Friday, November 27, 2020

St. James Infirmary - musical mystery story

1925 cover of Baxter & Moore's
 Gambler's Blues sheet music

On the left you can see the 1925 cover for the original sheet music for Gambler's Blues, which later became known as St. James Infirmary. The song had long been popular, but it developed through an oral rather than a written tradition. 

Ostensibly composed by Carl Moore (lyricist) and Phil Baxter (music), this first sheet music is one small step in the evolution of the song we know now as St. James Infirmary.

Both Moore and Baxter are fascinating characters who figure largely in my book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. They are the first in a long line of musicians claiming ownership of the song Gambler's Blues / St. James Infirmary. However, they were certainly not the composers ... but, then, where did the song come from?

Baxter and Moore copyrighted Gambler's Blues in 1925 (in Little Rock, Arkansas), three years before Louis Armstrong released his definitive version in 1928; Armstrong's was the first recording released with the title St. James InfirmaryTwo titles, basically the same song.

The first-ever recording was by Fess Williams and His Royal Flush Orchestra in 1927, using the Moore/Baxter arrangement; it was a kind of tragi-comic interpretation, and still a pleasure to listen to.

A year later the Appalachian banjoist Buell Kazee put the song out with the title Gambling Blues, probably taking his version from Carl Sandburg's book of traditional songs The American Songbag (1927). But SJI had to wait for Louis Armstrong before it sped down the freeway.

Was the song always presented with different names, in the years before records, when it was played in disreputable bars and rode the band circuits from hall to hall across the continent? When did it receive it's definitive title, and who was responsible? It turns into a musical detective story.

The origins and popularization of St James Infirmary is a fascinating tale. Here we have less than scratched the surface. You can read more here, in my book I Went down to St. James Infirmary.



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Sample of Kudos for the book:

"The book is one of a kind. Bob Harwood states that this is the end of the story, as far as he has it in him to tell it. This work is unique, so if you don’t have it, get it.” — Malcolm Shaw, Editor of Jazz and Ragtime Records (1897-1942)

“Mr Harwood opened up so many musical alleys to explore. A sparkling book!” — “Digger,”

"What bettter way to honour a great song than to tell a great story about it!" David Fulmer, author of The Dying Crapshooter's Blues and The Valentin St. Cyr Mysteries.

"A goldmine of information, with an amazing cast of characters. The definitive statement on the subject — and a very entertaining read to boot." — Rob Walker, author of Letters from New Orleans and The Art of Noticing

"Robert Harwood’s book is not the first devoted to one song, but it is the first to cross so many stylistic fences in its attempt to trace the origins of a tune, one which is lost in the mists of time." — Mark Berresford, review for VJM’s Blues and Jazz Mart


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 If you are interested in the sheet music for Moore/Baxter's "Gambler's Blues," you can find it elsewhere on this blog. (Type into the search area "Gambler's Blues," or even "sheet music," for there is a lot of that here.)

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Inquiries into the early years of SJI