Inquiries into the early years of SJI
Showing posts with label Blind Willie McTell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blind Willie McTell. 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.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

3 Favourite Bob Dylan Songs


Bob Dylan was a central figure in the writing of my book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary; it was his "Blind Willie McTell" that set the ball rolling ("I'm gazing out the window of the St. James Hotel ...").  Here are three of my favourite Dylan songs. What would you include?

1. When the Deal Goes Down. 2006. In this song I imagine the singer at the bedside of a dying spouse, lover, holding her/his hand, and maybe whispering closely. ("I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true, I'll be with you when the deal goes down.")

2. Red River Shore. 1997. In which the girl on the Red River Shore represents a youthful ideal - say, a struggle towards understanding, or a religious striving, a Gurdjieffien goal, perhaps. But this is now lost to the aged singer. ("The dream dried up a long time ago; don't know where it is anymore ...")

3. Stormy Weather. 2017 - well, it was written in 1933 by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. When Dylan sings, "I'm weary all the time," you can feel it in your bones.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cory Seznec: Beauty In The Dirt


The roots-music group, Groanbox, has been a friend of this blog for some time now. You can find them on YouTube performing versions of "St. James Infirmary," or their own variation, "DarlingLou." Each member of the trio are accomplished musicians (accordionist and multi-instrumentalist Michael Ward-Bergeman, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Paul Clifford, and guitarist/banjoist and multi-instrumentalist Cory Seznec) who branch out into multiple projects of their own, some of them of a most esoteric nature. Earlier this year Seznec released his first solo album, Beauty In The Dirt.

Two of the songs on this album are covers - "East. St. Louis Blues" was written by Blind Willie McTell, and recorded by him in 1933. "East Virginia" is a traditional song with very long roots, recorded by- among many others- banjoist Buell Kazee in 1927 and guitarist David Bromberg in 2007. Seznec credits the influence of string duo The Alabama Sheiks' "Travelin' Railroad Blues"  on his song "(21st Century) Traveling Man." Well, the Alabama Sheiks were in the studio in 1931 for that one. (The Alabama Sheiks recorded a total of four songs - you don't get much more obscure than that.)

I mention this because while Seznec did not include "St. James Infirmary" on this disc, the blog you are reading covers not only the song itself, but the period in which it found popularity. And this, from the blues to Appalachia, is the musical period that resonates throughout Beauty In The Dirt

The CD opens with a brief instrumental, "Southern Bound 1" which, in variations, appears three more times as a kind of unifying theme. And then . . . "Dragon Tree." As with many of these songs you might find  yourself scratching your head and searching your memory: it sounds familiar, like a traditional song from the early days of American settlement. But it is an original composition. And so it goes, song after song.

For instance, "Sisyphus" opens with a traditional sort of lyric/melody:

You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
The world can't do me no harm

And then:

The stolen throne of Sisyphus hath crumbled beneath his feet
Condemned to push a giant boulder borne of his own greed and deceit

Even with a lyric like this, the song feels as if it had been written in a bygone time.

There is also a significant African influence here, both in the strength of his melodies and in the restrained use of percussion. Seznec - who spends much of his time in Africa - plays ngoni, a sort of gourd-lute, on some of these songs.

This might be the best album I have heard this year, with superlative musicianship throughout. A chorus from Seznec's "Dragon Tree" gives a hint of how we might approach these songs:

Hey children let's go down
Down to the creek get mud on our feet
Hey children let's go down
And leave the future behind us


To put a bit more of an SJI spin on this, two of the early musicians mentioned earlier, Buell Kazee and Blind Willie McTell, recorded their own versions of "St. James Infirmary." Buell Kazee was - in 1928 - the second person to record the song, which he titled "Gambling Blues." Blind Willie McTell recorded SJI for record shop owner Ed Rhodes in 1956. That recording has never been released.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Porter Grainger: Sheet Music

Some time back I posted both an MP3 and the lyrics to a 1927 Porter Grainger song called "Song From a Cotton Field." You can see those postings here. The MP3 features Grainger as both pianist and vocalist.

A couple of months ago the sheet music for a number of Grainger songs came up for sale. I could only afford to bid for one of them, and this is it.

There are a few things about the cover that catch my attention. First, of course, is the photograph of the performers. "The Record Boys" (good luck trying to find them in any music database today) are dressed in tuxedos, looking very sophisticated, in order to represent a song with lyrics like:

All my life I've been makin' it
All my life white folks takin' it
This old heart they jus' breakin' it
Ain't got a thing to show for what I've done done

(Of course, in those days publishers would design these covers with an empty frame where the photograph of a performer could be inserted before reprinting the music sheets. It could very well have been another performer of the song, Bessie Brown, who was pictured there. What I mean is, the photograph of The Record Boys was probably their standard publicity photo, and was not chosen with the theme of the particular song in mind. Even so, I still find the contrast jarring.)

