Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Friday, August 31, 2018

The FIRST sheet music for SJI

The cover for Gambler's Blues, 1925
I had been looking for this sheet music for years. It was as if the object did not exist. It was a legendary thing.

But eventually I did find it ... it was a stroke of luck, for I've never seen it again.

This is an important historical document. It had been printed in such small numbers that it must have become a collectors' item. I was certain of that.

I bought it for ninety-nine cents. Obviously, others were not as eager as I was.

The composing credit was to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter - both of whom are major characters in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. The sheet music was published privately by Phil Baxter in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1925. Soon after, the publisher Harry D. Squires picked it up.  Squires convinced Fess Williams to record it (February 1927). That was the first recording of the song - which was next released by Buell Kazee in January 1928, and then - definitively - by Louis Armstrong in December 1928.

The sheet music with lyrics can be found elsewhere on this blog - just enter "Gambler's Blues" in the search box. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Original Lyrics for "I Wish I Was in Dixie" (you might be surprised)

The lower half of page 29 of the Atlanta Constitution
newspaper, Sunday, July 14, 1895.
I wish I was in Dixie; Hooray hooray!
In Dixie Land I'll take my stand
To live and die in Dixie
Away, away. away down south in Dixie


"Dixie" was a Confederate battlecry in the march against the Union. It had not been composed as a battle song, though.

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904) premiered this song for a minstrel show a couple of years before the American Civil War broke out. As I documented in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, while he was not the first blackface minstrel, Dan Emmett created the minstrel show (with his Virginia Minstrels) around 1841. At that time he wrote what is probably the United States' first homegrown popular hit, "Old Dan Tucker."

 Audiences usually assumed that minstrel songs were either original "negro songs," or written in the "negro style." Really, most were probably modified Irish ballads and jigs. The lyrics were printed in a sort of vernacular, to reflect speech patterns of the slaves. For instance, "I wish I was in the land of cotton / Old times there are not forgotten ..." was written as, "I wish I was in de lan ob cotton / Ole times dar am not forgotten ..."

Emmett's Virginia Minstrels toured Europe (to great reviews) but were short-lived, and by 1859 Daniel Emmett was working with Bryant's Minstrels as songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For a rousing close to their show the Bryant's asked him for a stirring melody, "a regular whopper that would wake things up." Emmett quickly composed "Dixie" (aka "Dixie's Land," "I Wish I Was In Dixie," etc.).

Two years after its composition, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter and the Civil War was underway. The song, already popular, caught on like wildfire. Confederate soldiers, inspired by the thrilling strains of the chorus, rushed into battle "to live and die in Dixie."

Much of the lyric had changed in those two years. Racial references were erased, four-line stanzas became two-line stanzas, and the song's comic patter became racially indiscriminate.  It had migrated from a "comic" minstrel stage performance into a folk song.

Regarding this, the July 14, 1895 edition of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper explained that, "the words of the song have undergone many additions and modifications during the thirty-six years of its existence, but a pencil copy in the author's own hand gives the following as the original version, as sung in New York in 1859."

And so we read, in one of the original verses, "In Dixie lan' de darkies grow / 'Ef  white fo'kes only plants der toe / Dey wet the groun' wid 'backer smoke / An' up de darkie's head will poke / I wish I was in Dixie, etc."

Incredibly (a sad comment on the times they lived in) the article praised the lyrics as having considerable value: "Those who seek for literary excellence in the homely rhymes will be disappointed, but recognition of the author's design gives the key to their merit, and one sees in them unsurpassed reproduction of negro thought and versification."

"Unsurpassed reproduction of negro thought and versification." How could anyone, reading the lyrics, have even thought that, much less published it in a newspaper??

Although Emmett could be an absurdist (as illustrated by these lines from "Old Dan Tucker:" "Old Dan Tucker was a mighty man / Washed his face in a frying pan / Combed his hair with a wagon wheel / Died with a toothache in his heel"), his lyrics were often uncommonly denigrating (again, from "Old Dan Tucker": "Tucker on de wood pile - can't count 'lebben / Put in a fedder bed - him gwine to hebben / His nose so flat, his face so full / De top of his head like a bag ob wool").

Here, as reproduced by the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1895, are those original lyrics to "Dixie."

