" - a song with definite echoes of SJI in both its melody and instrumentation, and which owes an immense lyrical debt to "Willie the Weeper."

To me this presents an interesting contrast. SJI is a song that was stolen from the public domain. Minnie The Moocher is a song that was, uhm, to speak generously, inspired by a song in the public domain.

Anyway, you can read a more detailed story here, in an earlier post. My intent with this post is to offer you a compelling version of "Willie the Weeper," compliments of Max Morath.

On a fine CD titled Jonah Man, the original Piano Man, Mr. Ragtime himself, performed with a quintet in a tribute to the great Bert Williams. Among other treats the album includes a wonderful version of my favourite Bert Williams song, "Nobody." (Max has also recorded "Willie The Weeper" as a solo piece, but that recording is sadly no longer commercially available.)

Here we go, then. To listen (4:41 at 256 kbps), click here: Max Morath's "Willie the Weeper" MP3

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Groanbox and a variation on SJI - prepare to be dazzled

Since posting the previous article, I have received more information about "Groanbox" and feel a need to update you.

The video in the previous post was made before "The Groanbox Boys" included a percussionist (check out that link), thereby expanding the duo into a trio and modifying their name to Groanbox. Man, they work well together!

So . . . about this video. Michael, the accordionist, wrote that they had every intention of recording their version of "St. James Infirmary," but "at the last minute I managed to come up with some new words, and a few new chords to turn it into an 'original' composition." Bravo! This is what songs like SJI  - had it remained in the public domain from the start (where it belonged) - should have been inspiring all along.

The version below differs quite a bit from the one on their pre-trio album, Fences Come Down, but I think both are stellar performances. Here, about three minutes in, the singer intones "I wake up and she's gone gone gone," as the percussionist mimics a bird flying away, and then, led by the banjo, the group launches the song into a kind of uptempo gypsy jazz.

It's not easy to make music like this.

So, without further ado, here is Groanbox with their SJI inspired "Darling Lou." Prepare to be dazzled.

(And if you like this song, please show your support of Groanbox, they are a unique and rewarding experience!)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Contemporary performances

With this blog I have always (with one exception) been careful to limit my postings to matters referring to the early days of SJI. That was largely due to my respect for Rob Walker's very fine No Notes blog  which, for over six years, has been tracking the evolution of the song and (among other things) referring us to its most recent variations. Sadly, Rob recently decided to put his blog on hiatus, and until further notice will not be writing further articles.

And so, every now and again, until Rob returns, I shall be posting links to more recent interpretations on the "St. James Infirmary" song, as well as to other songs intimately related to SJI. In fact a number of postings are already waiting in the wings, including some wonderful MP3s from Max Morath, an artist I have already referred to several times.

Today we are introducing (at least as far as this blog is concerned) a version of SJI that was posted on YouTube. This is by a duo (I think now a trio) called The Groanbox Boys. One of the Boys recently purchased a copy of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary and informed me of this video. And, you know, it is really good! At about 1:45 into the song they pick up the pace and with accordion, banjo, and vocals launch into the stratosphere.

I have already ordered a copy of a Groanbox CD. You might want to look into this group too. Here they are with "St. James Infirmary."

Thursday, February 2, 2012

MP3 Monologue 5 - Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues

Readers of earlier posts will recall that, over two years ago, I had agreed to record a number of commentaries on "St. James Infirmary" for inclusion in a possible United States radio show about the song. The show did not materialize, and so I am posting those commentaries, or "monologues," here. This is the fifth installment.

In this monologue we hear a bit of the original "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," recorded in 1927 by Martha Copeland. The main emphasis, though, is on two people: Blind Willie McTell, who always claimed he had composed the song, and Porter Grainger who actually did. There is, of course, a close relationship between "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" and "St. James Infirmary" (and, more recently, Bob Dylan's song "Blind Willie McTell").

To listen (about five minutes, at 256 kbps)) click here: "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" MP3.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Illustration

A few years ago, while working on the first iteration of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary (which I had titled A Rake's Progress and of which perhaps a dozen copies are still in existence), I  created an illustration that brought together some of the principal characters in the SJI story. Albert Gleizes' 1913 painting "Women Sewing" was the inspiration for the underlying art work; onto this I layered photographs of various SJI personalities, and included myself and my wife (the book's designer) as, I guess, observers of the drama.

So here, in no particular order (the illustration should enlarge if you click on it), you can find Jimmie Rodgers, Porter Grainger, Dan Emmett, Mamie Smith, Irving Mills, Don Redman, Phil Baxter, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Carl "The Deacon" Moore, Bob Dylan, Bessie Smith, Emmett Miller, and Blind Willie McTell.

