Showing posts with label Jelly Roll Morton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jelly Roll Morton. Show all posts

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.)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jelly Roll Morton - The Complete Library of Congress Recordings

An incredible collection of eight CDs is available from Rounder Records: Jelly Roll Morton - The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax. Even though there is nothing about "St. James Infirmary" to be found here, this collection is an important - and fascinating - look at music history. I first heard about the collection on Rob Walker's website, NOnotes. Back in 2006 Walker wrote a really interesting series of essays about this set, eight postings over a period of two months. His first one looked at Morton's comments on - a favourite topic of mine - copyright.

I bought this set last summer. Pam and I had spent some time traveling through southern Saskatchewan and Alberta with our friend James, photographing the incredible landscape of these prairie provinces. During a visit to Edmonton I saw this boxed set in the window of a second-hand record store and could not resist it. I had not long before finished reading Marybeth Hamilton's thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating book, In Search of the Blues. In one chapter Hamilton detailed the events leading up to Lomax's recording sessions with Morton, and turned it into a very interesting tale.

In 1937 Morton was living in Washington, D.C. His music was out of fashion, he'd been forgotten, and his records were no longer listened to; they were essentially worthless. Except to record collectors like Charles Edward Smith and his cronies. One of these cronies, William Russell, nursed ambitions to become a classical composer . . . until he heard his first Morton record. When teaching music composition to a high school class, Russell asked students to bring in records from home. Expecting to easily demonstrate the superiority of classical European music, he was not anticipating the music of Jelly Roll Morton. "From the first bars Russell was hooked. The sheer complexity of the music was what was most immediately striking - the dazzling, rich, polyphonic rhythms, as intricate as anything Arnold Schoenberg had devised but even more vital and free." What Russell was hearing "was so much more imaginative, so much more sophisticated, than anything he could possibly write." Russell became a record collector, hunting for Morton's recordings wherever he could find them.

Shortly after moving to Washington, D.C., Smith entered a dilapidated building on the top floor of which there "was a large, dingy room; the dank, chill air was barely affected by the coal-black iron stove. Only the bar, the jukebox and the battered piano indicated that it was a nightclub . . ." Morton was the bartender as well as the entertainment. He was ill but he could still play with fire. Smith and his friends became regulars at the club, and it was Smith who later introduced Lomax to Morton. Lomax was interested enough to book time at the Library of Congress for some recording sessions over several weeks in 1938. All Lomax had to do was ask a question and Morton, sitting at the piano, responded with a torrent of music and words that seemed inexhaustible. Tales of musicians and hucksters, stories fluid with sentiment or thick with obscenity; a glorious history told in words and music. It's as interesting listening to Morton talk as it is listening to him sing and play piano.

The content of these complete recordings was once the stuff of legend . . . until Rounder Records released this magnificently packaged set in 2006.
Inquiries into the early years of SJI