Inquiries into the early years of SJI
Showing posts with label Louis Armstrong. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Louis Armstrong. 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This is an important historical document.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. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Copyright entries for SJI, etc.

I have been searching Library of Congress copyright records for an article I am writing about the original Carter Family. I took some detours into "St. James Infirmary" territory; here are actual song copyright entries for some of these songs.

The full music sheets are
elsewhere on this blog

Gambler's blues ; w C. Moore, m P.
Baxter, of U. S. © Jan. 15, 1925
2 c. Jan. 15 ; E 605070 ; Phil Baxter
and Carl Moore, Little Rock, Ark.
1159

The first version of SJI to enter the copyright books was "Gambler's Blues," in 1925. While credited to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter, this (under the title "Those Gambler's Blues") was collected as a traditional song by the poet Carl Sandburg, in his 1927 book The American Songbag. Hmmmm.

Phil Baxter and Carl Moore


St. James' infirmary ; words and musicby Joe Primrose. © Mar. 4, 1929 ; 2 c. Mar. 26; E pub. 4595; Gotham
music service, inc., New York. 6527

This copyright, to the fictional Joe Primrose, was registered in March, 1929.
The recording, by Louis Armstrong & His Savoy Ballroom Five, was recorded in December, 1928 - three months earlier than the copyright. Something was afoot.

Irving Mills aka Joe Primrose

Porter Grainger

Dyin' crap shooter's blues ; words and
melody by P. Grainger. © 1 c. July
27, 1927; E 672418; Porter Grainger,
New York. 13674

"Dyin' Crap Shooter's Blues" was recorded three times in 1927, and then abruptly forgotten ... until resurrected by Blind Willie McTell in the 1940s. McTell was very convincing when describing how he wrote this song - but, obviously, he didn't. Bob Dylan's lyric for his song, "Blind Willie McTell" - "I'm standing in the doorway of the St. James Hotel" - was partly responsible for the writing of this book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Neil McCormick's 100 Greatest Songs

Neil McCormick - musician and music critic for the Telegraph - recently listed, with comment, his 100 greatest popular songs of all time. "Any such list will always be personal rather than definitive," he wrote, "we all have songs that sing in our hearts."

Not only do we find the usual names from these sorts of lists - Bob Dylan, The Beatles, David Bowie, and so on - but also Vera Lynn, Chet Baker, Julie London, etc.

Way up there at the number 7 spot is a song from 1928: Louis Armstrong and "St. James Infirmary."

Ahhh, Neil, you are a man of taste.

Interested? Click HERE for the link.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Brushing the borders of anarchy: SJI in today's New Orleans. Wow!

Michael Ward-Bergeman, a musician about whom I have previously written on this blog, will soon be moving to New Orleans, and he sent me a link to a current New Orleans performance of "St. James Infirmary." Of course SJI has long been associated with New Orleans, and one might be tempted to consider the song a kind of city anthem. The only time Louis Armstrong mentioned the song in his writings was in relation to a funeral in New Orleans. A member of his club, the Tammany Social Club, had died and Louis was one of the pall bearers. This was around 1917 (he mentioned that "Livery Stable Blues" had just been released) so Louis would have been about sixteen.

He wrote: "The funeral left from the corner of Liberty and Perdido Streets. All the members had to wear black or real dark suits, and I had been lucky enough to get my black broadcloth suit out of pawn in time for the funeral. In those days we did a good bit of pawning. As soon as a guy got broke the first thing he thought of was the pawn shop. All out of pawn that day. I looked like a million dollars. . . . It had been raining all morning; the gutters were full of water and the streets real muddy. I had on a brand new Stetson hat (like the one in St. James Infirmary), my fine black suit, and patent leather shoes. Believe me, I was a sharp cat."

In Louis' case the funeral didn't go quite as planned. His girlfriend Daisy saw him chatting with another girl, and in a jealous rage chased him down the street with a razor. His Stetson fell off, and she cut it to ribbons. (From Armstrong's "Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans," 1954)

Which might be a round-about way of introducing this contemporary version of "St. James Infirmary." But even before Louis' time, SJI had been played at New Orleans funerals, and the singer we are about to encounter works within this venerable tradition, being employed in his off-hours at a New Orleans funeral parlor.

