Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Golden Grail - found! Gambler's Blues (aka St. James Infirmary), the first sheet music


I have been looking for this sheet music for years. Dare I say, for at least a decade?! And it escaped me. It was as if the object did not exist. I mean, I read about it, and I even found evidence that it was locked in the archives of the New York State judicial library, as evidence in a 1930s lawsuit. But it was rare as the Dickens and I could never find the actual thing.

But two months ago I did.

I found it on ebay. The starting price was ninety-nine cents (plus postage), and there were two weeks left in the bidding. "Oh dear," I thought, "this is such an important historical document, one that has eluded me for a decade, and I am sure many people will be bidding for this. There is no chance that, with my meager resources, I shall be able to actually get my hands on this item." But, as you can see, I did win it. For ninety-nine cents (plus postage).

What an odd thing!! This was something of considerable importance to me. And I was the only one to enter a bid. Nobody else in the world cared. It was my golden grail. And nobody else cared. There were no other bids. And so I now possess (what I thought to be) a great historical document at a cost of ninety-nine cents (plus postage).

I must be deluded. I have been pursuing this story, this history of "St. James Infirmary," for over a decade. One of the critical links in the saga of this song appeared for sale, and . . . well . . . it sold for ninety-nine cents.

I shall have to ponder this.

Maybe history depends upon who writes the story.

The year on this music sheet is 1925. It was published by Phil Baxter in Little Rock, Arkansas. My research had informed me that "Harry D. Squires, Inc." was the original publisher of this song, and that Squires was the person who convinced Fess Williams to record it. So it is possible that Baxter released this edition before finding a bona fide publisher. Also, I had noted that Baxter and Moore neglected to copyright the song (thereby leaving the way open for "Joe Primrose" to take ownership of it). But "International Copyright Secured" is printed on these pages. I had found no evidence of this when I contacted the U.S. copyright offices, so I am not sure what this means.

The sheet music with lyrics is below - the pages should expand when you click on them. I leave it to you to compare this music with the versions of this song in Carl Sandburg's "American Songbag," published in 1927. Whatever this comparison tells you, it will be clear that neither Phil Baxter nor Carl Moore nor Joe Primrose nor anybody else wrote "St. James Infirmary."



R. Walker said...

What an amazing find! And for less than a buck plus shipping?? That's insane. I wonder what the seller's story might be and how he/she came to own it.

Anyway, take good care of this document, Mr. Harwood. It's the holy grail indeed! Congrats...

GIG said...

It was my golden grail. And nobody else cared.

Maybe history depends upon who writes the story.

You're not deluded.

strictly2013 said...

I'm a "she" (the seller). This is quite amazing to see that this was a sought-after piece of history!! I do come across a lot of historical/rare artisistic/musical items but it seems hardly anyone is interested in that these days. :) This gives that much more meaning to what I'm doing and I wanted to let you know I appreciate it!!

Robert W. Harwood said...

Thank you both. The vendor received the sheet music as part of an estate sale. Beyond that, she had no other information.

Robert W. Harwood said...

Thanks for your note, strictly2013. As you can see, I have corrected your gender. Yes - when I saw this item up for sale, my heart did skip a beat. I am grateful to you for making it available.

Gerard Herzhaft said...

Congratulationsfor you excellent and very informative blog. Do you know a very soulful New Orleans version from 1964 by Miss Johni Naylor?

Robert W. Harwood said...

Thank you!
No, I don't know that version. When looking for it (after I received your note) I could only find the flip-side of the 45, called "Red Wine For My Blues" - which, you know, has a distinct SJI melody. I shall keep an ear out for her "St. James Infirmary."

Paul Finer said...

What I find interesting is that, what would be called the "verse" in standards of the time ("It was down in Joe's barroom..."), i.e., the lead-in to the main tune, is written in D major only to change to D minor at "I passed by the infirmary...". It stays in D minor for the duration of the song.

I've never heard any part of any recorded version of Infirmary/Gambler played in a major key. I'm surprised that nobody's commented on this point. I'd be interested in your take.

Paul Finer said...

Actually, Fess Williams' version follows the sheet music by doing the lead-in in the major key and switching to minor for "I passed by the infirmary...".

Robert W. Harwood said...

Those are really interesting observations, Paul! Those early versions - Gambler's Blues as "written" by Moore-Baxter, as performed by Fess Williams, and as collected by Carl Sandburg, were musically quite different songs. They were not, as in almost all the versions that followed Louis Armstrong, Foxtrots in 4/4 time. (If I remember, Sandburg's transcription is in 6/8 time, and is meant to be taken very slowly.) Fess Williams treated it as a declamation, and speaks rather than sings - as I suspect Carl Moore did, too, back in the twenties-to-forties when he was performing the song in concert.
So, maybe it was Louis Armstrong (or, perhaps more pertinently, his arranger Don Redman) who fixed the song into a minor key, or the dance band orchestras who preceded that 1928 Armstrong recording, and from whom Redman received his inspiration (Al Katz, Joe Bishop, et al)?

Paul Finer said...

I'm in the process of transcribing the sheet music to notation/playback software that I use, as I'm really anxious to hear the tune "as written". I'll send you an mp3 of the results.

Paul Finer said...

Bill Monroe's bluegrass version is all in a major key.

Robert W. Harwood said...

Excellent! I look forward to hearing it. Here is what Abb Niles wrote about the Moore-Baxter version in 1930:
"Sandburg’s version (set by Miss Ruth Crawford) was assembled from Alabama, Texas, and California. Another was published as a popular song in 1925, by Phil Baxter of Little Rock, Arkansas — a noble arrangement, garnished with chunks out of “The Two Grenadiers,” Chopin’s “Funeral March,” and “The Vamp.” Baxter’s version has the line from “Wild Bill Jones” about the sixteen gamblers carrying the coffin — a line that had inspired one of Held’s woodiest engravings — and it has also the happy thought of the seven gals going to the graveyard and only six of them coming back.
"In these respects (and in a little matter of acknowledging sources), “St. James Infirmary” is slack, but the important thing is that at last someone has brushed off the old dirge, injected it with that missing something by making the phrase read “so sweet, so cold, so bare,” and thrown it to the orchestras. These, with wolfish cries, have taken hold and turned it to proving that hot jazz shall not perish from the earth.
"It would be interesting to learn where the lords of cacophony lit on the possibilities of this piece of musical low-life, and I wonder who it was who saw the signpost in the lyric that pointed toward one of the sweetest-selling titles in the history of a great racket."

Robert W. Harwood said...

Oh - and Bill Monroe. He uses, I think, Jimmie Rodgers somewhat rewritten version of Gambler's Blues.