The second is the subtitle. "A Southern Classic." There was nothing classic about this song. It was written by Porter Grainger not long before this sheet music was released. But its lyric hearkens back to the cotton fields, and I guess the publishers felt this was a good marketing ploy. I doubt Grainger would have objected; he wrote songs in order to make a living.

And then there is the publisher's stamp at the bottom of the page. None other than Gotham Music Service - the publishing arm of Mills Music, of which Irving Mills was vice-president; his brother Jack was president. (For those new to this subject, Irving Mills was Joe Primrose, the fictional - in more than one way - composer of "St. James Infirmary.")

So, back in 1927 Mills was actually publishing the music of Porter Grainger. This is the same Porter Grainger who, at about this time, wrote "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," which was long considered a Blind Willie McTell composition and a tribute of sorts to "St. James Infirmary," but which was not written by McTell and was recorded before "St. James Infirmary."

The images here should enlarge if you click on them. Pay attention to the small advertisements on the bottom of the pages - which are kind of like intrusive Internet ads. For instance one of them features songwriter Rube Bloom, who had a hit for Mills with "Soliloquy" and who was one of the many who recorded SJI under the Mills umbrella in 1930.




Friday, February 3, 2012

MP3 Monologue 5 - Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues

Readers of earlier posts will recall that, over two years ago, I had agreed to record a number of commentaries on "St. James Infirmary" for inclusion in a possible United States radio show about the song. The show did not materialize, and so I am posting those commentaries, or "monologues," here. This is the fifth installment.

In this monologue we hear a bit of the original "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," recorded in 1927 by Martha Copeland. The main emphasis, though, is on two people: Blind Willie McTell, who always claimed he had composed the song, and Porter Grainger who actually did. There is, of course, a close relationship between "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" and "St. James Infirmary" (and, more recently, Bob Dylan's song "Blind Willie McTell").

To listen (about five minutes, at 256 kbps)) click here: "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" MP3.

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, December 6, 2010

Blind Willie McTell biography

I want to point out a very sweet - crisp, detailed, and well written - online biography of Blind Willie McTell. Readers of this site will know that McTell, because of the popularity of his rendition of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," figures fairly prominently in the history of "St. James Infirmary" - for the same reason there are a number of posts here about Porter Grainger.

It is not easy, not by a long shot, to write a concise biography as well as Mr. Obrecht has done. You can find it via the link above, or by going to http://jasobrecht.com/blind-willie-mctell-life-music/

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blind Willie McTell and the authorship of Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues

Last November, shortly after we finally published I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, the remarkable Rob Walker posted the first part of a five part interview with me on his blog NoNotes. Those interviews appeared intermittently on his site until January of this year. The interviews cover a lot of territory, from Irving Mills to John and Alan Lomax. The first of them centered on Blind Willie McTell and his famous song "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues."


Q: One of your many original discoveries is that “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” is not, as I among many others had assumed, Blind Willie McTell’s re-invention of SJI. Turns out the way he sings that song is almost identical to the way Porter Grainger wrote it years earlier. How did you make that particular discovery?

A: It was a real shock to me when I found out about the earlier versions of Crapshooters’ Blues, Rob, but in retrospect it’s surprising that this is not generally known. I assume part of the reason is that McTell was very convincing when he said to John Lomax on a 1940 recording, “This is a song that I wrote myself . . .” and then in a 1956 recording, to Ed Rhodes, “I started writing this song in twenty-nine, tho’ I didn’t finish it — I didn’t finish it until 1932 . . .” In other words, there is no reason to look for a song’s composer if we know who the composer is.

The first book that I wrote about “St. James Infirmary,” A Rake’s Progress, made the assumption that McTell was completely responsible for “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues.” In fact, the entire history of “St. James Infirmary” as we know it is rife with incorrect assumptions. In the first months after I had finished A Rake’s Progress I discovered that much of what I had written was incorrect. That book followed the well-trodden path, but as I looked more closely at the “facts,” the tale started to unravel. Realizing that one can accept nothing on assumption, I started to reinvestigate the history of the song and rewrite the book. In part, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary is an attempt to correct the record — to place the song in a more accurate historical context.