I wish I was in de lan’ ob cotton;
Ole times dar am not forgotten —
In Dixie lan’ where I was bawn in,
Early orn ne frosty mawin.’

I wish I was in Dixie — Away! away!
In Dixie Lan’ I’ll take my stan’,
To lib an’ die in Dixie.
Away! away! away down souph in Dixie!
Away! away! away down souph in Dixie!

In Dixie lan’ de darkies grow,
Ef white fo’kes only plants der toe;
Dey wet de groun’ wid’ ’backer smoke,
An’ up de darkey’s head will poke.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

’Dey hoe an’ rake and dig de lan’
An’ plant de cotton seed by han’;
When master’s gone dey down will sit,
De young folks dey git up an’ git.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

You court de gals right on de squar’
An’ smoove de wool in deir curly hair;
Dey am not drunk, dey am not sober —
Dey try to faint, but dey fall cl’ar ober.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

Ole Missis marry Will, de weaber;
William was a gay deceaber;
When he put is arm aroun’ ’er,
He looks as fierce as a forty-poun’er.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

When Missis libbed she libbed in clobber;
When she died she died all ober.
Here’s a health to the nex’ old Missis,
An’ all de gals dat want to kiss us.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

_____________________________________________
Here are two contemporary (and necessarily sanitized) versions of the two songs mentioned here. First, Bob Dylan, from his film Masked and Anonymous:



And Bruce Springsteen, from a 2006 tour:



In each case, double-click to receive the full-frame video.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

WXDU Radio 88.7 FM - finishes every show with a different version of SJI

WXDU 88.7 FM
Michael Akutagwa hosts a weekly radio program. It's called Out There a Minute. For around eight years he has ended each edition of his show with a different rendition of "St. James Infirmary." It might be Ray Condo & Hardrock Goners, or Cannonball Adderly, The Doors, Marva Wright or Arlo Guthrie, Cab Calloway or Allen Tuissaint, Artie Shaw, James Booker, Pat Verbeke, Earl Hines, Throat Culture ... every week, for eight years. That's a lot of SJI variations.

His programs feature (to say the least) an eclectic mixture of songs. Sun Ra & His Orkestra, BB King, Bob Dylan, Link Wray, Iggy Pop, John Coltrane ... you can find a list of his archived programs here  and, if you check out some of the titles on, say, Spotify, I am sure you'll find much to stimulate further explorations. Remarkable stuff, remarkable program.

Addendum, June 27, 2018: Michael Akutagwa recently informed me that: It's been a hectic couple of months, but I have managed to make some additions to the STJINF ("St. James Infirmary") stash. Current count is 1217, but in truth I have expanded things a bit, and I've got some "Streets of Laredo" (and the like) in there, a handful of versions of "The Bard of Armagh," of "Tell Me More," and a couple of other songs that either somehow reference or allude to STJINF, and I'm about to add in the Tom Waits songs "Lucinda" and "Tango 'Till They're Sore" (all with appropriate, albeit brief notes in the accompanying spreadsheet).

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Silliness of On-line Book Sales

It can be an odd experience, trying to sell books online.

Cover of current edition
Here's an example: We at Harland Press offer I Went Down to St. James Infirmary through our own website, through this blog, and through Amazon.com.
Via this blog, the cost outside Canada is $29.50 (including postage). On Amazon, the cost for the book alone is $35.00 - but, because of Amazon's percentage, plus the cost of mailing the book to them, and their annual fees, we actually lose money with each sale. Still, what point is there in writing a book if it can't be read?

We attempted to post the book on Canada's Amazon site (we live and publish/print the book in Canada), but the process was too onerous. So you can't find it there ... unless you are willing to buy from secondary sellers for up to $210. That's just silly.



Cover of previous edition
Things get more interesting. The first edition of the book (2008) is no longer available. The current second edition is a complete rewrite; it is longer, it is more accurate, it has greater depth, and it contains both a subject and a song index. Still, the earlier editions are for sale on the Web at sometimes extraordinary prices. Today, I could purchase an out-of-date copy via a secondary Amazon seller, if I was willing to shell out up to $1,057. (Plus $3.99 shipping.) That's right, $1,060.99!
If you look for it on Abe's books, it will only cost you $180. (For those interested, we have a few leftover copies, and will sell them for even less. ; ) )



First iteration of the book
But there's more. In 2004 I wrote a precursor to I Went Down to St. James Infirmary called A Rake's Progress. The title referred to both the song "An Unfortunate Rake," which depicted the death of a soldier from syphilis, and William Hogarth's series of eight eighteenth century paintings, "A Rake's Progress," which illustrated the moral and physical decline of a wastrel. Ultimately, the title was meant to signify the evolution - or progress - of the song "An Unfortunate Rake" as it transitioned into "St. James Infirmary." A Rake's Progress was based upon current knowledge. But I soon discovered that current knowledge was awry, was the crystallization of erroneous assumptions. The story was utterly wrong. The tale had to be retold.

