Sunday, December 7, 2014

More on Blair Thomas, puppeteer

Puppeteer Blair Thomas in front of his
stage. (Image captured from Vimeo.)
A year ago I wrote two posts about puppeteer Blair Thomas who, among many ambitious undertakings (such as an adaptation of Moby Dick), has developed a St. James Infirmary puppet show. You can find my original postings here, including one in which Thomas explains his approach to the SJI show.

Yesterday I stumbled upon a video on Vimeo. It is almost half-an-hour long, and documents an entire SJI performance.

Blair Thomas, in white-face, is in front of the stage playing multiple instruments (and, I think, creating sound loops that play on while he attends to the puppet characters), carrying a coffin on his back, flying the unfortunate woman up to heaven. And, of course, he is also behind the stage, pulling the strings that animate the characters in front of a rolling backdrop.

It is a complicated choreography, and a most engaging performance. It makes me aware of how much puppetry has changed since, as a small lad in Belfast, I watched "Punch and Judy" in the park. (Here, in this SJI performance, Thomas references early puppetry techniques. In other works his approach can be very different.)

This is really interesting!  You can watch the video here: Vimeo - Blair Thomas and St. James Infirmary.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cory Seznec: Beauty In The Dirt

The roots-music group, Groanbox, has been a friend of this blog for some time now. You can find them on YouTube performing versions of "St. James Infirmary," or their own variation, "DarlingLou." Each member of the trio are accomplished musicians (accordionist and multi-instrumentalist Michael Ward-Bergeman, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Paul Clifford, and guitarist/banjoist and multi-instrumentalist Cory Seznec) who branch out into multiple projects of their own, some of them of a most esoteric nature. Earlier this year Seznec released his first solo album, Beauty In The Dirt.

Two of the songs on this album are covers - "East. St. Louis Blues" was written by Blind Willie McTell, and recorded by him in 1933. "East Virginia" is a traditional song with very long roots, recorded by- among many others- banjoist Buell Kazee in 1927 and guitarist David Bromberg in 2007. Seznec credits the influence of string duo The Alabama Sheiks' "Travelin' Railroad Blues"  on his song "(21st Century) Traveling Man." Well, the Alabama Sheiks were in the studio in 1931 for that one. (The Alabama Sheiks recorded a total of four songs - you don't get much more obscure than that.)

I mention this because while Seznec did not include "St. James Infirmary" on this disc, the blog you are reading covers not only the song itself, but the period in which it found popularity. And this, from the blues to Appalachia, is the musical period that resonates throughout Beauty In The Dirt

The CD opens with a brief instrumental, "Southern Bound 1" which, in variations, appears three more times as a kind of unifying theme. And then . . . "Dragon Tree." As with many of these songs you might find  yourself scratching your head and searching your memory: it sounds familiar, like a traditional song from the early days of American settlement. But it is an original composition. And so it goes, song after song.

For instance, "Sisyphus" opens with a traditional sort of lyric/melody:

You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
The world can't do me no harm

And then:

The stolen throne of Sisyphus hath crumbled beneath his feet
Condemned to push a giant boulder borne of his own greed and deceit

Even with a lyric like this, the song feels as if it had been written in a bygone time.

There is also a significant African influence here, both in the strength of his melodies and in the restrained use of percussion. Seznec - who spends much of his time in Africa - plays ngoni, a sort of gourd-lute, on some of these songs.

This might be the best album I have heard this year, with superlative musicianship throughout. A chorus from Seznec's "Dragon Tree" gives a hint of how we might approach these songs:

Hey children let's go down
Down to the creek get mud on our feet
Hey children let's go down
And leave the future behind us

To put a bit more of an SJI spin on this, two of the early musicians mentioned earlier, Buell Kazee and Blind Willie McTell, recorded their own versions of "St. James Infirmary." Buell Kazee was - in 1928 - the second person to record the song, which he titled "Gambling Blues." Blind Willie McTell recorded SJI for record shop owner Ed Rhodes in 1956. That recording has never been released.

