Inquiries into the early years of SJI

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.