Showing posts with label Bessie Smith. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bessie Smith. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Illustration

A few years ago, while working on the first iteration of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary (which I had titled A Rake's Progress and of which perhaps a dozen copies are still in existence), I  created an illustration that brought together some of the principal characters in the SJI story. Albert Gleizes' 1913 painting "Women Sewing" was the inspiration for the underlying art work; onto this I layered photographs of various SJI personalities, and included myself and my wife (the book's designer) as, I guess, observers of the drama.

So here, in no particular order (the illustration should enlarge if you click on it), you can find Jimmie Rodgers, Porter Grainger, Dan Emmett, Mamie Smith, Irving Mills, Don Redman, Phil Baxter, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Carl "The Deacon" Moore, Bob Dylan, Bessie Smith, Emmett Miller, and Blind Willie McTell.

Speaking of Blind Willie McTell, he will be (part of) the subject of our next entry.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Moving towards (or away from?) a biographical outline of Porter Grainger

No entries on this blog have generated as much response as the ones concerning Porter Grainger. This is kind of odd, because - aside from a few copyrighted songs and a few recorded performances on which he plays piano in the background - nobody knows much about Grainger.

(For those of you new to this site, Grainger is connected to "St. James Infirmary" through a song he wrote in the 1920s: "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues.")

There are a few tidbits of information about him - enough to suggest a talented songwriter whose role in the development of American popular song has been consistently underrated, if not outright ignored.

When researching I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, I discovered both where and when he was born. This was not a particularly difficult thing , and reaffirms the general lack of interest in this man. We have yet to discover when he died. One contributer to this site, Andrew Barrett, noted that Grainger renewed the 1926 copyright of a book he co-wrote with his friend Bob Ricketts, How to Sing and Play the Blues Like the Phonograph and Stage Artists, on October 7th, 1954. As a result, one might assume that he was alive in 1954. In 1955 though, a writing partner reportedly renewed the copyright for a song they wrote together, replacing (the now deceased) Porter Grainger's name with his daughter's, Portia Grainger.

This last bit of news, that Porter might have had a daughter, does not necessarily fly in the face of descriptions of Porter Grainger as an openly flamboyant homosexual - but it does give us pause for reflection. The 1930 census lists an Ethel and a Portia Grainger living in New Orleans. Portia was then 5 years old, and her mother 30. It adds that Ethel - although not living with her husband at the time of the census - was married, and had been for 10 years. Ethel Grainger, Howard Rye states in the liner notes to the CD Porter Grainger 1923-1929, recorded under the name Ethel Finnie. Porter played piano on these recordings. I have noted in the book, though, that Grainger claimed (on the 1930 census) that he had been married since he was 33, which would have been around 1924, rather than Ethel's statement of about 1920. Grainger also claimed on his WW1 draft card that he was already married (that is, before 1920), but this could reflect a reluctance to being drafted (having dependents could affect one's priority for the draft). It's slippery, isn't it?

The evidence that Porter had a daughter Portia, as far as I can tell, is not definitive, and we cannot even claim with assurance that (census statements notwithstanding) Porter was ever married. Nor can we claim, aside from some circumstantial commentary, that he was homosexual. If he did not have a daughter Portia, the likelihood increases that he was still alive in 1955, when the copyright on his song was renewed.

I would be delighted to be told that I am incorrect, that we do have more substantiated information about his life.

Correspondent Bob Hutchins wrote to me about a letter his grandmother received in 1948 (see the post above) suggesting that Grainger could have returned to Bowling Green once he made a bit of money. Music historian Elliott Hurwitt notes that we have mostly looked for clues to Grainger's later life elsewhere, in places like New York and Chicago - perhaps Tennessee might serve as a good hunting ground, at least as far as discovering the place and date of Porter Grainger's death.

(ps Andrew Barret sent me a scan of a photograph showing Porter Grainger posing with a large crowd of other musicians/songwriters, including Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton and over a dozen others (many unidentified). Morton died in 1941, so the photograph obviously predates that event. Grainger's inclusion in this collection suggests, to me at least, that he was regarded highly in some music circles.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Porter Grainger - birth date discovered

Above, a detail from the 1925 New York City telephone book, showing addresses for music partners Porter Grainger and Robert Ricketts

I recently received an email from an enthusiastic Porter Grainger fan. In fact, his first comment was to point out that "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" actually made it onto piano rolls! Readers of this blog - and of the book - will know that the composer of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" was Porter Grainger. Grainger was one of those souls who disappeared almost completely from public consciousness, even though he left a significant mark on the music of the 1920s. His contribution has been minimized, and I (as well as my correspondent, Andrew Barrett) think that is inaccurate and unfair.

Generally, not much is known about Grainger, aside from the fact that he wrote songs for Bessie Smith, and accompanied her in concerts and revues (a very fancy dresser, he was for a time part of Bessie's inner circle). He is one of the characters central to the story of SJI, and makes an important appearance in my book. Still, even the most reliable resources, such as the remarkable allmusic.com, say things like "Very little is known about the pianist Porter Grainger . . . even his birth and death dates are unknown."

I can't help with the date of his death, but while researching the book I did discover when (and where) he was born. The census records don't help. He first makes an appearance in the 1900 records, which show he was living with his grandfather, and was about nine years old. His draft cards, however, are another matter.

Above, Grainger's WWII draft card, revealing his date of birth.

Both Grainger's WWI and WWII draft cards reveal his birth date as October 22, 1891. He was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky. His 1917 card declares his profession as "Composer of songs." His WWII card shows he was employed at the Minsky-Eltinge Theatre at W42nd Street, in New York City.

These draft cards - both for Grainger and his friend Robert Ricketts - bring up further questions that are covered in the book.

For those who enjoy clarifying the obscure, Mr. Barrett wrote to me, "If you think Porter Grainger is obscure, try his friend Robert W. Ricketts (bandleader, pianist(?), led 'Ricketts' Stars' accompanying many blues singers) and Everett Robbins (a FANTASTIC blues pianist and singer)." Everett Robbins - whose piano rolls are of particular interest to Mr. Barrett - shared writing credit with Grainger for the famous blues song (first recorded by Bessie Smith) "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."
Inquiries into the early years of SJI