Friday, September 12, 2014

MP3 - The Kenneth Terry Jazz Band updates SJI

Michael Ward-Bergeman, friend of this blog, sent me a copy of a local - that is, New Orleans - rendition of "St. James Infirmary." Now, this is a real treat, because the performer, Kenneth Terry, has given permission to post the performance on this site. A great talent, his recorded output as a feature artist is woefully inadequate. As soon as you tune in to the music below, I have no doubt you will agree. Talent and renown are not necessarily related.

At about nine minutes, Terry's rendition flows through a history of jazz, flawlessly connecting the past to the present, and includes an unabashed nod to Louis Armstrong's 1928 recording. There is not a wasted second.

Kenneth Terry is one of the premiere trumpet players in New Orleans, as a performer, as a band leader, and as a teacher. The members of the band on this recording are:

kenneth terry - vocals, trumpet
julius mcgee - tuba
keith anderson - trombone
elliott callier - saxaphone
dwane scott - drums
john michael bradford - trumpet
bruce brackman - clarinet

You can buy the CD from Kenneth if you happen upon a performance of his in New Orleans.

I feel honoured to offer this to you. At over nine minutes, here is: "Kenneth Terry Jazz Band - St. James Infirmary."

Many thanks to Michael Ward-Bergeman for alerting me to this and sending the file. Thanks to Kenneth Terry for giving permission to post the recording here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Friend and fellow SJI enthusiast, Rob Walker, recently sent me a link to the "tease" for the finale of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. The theme music is, of course (otherwise why would I be writing this?) "St. James Infirmary."

Thanks, Rob!!
ps For those who might not remember, Rob Walker ran the first blog that was primarily concerned with "St. James Infirmary" - check it out here.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Copyright and St. James Infirmary - a personal rant

Who owns a song?
Or anything else?
image © Robert W Harwood  ; )
I recently exchanged some comments with a fellow photographer. She had found, quite by accident, that a painter had incorporated one of her images as a chief design feature in one of his paintings. That painting was on display (and for sale) in a gallery. She, Lorrie, commented:

    It was a surreal experience for me to see my work manipulated and presented as fine art for sale. I pondered whether to contact him, but I let the impulse go, as my reaction was not one of indignation but rather befuddled amusement. Yes, he had violated copyright by using my photo for commercial purposes, but I was swept up in philosophical thoughts about what constitutes original content.

It is that question of Lorrie's, "what constitutes original content?" that is at the heart of any copyright argument. Here is my response to her:

    It is an interesting discussion you are entering into, Lorrie. 
    Things related to "intellectual ownership" and "copyright" become complicated. Things related to "courtesy" do not. Informing a person of your use of their work (or even asking permission) is common courtesy.
    Copyright use, the question of who owns these sorts of images, is related to courtesy, but is entangled with bureaucratic tape. So, here are my few words on that.
    Copyright was originally - and we're talking 18th and 19th century in the U.S. - intended as a way of limiting a person's ability to profit from something he or she created. It was recognized that everything - from a painting to a spinning wheel - was based on something that preceded it, that nothing is original, and so ultimately belongs to our commonality. In other words, copyright ensured that the item returned, within a reasonable amount of time, into the public stream; in this way others (the public in general) could benefit from it and incorporate it into their own explorations, without fear of repercussions. And thereby to help us all progress.
    The notion of copyright changed as corporations became more influential in legal processes, and it segued into a means of preventing commodities or ideas from becoming public property - they would probably refer to it as protection of investment. So, in effect, the notion of copyright did an about-face. And that might be why something about current copyright law has a peculiar, and not attractive, smell.
    One thing it does, this contemporary interpretation of ownership, is undermine common courtesy. We are not, in this legal notion, participating in a mutual undertaking (that is, living life with concern for each other) but are instead isolated from each other in a kind of pecuniary or egoistic selfishness.