And so, in this second phase of research, nothing was taken for granted. If I read, for instance, that Irving Mills was born on such-and-such a date, I checked the census records. Regarding the origins of “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” the information has been fairly easily available since the mid-nineties. In 1990 the Document record label was created by Johann Ferdinand Parth, with the notion of reproducing the complete recorded output of blues and gospel singers from the late 19th century to the early 1940s. This was an immense project to be sure, but by 1995 two of the CDs Document released contained versions of “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” that had been recorded in 1927. This was two years before McTell claimed he started writing the song, thirteen years before he first recorded it.

These artists remain pretty obscure even today, though, and are unlikely to enter the collections of people interested in the likes of McTell, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and so on. Some listeners might even consider them to be jazz songs. I think the jazz folk and the blues folk don’t cross into each other’s territory that often — which is odd, seeing as it was all mixed together in a bubbling gumbo at the beginning of time, in the 1920s.

Anyway, I actually found one or two of these old recordings on the jazz site www.redhotjazz.com. In the process of checking all my “facts,” I entered “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” in their search box and was given a list of artists to search including Ma Rainey, Lucille Bogan, Ida Cox and a host of others who never recorded the song. But eventually it turned up, as did the name of the original composer. As you know, Rob, Porter Grainger is an interesting character. He’s one of those people who have almost been rejected by history, but about whom small scraps of information can still be found. But there’s very little out there. I think the bit I wrote about him in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary triples what was previously known about Grainger.

When I learned about the authorship of “Crapshooter’s Blues” I was excited, of course. But I was simultaneously dismayed. By all reports, McTell was an honest, bright, and well-intentioned man. He did not, however, write that song, and yet he was adamant that he did. This symbolically underscores the relationship we have with everything of potentially commercial value. If something — be it an object, an idea, or a song — can be “owned,” it can be sold. The incessant flogging of songs, particularly when the song grew of its own accord, emerging out of the earth, seems wrong. If enough people can be made interested in something, it’s worth selling. Often it’s worth stealing. And that leaves me wondering if that’s just the way we are, or have we somehow lost our way?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Blind Willie McTell bio

Visitors to this site (and I know there are one or two) might not be aware that Michael Gray recently published a biography of Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travellin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Bloomsbury, hardcover, 2007). It has just come out in paperback. Strangely, it is still only available in the UK.

A biography of McTell must have been a real challenge. Information about him has - until now - been uncertain and, depending upon one's source, contradictory. Michael Gray has accomplished a remarkable feat with this book, which will be a valuable and absorbing read for anyone interested in "roots" music, early blues, Blind Willie McTell or "St. James Infirmary." This is an important book about an important musician. The Sunday Times, for one, calls it “Shrewd, lucid and immensely well informed.”

McTell, of course, was responsible for resurrecting the remarkable SJI-influenced "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." McTell actually did record "St. James Infirmary" - in a small Atlanta record store owned by Ed Rhodes. That was in 1956. Unfortunately the CD, Last Session, is incomplete, and so his rendition is not generally available. (Although in 2004 record producers Laurence Cohn and Marino De Silva teamed up to create a box set of McTell recordings that was to include the complete Ed Rhodes tape, the complete John Lomax recording session, and many other treats. People who got wind of this kept their eyes and ears open through 2004 and 2005 and 2006 . . . the web site finally went down in 2008. There are odd rumours afloat about the cause of the project's failure, but the much anticipated box set is dead - and one wonders when these items will come into the light.)

I ordered my copy of Gray's book from amazon.uk and was impressed by both the final cost and the speed of delivery.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Book availability

I was excited to hear that the book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, has finally been printed, and will be available within the week. There were some problems with the printing of the cover, and that caused the most recent delay. I wish to thank those of you who have - as long as two years ago - expressed interest in purchasing the book, and to reassure you that I shall be sending you an email as soon as I possibly can.

I spent about five years researching and writing this book. In the course of exploring the usual questions - the relationship between "St. James Infirmary" and "The Unfortunate Rake," for instance - other issues begged for attention. I found out, to my dismay, that Blind Willie McTell (with all his claims to the contrary) did not compose "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," that great homage to "St. James Infirmary." The fellow who did has been so ignored by music historians that the date and place of his birth have been (until now) unknown. In fact, many of the key players in the SJI drama have been pretty well forgotten. Phil Baxter, Carl "The Deacon" Moore . . . even Irving Mills, aka Joe Primrose, has never had a respectable biography written. The one in this book might be the most complete overview to date of his early life.

Some of the characters who appear in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary are shown in the picture here. Clicking on it should give you a larger image. I started this painting/collage many years ago (thank you, Albert Gleizes), modified it for the cover of the first incarnation of this SJI project - a small book titled A Rake's Progress - and have, in celebration, modified it further here. Many thanks to all who have helped along the way!