Showing posts with label Buell Kazee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buell Kazee. Show all posts

Friday, August 31, 2018

The FIRST sheet music for SJI

The cover for Gambler's Blues, 1925
I had been looking for this sheet music for years. It was as if the object did not exist. It was a legendary thing.

But eventually I did find it ... it was a stroke of luck, for I've never seen it again.

This is an important historical document. It had been printed in such small numbers that it must have become a collectors' item. I was certain of that.

I bought it for ninety-nine cents. Obviously, others were not as eager as I was.

The composing credit was to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter - both of whom are major characters in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. The sheet music was published privately by Phil Baxter in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1925. Soon after, the publisher Harry D. Squires picked it up.  Squires convinced Fess Williams to record it (February 1927). That was the first recording of the song - which was next released by Buell Kazee in January 1928, and then - definitively - by Louis Armstrong in December 1928.

The sheet music with lyrics can be found elsewhere on this blog - just enter "Gambler's Blues" in the search box. 

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.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

MP3 Monologue 10 - The Hokum Boys 1929

"St. James Infirmary" was first recorded in February 1927, as "Gambler's Blues," by Fess Williams And His Royal Flush Orchestra. The composer credit on the record's label went to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter. It was next recorded as "Gambling Blues" in January, 1928 by the, uhm, hillbilly Kentuckian Buell Kazee. There was no composer credit. The third recording occurred in December 1928. This time it was titled "St. James Infirmary," the recording artist was Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, and the composer credit went to Don Redman. Until, that is, the second pressing of the record; that's when Joe Primrose made his first appearance on a record label. The fourth and fifth recordings, October 1929, were by The Hokum Boys. The songs were called "Gambler's Blues 'St. James Infirmary Blues'" and "Gambler's Blues No. 2." There was no composer credit. There were at least 23 recordings of "St. James Infirmary" released in North America up to the end of 1930, and most of these bore the composer name "Joe Primrose." Mattie Hite attributed her version to "Nobody," meaning it was in the public domain - but that was challenged, and Primrose appeared on later pressings of Hite's version, which was really a combination of the two songs Carl Sandburg documented as "Those Gambler's Blues" in his book American Songbag.

The Hokum Boys, though. These were quite different songs. I sometimes think of them as the last vestiges of a folk process that, before the copyright took firm hold, was still evolving the song. The one you will hear below, "Gambler's Blues 'St. James Infirmary Blues,'" initially follows the commonly known lyric, and then veers off into strange territory. The musicianship is, I think, extraordinary, and the song is a real pleasure. The second version, "Gambler's Blues No. 2" is odder, and well worth a listen - these songs can be found by clicking here.

To listen to this monologue (less than two minutes), with music (more than two minutes), click here: The Hokum Boys, Gamblers Blues 1929 MP3


Many thanks to Document Records for keeping all these songs available and alive.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

MP3 Monologue 7 - Buell Kazee: the second recording of St. James Infirmary

From an article I wrote in 2008, when first alerted to Buell Kazee.:

"This is, lyrically, very similar to the song that Carl Moore (from Arkansas) and Phil Baxter (from Texas) - both white musicians - put their names to and which Fess Williams recorded in March, 1927. Kazee's recording date of January 1928 makes it, chronologically, the second recording in the "St. James Infirmary" canon, effectively moving Louis Armstrong into third place.
"Kazee hailed from Eastern Kentucky. For the sake of posterity he transcribed the traditional songs of his family and neighbours, and recorded about fifty of them between 1927 and 1929. His "Gambling Blues," while lyrically similar to "Gambler's Blues" and "St. James Infirmary" has a different melody, a kind of simple rhythmic chant reminiscent of mournful Appalachian ballads."

To listen to this monologue (about 2:30 at 256 kbps) click here:
Buell Kazee and SJI/Gambling Blues MP3

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Carl Sandburg version - What did it sound like?