The history of "St. James Infirmary" is intimately entangled with copyright law. In the case of SJI, copyright removed it from the public domain. This is a peculiar thing, and it is a disturbing thing. Were it not for the fact that SJI is so obviously not an original composition, it would still be restricted by copyright protection. But, you see, that returns us to Lorrie's question of "what constitutes original content." Even the most cursory thinking on this matter should reveal to us that we are not the originators of anything - we modify what went before. And it is this incremental increase in knowledge and creativity that moves civilization forward. The intention of copyright law was to encourage people to innovate, to develop new ideas and contraptions, by offering a period of exclusive remuneration. That period was limited in order to ensure that society as a whole benefited. Everything arises from the common ground, and the common ground needs to remain fertile.

If you doubt this, the following quote - cited in Lewis Hyde's "Common As Air: Revolution, Art, And Ownership" (2010) - is from a 1988 review of copyright law from the U.S. House of Representatives:
    Under the U.S. Constitution, the primary objective of copyright law is not to reward the author, but rather to secure for the public the benefits derived from the author's labors. By giving authors an incentive to create, the public benefits in two ways: when the original expression is created and . . . when the limited term . . . expires and the creation is added to the public domain.

Now, having said all this, I have to admit that if I was the author of a song, or a book, or a spinning wheel that was returning significant profits, I might want the copyright extended for as long as possible. (Thus the stance of Walt Disney Corp, Paul McCartney, and so on.) Well, at least part of me would. Another part, I hope my primary part, would recognize the place from which I received inspiration and would prefer to, as at least a gesture of gratitude, return my creation to that place, to the human race.

This is only reasonable.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo?

Sheet music cover for a 1924 Irving Mills song
From Porter Grainger's World War One song, discussed in the previous post, we move to another song rooted in the Great War.

 "Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo" (also known as "Whatever Happened to the Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo?") was published by Jack Mills Music in 1924, six years after the end of the "Great War." It is based on a very popular WWI song, "Mademoiselles from Armentieres" that was sung by British soldiers as they marched towards battle. "Mademoiselles" was itself based on a song popular with troops during the Boer War in the 1880s. These songs were in the public domain.

While "Mademoiselles from Armentieres" had its popularizers, the marching song was far too blue for public performance back home. The troops would improvise verses while on the march; sex and the dark humor of war dominated the lyrics.

A typical, mild version of the lyric went like this:

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez vous
Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez vous
Mademoiselle from Armentieres
She hasn't been kissed in forty years
Hinky dinky parlez vous

For the 1924 release, Irving Mills got together with Al Dubin (posthumously inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1970), Jimmie McHugh (also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970, a year after he died), and Irwin Dash (not much is known about Dash, but under the name Fred Heatherton he later wrote "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts"). The sheet music cover boasted "With twenty new choruses!" From reading the lyric, one gets the impression that many ex-soldiers actually missed the war (or maybe the writers were being sarcastic?):

What has become of the Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo
What has become of all the happy times you knew
I'll bet there are lots of married men
Who wish they were back in the army again
Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo

The lyrics - devised for a popular audience - could be fodder for researchers into social attitudes of the time. For instance, both Uncle Tom and the devout and devoted Eliza (or Liza) were the central black characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin:

What has become of Uncle Tom and Liza too
Up in his cabin on the hill
I hear his daughter is running a still

"Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo" opens with the verse:

Do you ever think of the time
When all the boys went 'cross the sea
To the land of Wee Wee Wee,
Where they strolled with sweet Marie,
Then the boys came back with a song 'bout
"Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo"
If you don't recall the song at all
I'll sing it over for you (shout) Say!