We printed fewer than a hundred copies of A Rake's Progress - none of which can be found on the Web, at any price. I still have a few copies. But, you know, I hope nobody is interested in them.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Irving Mills sings (with Jack Pettis And His Pets) 1928


Irving Mills
Correspondent Beverly Mills Keys sent a link to a song in which Irving Mills is the vocalist. Historically, of course, Mills was not known as a singer - although he did contribute to a few recordings, including some by Duke Ellington. Mills is better remembered as an entrepreneur who managed many artists in the 1920s and 1930s, including Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. In the realm of the song St. James Infirmary, of course, he was - as Joe Primrose - an alleged composer.

Therein lies another story.

Irving Mills is a central character in my tale of St. James Infirmary. So it is good to actually hear his voice.

Jack Pettis
Below is the YouTube video Beverly Mills Keys sent to me, a 1928 recording by Jack Pettis and His Pets. For this song Irving Mills assumed the pseudonym of Erwin McGee. In other records he sang as Sonny Smith, Goody Goodwin, and so on. The pseudonyms were sometimes necessary, as he often recorded with predominantly black musicians; racially mixed performing groups could be, uhm, difficult in those times. (Mills, to his credit, was one of the first to record racially integrated bands.)

Pettis, though, was Caucasian, as were the members of his bands; an innovative saxophonist, he recorded occasionally with Mills' "Hotsy Totsy Gang" alongside such youngsters as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa ...  all soon to become among the biggest names in jazz/pop music. Mills had an uncanny way of recognizing talent.

You can read more about Jack Pettis here.

It is likely that Mills was managing Pettis when this record was made. "Baby" was written by two of Mills' stable of songwriters, early in their careers, Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. Both were eventually inducted into the songwriters hall of fame.

Mills' vocal comes in at about 58 seconds.

Friday, February 9, 2018

SPOTIFY playlist for I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

Image by author, using sheet music for St. James Infirmary as background

All songs, all things, are connected.

While investigating the history of "St. James Infirmary," many other songs came into view.  Because of this I created a Spotify playlist of some of the songs mentioned in my book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. I couldn't find everything, though. Neither Daisey Tapley nor Florence Cole-Talbert are in the list. Aside from two or three women who were part of choirs, these were the first two black women to appear in recordings (1910 and 1919). I was able to include the first recorded solo black man (also, probably, the first solo male recording artist) - George W. Johnson with "The Laughing Coon" (c. 1894). Unfortunately, his first tune, "The Whistling Coon" (1891) is not on Spotify.

Neither are any of the songs by Carl Moore, aka "The Squeakin' Deacon." Moore was the first person, in 1924, to claim co-writing credit for SJI. From Arkansas, he adopted the persona of a hillbilly hick while fronting a smooth, swinging jazz orchestra. He recorded four catchy songs, but none of them migrated beyond their original 78 rpm discs. The only place you will find them today is on this site - enter "Carl Moore mp3" into the search box.

So far I have included 55 songs on the SJI playlist. You can hear Irving Mills introducing Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club on "Cotton Club Stomp." The Hokum Boys with their lost versions of "Gambler's Blues/St. James Infirmary." Gene Austin and "My Blue Heaven" (the best-selling song of all time ... until Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") - as well as his take on SJI. Bessie Smith. Blind Willie McTell's "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell." Cab Calloway. Alphonso Trent's 1930 SJI tantrum. Sophie Tucker. Hank Williams. Ward-Bergeman's 2011 gypsy version of SJI. Jimmie Rodgers. Victoria Spivey's 1926 "Black Snake Blues."

I shall add more from the book's song index as time goes on.

If you have a Spotify account, look for "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary" in the playlists, and enjoy.