Speaking of Blind Willie McTell, he will be (part of) the subject of our next entry.

Friday, January 13, 2012

MP3 Monologue 3 & 4 - Charleston Cabin; Mattie Hite

Since I have, so far, received no objections to these monologues, here are the 3rd and the 4th installments of this oral exploration of (some aspects of) St. James Infirmary.

A few years before "St. James Infirmary" entered the recording studio a song with completely different lyrics but using part of the SJI melody was popular. I wrote about this briefly in an earlier post. To listen to a (two minute) discussion of a precursor to the recorded SJI, "In A Charleston Cabin," click here: "Charleston Cabin" MP3

In 1930, within a day of each other, the smooth crooner Gene Austin and the blues singer Mattie Hite both recorded SJI. They borrowed the lyrics from Carl Sandburg's transcript, and each of them seemed to be insisting that the song should be in the public domain. To listen to something about them (three minutes), click here: "Mattie Hite and SJI" MP3

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Recommendation - Max Morath in concert!

I have mentioned the name Max Morath a couple of times in recent posts. His name will come up at least once or twice more in the near future because he is a really interesting individual with much to offer fans of "St. James Infirmary" and the period in which the song originated.

 Max has a DVD, available at places like eBay, that I watched this evening and which I recommend wholeheartedly. Morath is a well-known ragtime pianist, but is also a remarkable raconteur and performer. On this DVD, a one-man show recorded in concert in 1992, Morath is clearly in his element, talking, jesting, educating, playing, singing. I was utterly impressed with the way Max inhabits the songs he sings and plays. He knows how to get to the center of a tune, how to transcend the notes and get to the heart of the characters he sings about. It's been a long time since I have enjoyed so many belly laughs in such a short time (the film runs about 116 minutes). For a well-spent fifteen dollars, you will learn a lot about the popular music of the early 20th century, and thoroughly enjoy yourself in the process. A delight!

Friday, January 6, 2012

MP3 Another Porter Grainger Song: "Song From A Cotton Field"

I was going to post a 1927 recording by Porter Granger entitled, suitable for this time of year, "I Wonder What This New Year's Gonna Bring To Me." Unfortunately I have been unable, so far, to render a listenable mp3 from the 78 rpm record. So, instead I am posting this:

Back in November I posted a Porter Grainger song - one that, as far as I am aware, has never been made available since its release in 1927. Here is the other side of that record, "Song From A Cotton Field" as performed by "The Singin' Piano Man" himself, Porter Grainger. This one has a more serous lyric:

Ain't no use kickin' 'cause I'll be pickin'
'Til all my chillun is grown
By then I'll shuffle and skimp and scuffle
To have a field of my own

All my life I've been makin' it
All my life white folks takin' it
This old heart they jus' breakin' it
Ain't got a thing to show for what I've done done

What follows is a direct transfer, using my turntable, of a 78 rpm record that is 84 years old. What you hear has been saved at 128 kbps, which is the lowest sound resolution I find tolerable.

So, to hear The Singin' Piano Man" Porter Grainger, click on "Song From A Cotton Field" MP3

You can follow the full lyric in the post below.

Lyric: Porter Grainger's "Song From A Cotton Field"

Mmmmm mmmmm
Hay Hee Hi Ho Pickin' Cotton all day
Hay Hee Hi Ho Just a-pickin' away
The white folks knows I'm workin'
They knows won't be no shirkin'
Hee Hi Ho I knows I'll get my pay
Ain't no use kickin' 'cause I'll be pickin'
'Til all my chillun is grown
By then I'll shuffle and skimp and scuffle
To have a field of my own
All my life I've been makin' it
All my life white folks takin' it
This old heart they jus' breakin' it
Ain't got a thing to show for what I've done done
Things gets brighter and load gets lighter
So I'll keep a-pluggin' away
Sing my song like I'm happy and gay
All day
Jus' tell the world for me
My soul done set me free
That's the song I'll sing 'til they puts me under the clay
Ohhh chillun stop your grumblin'
No no, 'cause that's a block for stumblin'
Mmmm mmmm Jus keep on workin' and prayin'
You'll see that you'll conquer some day

Ain't no use kickin' 'cause I'll be pickin'
'Til all my chillun is grown
By then I'll shuffle and skimp and scuffle
To have a field of my own
All my life I've been makin' it
All my life the white folks takin' it
This old heart they jus' breakin' it
Ain't got a thing to show for what I've done done
But things gets brighter and load gets lighter
So I'll keep pluggin' away
Sing my song like I'm happy and gay
All day
Jus' tell the world for me
My soul done set me free
That's the song I'll sing 'til they puts me under the clay
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