I wonder how well this sheet music sold? You can read the "twenty new choruses" here (clicking should enlarge):

Friday, March 14, 2014

When Our Brown Skin' Soldier Boys Come Home From War

Sheet music cover for a 1919 Porter Grainger song
This is the oldest sheet music by Porter Grainger that I have found. Dated 1919, Grainger would have been about twenty-seven. It is a patriotic song of soldiers returning home after World War I.

Let's go down to the station, people,
Our boys come home today
With great honors won in a grand and noble fray.
Do join us,
There'll be great politicians waiting,
Taxis all in a row.
See Old Glory!
Waving as down the streets they go.

In an era that gave rise to such patriotic favourites as "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," "Over There," "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," and "When the Boys Come Home," there cannot have been many that celebrated the contributions of black soldiers to the WWI United States war effort. (The armed forces did not integrate until 1944, twenty-five years later.) And considering that this was still a year away from the first black blues recording, it is probably a wonder that the sheet music was published at all - that is, music companies were not yet convinced of the financial viability of marketing to an African-American population.

Kudos to Porter Grainger - one gets the feeling that he was not taking the easy route with this song.

(If you are interested in the sheet music, you can find it here)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

I Went Down To SJI - in New Orleans

Photograph by Michael Ward-Bergeman
Michael Ward-Bergeman recently sent me a photograph of "I Went Down To St. James Infirmary" situated proudly on a display table in the store "Forever New Orleans." This is the only store in New Orleans in which this book can be found. I think it looks at home.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Last of the orchestral sheet music: trombone, violin, and bass

A reader recently asked about the trombone parts for the 1929 orchestra score that appears elsewhere on this blog. I had obviously lost track of which sections I had already included, thinking I had posted them all. But, no, I had omitted the trombone, the violin, and the bass parts. So this should do it. Piano. Trumpet. Saxophone. Banjo. Drums. And now, trombone, violin, and bass.


Friday, January 3, 2014

St. James Infirmary Soap???? Yessirree.

Michael Ward-Bergeman, a well-known musician living in New Orleans, surprised me with a bar of St. James Infirmary soap.  It arrived in the mail this morning. SJI soap? Really? "Yes," I was assured, "really." With reviews such as, "What a great soap!" and "Saved me from psoriasis," the soap is made in New Orleans. The owner of Sweet Olive Soap Works relates that she was born in "the aftermath of the great flood of '78 and was brought home in a canoe on the still-flooded streets of New Orleans." Her grandmother, Anna Mae, had been a soapmaker.

I am going to keep this bar on my bookshelf.

This is a sweet way to start 2014. Happy New Year! And thanks, Michael.

Minstrel advertisements - Hi-Brown Bobby Burns

Advertising blotter for Minstrel producer Hi-Brown Bobby Burns

I found myself recalling that there is evidence that Blackface Minstrels performed "St. James Infirmary" in the years before the song was first recorded in 1928. And then I remembered that I own a number of the advertising items pictured above. These are blotters, from the days when people wrote with fountain pens and needed to blot up the wet ink from time to time. I used to use blotters like these. Even when ball-point pens had become popular, teachers felt we had to learn how to write with "proper" pens. Because I am left-handed, my hand would smear the ink across the page as it followed my pen. Teachers did not like that. So, I would place a blotter over what I had just written, and rest my hand upon it. Blotters were very handy. It was a clever gimmick, handing them out as advertisements.

Postcard for Hi-Brown Bobby Burns
Those blotters are probably from the 1920s, when minstrelsy was being absorbed into and supplanted by vaudeville. They measure about 3.5" by 6". Here, Burns shows his "real" face, and his clown face (our modern-day clowns are really just minstrels in whiteface). "Hi-Brown" Bobby Burns was a minor producer of minstrel shows, and occasionally his name shows up on minstrel or circus advertising even into the 1940s. Judging from the evidence, it seems that Burns, like Emmett Miller, was very late in leaving the profession.
Business card "The Last of the Red Hot Minstrels"
Inquiries into the early years of SJI