In recent posts we have seen that bits of the "St. James Infirmary" lyric can be found in songs from as far back as 1902. The earliest evidence of the written music, though, is from Carl Sandburg's 1927 collection of American folk songs, The American Songbag.

By 1929 - after Louis Armstrong became the third person to record the song (preceded by Fess Williams and Buell Kazee) the song had crystallized into a bluesy melody with a fox trot rhythm. But what did it sound like to the people who sent the song to Carl Sandburg?

This afternoon, with my digital reorder in hand, I asked Bill to play the Sandburg version on an electric keyboard. What I have posted here is only sixteen seconds long, but the song is basically that sixteen seconds repeated over and over again, perhaps with variations. Some think of it as repeated choruses, others as "one little rhythmic verse and a series of endless words." So, there is enough music in these few seconds to let us know how the entire song sounded to Sandburg and his song-collecting collaborators.

To hear this sample of the music for Sandburg's version of the song from "The American Songbag" click on: Those Gambler's Blues. And . . . Bill, many thanks for doing this!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Buell Kazee

I recently received a letter from Richard Jenkins, who lives in Sheffield, England. Richard is one of those rare souls who has made a study of SJI; he had just finished reading I Went Down to St. James Infirmary and was kind enough to write, "I've really enjoyed it! Brilliant." He then asked, "Where, in the whole saga, would you place 'Gambling Blues,' recorded on 16 Jan 1928 by Buell Kazee, from Eastern Kentucky?"

Buell Kazee is not a name one would easily forget, so I had to admit that I'd never encountered him before. Although that's not quite true. I am very familiar with songs on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music that were performed by Buell: "East Virginia," "The Butcher Boy," "The Wagoner's Lad." I'd never noted his name, though. Thanks to emusic.com I was able to download Gambling Blues and am amazed. This is, lyrically, very similar to the song that Carl Moore (from Arkansas) and Phil Baxter (from Texas) - both white musicians - put their names to and which Fess Williams recorded in March, 1927. Kazee's recording date of January 1928 makes it, chronologically, the second recording in the "St. James Infirmary" canon, effectively moving Louis Armstrong into third place.

Kazee hailed from Eastern Kentucky. For the sake of posterity he transcribed the traditional songs of his family and neighbours, and recorded about fifty of them between 1927 and 1929. His "Gambling Blues," while lyrically similar to "Gambler's Blues" and "St. James Infirmary" has a different melody, a kind of simple rhythmic chant reminiscent of mournful Appalachian ballads.

What does this mean? Certainly it gives credence to the notion that SJI was all over the map in the first decades of the twentieth century. Where did this version spring from, though? Perhaps "St. James Infirmary" was originally a hillbilly song - or came to America from Britain fully formed.

But "crapshooters," "jazz band" - do these sound like lyrics from an indigenous Appalachian song? Also, that sudden change - without transition - between the fourth verse (her funeral) and fifth verse (his funeral) is odd. It's as if the verse that usually starts "When I die I want you to bury me," had been misplaced. Perhaps the song was adopted by Tennessee townsfolk after a minstrel show breezed through the region. Kazee's discography from 1927-1929 contains cowboy songs and original compositions, so he was not recording only regional tunes; perhaps he'd simply picked this up on his travels. Perhaps . . . there could be any number of possibilities. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Lyrics to Kazee's "Gambling Blues"

I went down to Joe’s barroom
On the corner of the square
A goodly crowd had gathered
And the drinks were flowing there

I sat down by McKinney
His eyes were bloodshot red
He leaned to me and whispered
And this is what he said

I went down to the infirmary
And looked into a window there
Saw my girl stretched on a white bed
So cold, so pale, so fair

Sixteen coal black horses
Hitched to a rubber-tired hack
Took seven pretty girls to the graveyard
Only six of them came back

Six crapshooters for pallbearers
And a chorus girl to sing me a song
Put a jazz band on my hearse top
Let ‘em play as I roll along

And now my story’s ended
Give me one more drink of booze
And I’ll be on my way boys
For I’ve got those gamblin’ blues.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI