Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Mysterious E and SJI


Many familiar with this site are also familiar with NO Notes - the other (presently paused) blog dedicated to St. James Infirmary and created by author Rob Walker. In NONotes, which I followed assiduously, Rob often referred to a person called "E."

E?

E was a mystery.

A little later Pam and I read Walker's book "Letters from New Orleans" (profits going to victims of hurricane Katrina). Before Pam and I were finally able to travel to New Orleans, we read a lot of books about the place. As it turned out, Walker's was the best of the lot. A good read, in Letters from New Orleans the mysterious E kept popping up. Who the heck is E???? I became convinced that she went deep, beneath the waves.

I stumbled upon something unexpected, as these web searches go. E once lived in Savannah, Georgia, near military bases. She saw soldiers in shops, on the street, some recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. The artist in her must have asked, "How do you represent these people as individuals?"




Have you seen 19th century photographs, in which the subjects stare seriously back at the camera? In those days a portrait required a long exposure. One minute. Two minutes. It is almost impossible to hold a smile for that long. And so our ancestors appear to have been somber people. Photographically, a smile was a rare thing. In photos of civil war soldiers, they had this same demeanour ... although one could ask if they had much to smile about, anyway. Today, of course, we can take a dozen photos a second, and then choose the most attractive - perhaps a transitional expression. I would argue that the held pose, in which one does not move for a minute or so, is more resonant. More representative of the person. More revealing of the subject, more responsive than is possible with our digital fastness. You can't pretend for that long.




E used 19th century photo techniques to portray 21st century soldiers.


Eventually Pam and I met E. She and Rob were living in New Orleans. We knocked ... she answered. E. The mysterious E stood in the doorway and ushered us in.

Of course we chatted about St. James Infirmary. E cued up The White Stripes.



Sometime during the evening I asked her for her favourite recording of St. James Infirmary. She said something, I said something, and afterwards neither of us remembered. But, when I wrote to her later, she did recall the Hot Eight performing the song in New Orleans ... "I have a vivid memory of that performance and song. It was skillful, raw, and moving, in part because the performers were so young, so local, and so convincing in the way they sold the song. It was a magical, divey, sweaty evening. I don't think hearing a recording would have the same effect, but if a live performance can be said top be a favourite, I guess I could go with that."

So, here's the official video of Hot 8 - of course not what E experienced in a live performance. But you'll get an impression.



E & SJI.

Depth and mystery.


Some of E's collodion images have been selected for display, at huge size, in The National Museum of the United States Army, in Virginia. Slated to open in June, 2020. here's a rendering of the "Army and Society" section of the museum, where E's portraits will be featured..

Some of E's collodion portraits in the projected "Army & Society" space at the museum



Brilliant


All collodion images courtesy of Ellen Susan

Friday, August 2, 2019

Richard Jenkins on The Unfortunate Rake, Folklore, and St. James Infirmary


Logo for The Folklore Society
London, England
The British folklorist, Richard Jenkins, first sent me an email in 2008, in which he asked, "Where, in the whole saga, would you place 'Gambling Blues,' recorded on 16 Jan 1928 by Buell Kazee, from Eastern Kentucky?" That was an important question, and led me to a reevaluation of the chronology of SJI recordings.

I was glad to hear that, earlier this year, he was chosen to deliver the annual Katharine Briggs memorial lecture for the revered Folklore Society in London, England.


Jenkins' lecture focused on the song The Unfortunate Rake, tackling it from at least three perspectives. The one most pertinent to this site: Is there a relationship between The Unfortunate Rake and St. James Infirmary? Jenkins said,"As far as I know, Harwood was the first to question the link between St. James and The Rake." He's right. And, as he suggested, this was not an easy thing to do. When the authorities, the folklorists and scholars, have settled on an explanation, who dares to question their conclusions? Jenkins investigated this conundrum.



Which leads to another of Jenkins' approaches to this Rake controversy. Can scholars lose objectivity as a result of their own desires and biases? I wrote in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary that "each folk music researcher has his own motivation for undertaking the work, and this will influence both what he looks for and how he interprets what he finds." In his lecture Jenkins went more broadly into this: "There is also the role of what psychologists call 'confirmation bias': the role of preconceptions in the selection of evidence and the encouragement of unsupported, and often unacknowledged, speculation ... people find what they are looking for and what they already believe in, even if, in extremis, doing so requires fraud or invention." His elaboration on this theme is engrossing.

Jenkins also raised the question of The Unfortunate Rake's title. He explained the history of a song known, historically, as The Unfortunate Lad, and asked why a 20th century researcher might have been tempted to alter the title to something, well, a little more rakish. His discussion about this is both involved and thought provoking.


Jenkins's piece roams over much more territory than I have suggested in these few words. You can read his lecture here: The Unfortunate Rake's Progress. Highly recommended!


Richard Jenkins can be contacted at  r.p.jenkins@sheffield.ac.uk


PS Further thanks to Dr. Jenkins for saying, during his lecture: "Harwood's is the fullest account of the history of 'St. James Infirmary' and its relationship to other songs that we have." I wish I'd had his lecture as a reference when writing I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

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Here, a bit of fun - The Copperfield Ensemble use the word "infirmary" but, hey, it's the 21st century. Nicely done.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Betty Boop & St. James Infirmary (1933)

From Betty Boop's "Snow White" with
Koko the Clown (aka Cab Calloway)
A reader recently reminded me of Betty Boop and St. James Infirmary.

Back in the 1930s, because of his contributions to the animation department at Fleischer Studios, cartoonist Roland Crandall was given free reign to develop his own notion of a cartoon story. He chose the tale of Snow White (the title of his creation) and, working alone for six months, single-handedly drew and formatted a seven-minute fable of delirious invention. In those days each frame of the film had to be drawn by hand, so it was a most intense process.

The soundtrack was a Cab Calloway version of SJI.

For parts of the film Crandall drew over rotoscopes of Cab Calloway, in order to capture Calloway's idiosyncratic dance moves for Koko the clown - and the ghost that the witch turned Koko into. (There can be no doubt that Michael Jackson closely studied Calloway's moves.)

In 1994 Crandall's Snow White was voted into 19th place of the greatest cartoons of all time by cartoon animators. The Library of Congress, that year, selected it for preservation in the national film registry. The film is now in the public domain.

In 1999 the White Stripes started their adventurous interpretation of St. James Infirmary with the exclamation "Oh, Koko!"

If you are drawn in, you can find some pretty interesting stuff by visiting Rob Walker's (unfortunately now defunct but hopefully to be resurrected) blog NO Notes and entering "Betty Boop" in the search rectangle. Rob was/is fascinated by this bit of cinema, as am I.

The wild imagination of Roland Crandall. Mysterious, analogical, weird.

(Click on the video to take you to the proper framing at YouTube.)


Friday, May 24, 2019

Rhiannon Giddens & St. James Infirmary


Accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman once vowed to play a gig every day for a year. That took him through North America, Europe, and Asia. He did it. A gig a day. Maybe on the street, maybe in a concert hall.

You can hear some of these on his GIG 365 album.

During this period Bergeman wrote a Romany arrangement of St. James Infirmary: "When I first heard St. James Infirmary Blues performed live in the back room of a dingy London pub," he said, "I felt it was at once a blues song and something that would feel equally at home with my Roma musician friends." You can clearly hear the Roma instruments (and Roma instrumentalists) on the piece:



Since then Michael has performed this arrangement (or a variation of it) many times, including on recordings with chamber band "Eighth Blackbird," (who the Chicago Tribune declared "one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensemble on the planet") and with Yo Yo Ma's "Silk Road Ensemble" (a loose collective of musicians from across the geographical and musical spectrum of the Silk Road, a historical trade route through Asia and Europe).

Which brings us to Rhiannon Giddens. When "Silk Road" recorded SJI for their album Sing Me Home, they brought in Rhiannon for the vocals. Along with the Chinese percussive string instrument, the yangqin, the arrangement includes accordion, cello, shakulute, clarinet, bass, darbuka, violin.

By going to this site: http://compmjwb.blogspot.com/, you can view the Silk Road, featuring Rhiannon Giddens, recording/performing the song,. That's the first selection. The third selection features Giddens live at a 2016 TED conference in Vancouver, with the "Silk Road Ensemble" and with Ward-Bergeman again hoisting accordion.

More western, but no less exciting, here's an energetic duet with Tom Jones:



Maybe Rhiannon should record a variation of SJI with every album. Click here for a link to her latest venture, there is no Other (an exciting album, albeit sans "St.James Infirmary.")

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Elizabeth Cotton. Connections, eh?

In this photo you will see that Elizabeth Cotton (1893-1987) was a left-handed guitarist. Turning her guitar upside-down, she developed a peculiar picking style.

Elizabeth Cotton was nanny to the Seeger family, looking after Peter and Peggy and Mike and Barbara and Penny.

(Thanks to reader Mike Regenstreif for pointing out that Pete was an adult when, in the late 1940s, Elizabeth entered the Seeger household.)

Cotton worked for the Seeger family for a few years before they discovered she could play guitar. The mother, Ruth Porter Crawford Seeger, provided musical notation for "Those Gambler's Blues" - aka SJI  - in Carl Sandburg's 1927 American Songbag.

At the age of 11 Elizabeth wrote "Freight Train:"

Freight train freight train run so fast
Freight train freight train run so fast
Please don't tell what train I'm on
They won't know what route I'm goin"


At 74 she recorded "Shake Sugaree," giving the vocal part to her 12 year-old great grandchild, Brenda Joyce Evans.

Oh lordy me don't I  shake sugaree?
Everything I got is done and pawned.

Here's a version she recorded herself



"Shake Sugaree" was featured on Bob Dylan's radio show (episode 93).

Rhiannon Giddens recorded it in 2015 .





Time marches on. And "Shake Sugaree," unfortunately, has not lost its relevance.

Another interpretation: writer, biographer and friend of Dave Van Ronk (etc.!), Elijah Wald:
https://www.elijahwald.com/songblog/shake-sugaree/

Have fun.