Malcolm "Sticks" Morris is the lead vocalist, and also plays a fine bass drum and cymbal on this song. The group is called the New Creations Brass Band, and they can be found on this Facebook Page. Their musicianship is a wonder. The percussive drive here threatens, at all times, to turn the song into a runaway train, but the group is tight and incredibly energetic, and somehow everything holds together. Well, of course it holds together; this is a rehearsed and polished performance, and its effect is deliberate. There are nods to the 1930s Cab Calloway with the call and response and the hi-de-hos. But this 2013 interpretation is its own creature, lurching down the streets, scraping against buildings, staggering through the lyrics, blasting clouds out of the sky, before finally succumbing to the (inevitable) funeral march, but never giving up the ghost.

This is a "St. James Infirmary" for the 21st century. Wow! As you will soon hear, this song just keeps getting better.

I recommend turning up the volume for this. At 192 kbps and clocking in at 6:22, here is the New Creations Brass Band and St. James Infirmary Remix. (Many thanks for your permission to post this!!)

The New Creations Brass Band have a new CD coming out - as soon as I hear more, I shall let you know where to find it.

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, December 23, 2012

MP3 Monologue 9 - Don Redman (part 2)

This is the second part of a monologue about Don Redman. The first part can be found here: MP3 Monologue 8.

In this episode, it is 1928 and Don Redman is about to travel to Chicago to help (as both an arranger and an instrumentalist) Louis Armstrong record a few songs. At a local ballroom he hears Al Katz and his band perform St. James Infirmary and . . .

To listen to this monologue (about 3 minutes) click here: Don Redman Part 2 MP3

Friday, August 10, 2012

MP3 Monologue 8 - Don Redman (part 1)


The St. James Infirmary we know would not have been possible without Don Redman. And, it would not have been possible without the dance called the Foxtrot.

Don Redman, now almost forgotten, was among the most important of influences on American popular music. In the next Monologue we shall hear how Redman, about to leave for Chicago to help Louis Armstrong record some songs, encountered the "St. James Infirmary" that he then arranged for Armstrong's 1928 recording. For now, though, here is a little background information on Redman himself.

It might be interesting to note that, in this monologue, I made mention of a band called "McKinney's Cotton Pickers" (which Don Redman took over after leaving the employ of Fletcher Henderson) . . . here, you can see how black bands, even in the 1920s and 1930s, were being advertised. Dem ol slaves jus a pickin cotton. Even Duke Ellington, when recording under a pseudonym for Irving Mills, adopted names like "The Ten Blackberries." Even so, "McKinney's Cotton Pickers" were one of the most popular bands of the era.

To listen to this monologue (about 3 minutes) click here: Don Redman Part 1 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.

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!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My interview with Rob Walker on NOnotes

Well, the NOnotes interview has now been posted - in five parts!

The first part can be found here - mostly discussing "Dyin Crapshooter's Blues"
The second part can be found here - regarding AL Lloyd, John and Alan Lomax, The Unfortunate Rake, Iron Head Baker, Leadbelly . . .
The third part can be found here - regarding how Redman brought the song to Armstrong in Chicago
The fourth part can be found here - legal issues and early recordings
The fifth part can be found here - "St. James Infirmary" goes to court

Rob is, to put it mildly, an SJI enthusiast. His questions were probing, a challenge and a delight to answer.

If you are among the few who find this sort of stuff interesting, there's more in the book!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

SJI and The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong

Here's a very interesting (and long) essay about Louis Armstrong and his versions of "St. James Infirmary." I accidentally bumped into this blog on my way elsewhere. I'm flattered that this gentleman, Ricky Riccardi, refers to this humble site - and excited about the information he provides. Among the treats to be found here is a radio broadcast in which you can listen to Louis talk about Don Redman, Jack Teagarden, and "St. James Infirmary."

All this is a prelude to Mr. Riccardi's upcoming (2010) book about Armstrong's later years. Sounds like it will be well worth keeping an eye open for.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Buying In and the selling of St. James Infirmary

When Irving Mills gained ownership of "St. James Infirmary" he did everything he could to make it a success. Mills did not expect the song to be more than a novelty hit with a short shelf life, so he saturated the airwaves with it - he wanted to make sure it was heard again and again, so that the song became familiar to as many people as possible. Of course, in the days before television and the Internet, media saturation meant something other than it does now. In the late 1920s radio was immensely popular (although it had been introduced to the general public only a few years earlier); live shows were broadcast from dance halls across the nation. Most households owned a wind-up Victrola or similar record player. (In 1929, the year OKeh released Louis Armstrong's "St. James Infirmary" the Victor Company alone sold 35 million records in the U.S., which had a population of 120 million.) Dance was a major pastime, and dance-halls dotted the landscape.

Mills covered as many bases as he could. He gave orchestra scores to dance bands, free records to radio stations, discounted sheet music to newsstands. Bands he managed released versions of "St. James Infirmary" for both the premium record labels and the budget record labels, so whatever their income level there was probably a version of the song in the buyer's price range. And as you can see in an earlier entry on this blog, newspaper advertisements sometimes made no reference at all to the music, but instead hinted that cool dudes owned this record.

I found myself musing again and again about the selling of SJI when I read Rob Walker's recent book "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are." Song publicists in the 1920s were a creative bunch, often devising unusual ways of popularizing a product and could, "by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, mayhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has" see to it that the music was heard. While Mills was well ahead of his time in terms of advertising know-how and moxy, he hardly held a candle to the bright lights of today's advertising business.

Rob Walker is, of course, responsible for the remarkable NOnotes website, the best resource for SJI-related material on the web. He is also an authority on consumerism - by which I mean the means whereby we are convinced of the seeming advantage (or necessity) of owning a particular product, taking a particular point of view - and writes a regular column for the New York Times Magazine. I'm an occasional reader of his Murketing blog, where his musings are sometimes nothing short of brilliant.

We think of ourselves as a pretty sophisticated bunch these days. We're savvy to advertising tricks, immune to their various arts of persuasion. I thought of myself this way. Until, that is, I read Buying In. Cultural artifacts like, well, like "St. James Infirmary" should come to us of their own accord, because something about them resonates with our essential selves or with the spirit of the times. "St. James Infirmary" survived, I think, despite the efforts of Irving Mills. These days, though, one can be excused for wondering how much of what we buy into has any real weight outside that of the pen signing the advertising contract. It's good to be aware. This is a good book to read.

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?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Song and Dance

The versions of “St. James Infirmary” that appeared in Carl Sandburg’s collection of traditional American songs (The American Songbag – ©1927) were written in 6/8 time. They were ballads. One of the significant differences between these songs and the recordings that both included and followed the 1928 Louis Armstrong recording was a change in rhythm – to 4/4 time. With this change in rhythm the song had become danceable. More specifically, one could dance the foxtrot to it.

The foxtrot originated around 1914 in vaudeville, by dancer Harry Fox. As part of his act Fox was executing trotting steps to ragtime music. Referred to as "Fox's trot" the dance was set to a broken rhythm (slow-slow-quick-quick). Bit by bit the dance moves changed, and with remarkable speed the foxtrot came to dominate the dancehalls and the music scene.

The foxtrot became the dance phenomenon of the 1920s. And the 1930s. And the 1940s. One could whirl around the dance floor, or one could execute the steps in the crush of a crowded venue, dancing (oh, dear!) close together and more or less in place. In those days, before television and computer games and tupperware parties, people danced. Dancehalls were everywhere. It might not be too great an exaggeration to say that dancehalls littered the landscape like Starbucks franchises in the 21st century. Irene and Vernon Castle, the exhibition ballroom dancers pictured here, were among the main celebrities of the day. In fact, by including the scandalous foxtrot in their routines, they sped its popularity.

The "St. James Infirmary" we know was partly shaped by the passion for dance that swept the nation and the world in the decades after the First World War. The song had already become something of a dancehall staple before it entered the recording studio, coming north with traveling musicians looking for work with the big bands. As musician Claude Austin said in 1931 (as transcribed by a court stenographer):

“Well, if there was any lapse in the dancing and the entertainment that was going on, the boss had a way of playing things that they used to call the Rocks, and the Rocks is the same thing as you call the Blues now, and this just happened to fall into that category. It was just one of those things that you did not need any music for, because there was no music for it, that they were able to pick up at the time while they were searching for something else to play of a popular trend, but at that time it was just a general piece we would play, ‘St. James Infirmary.’”

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Louis Armstrong - St. James Infirmary advert

This advertisement, appearing in a February 1929 Texas newspaper, shows that the language of the minstrel shows was far from dead.

"Hot dancing . . .
"See dis Strutter!
"He's jess like that. Jess like that! And he don't give a doggone whut you say 'bout his clothes.
"Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five are playing No. 8657
"'St. James Infirmary,' 'Save It Pretty Mama.' Fox trots."

It's interesting that, unlike the ad below, this one does not talk about the music. It does suggest, though, that if you owned this record you might very well be a real cool cat.