Showing posts with label Porter Grainger. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Porter Grainger. Show all posts

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.

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.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Porter Grainger on film?

Porter Grainger pops up frequently on this blog, partly as the composer of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," partly because so little is known about him, and I hold hope that someone will come forward with more information.

I am aware of only two photographs of Grainger - in one of them he is part of a large group of black composers in the 1930s, including Jelly Roll Morton and W.C. Handy. It is likely that he also appeared in a short film.

Yesterday I was reading an updated Wikipedia entry on Grainger which included these words: "He was also Mamie Smith's accompanist in the 1929 film short Jailhouse Blues." I found the video on YouTube, as an Italian upload. The pianist is briefly visible at the beginning of the film. So ... what do you think? Is this Porter Grainger?

The film lasts just over one minute. Smith was forty-six when this film was made. She was one of the pioneers of early blues recording; in her heyday she was immensely popular, appearing on stage in extravagant dresses while dancers and acrobats spun around her. Grainger was thirty-eight, and at the height of his career.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo?

Sheet music cover for a 1924 Irving Mills song
From Porter Grainger's World War One song, discussed in the previous post, we move to another song rooted in the Great War.

 "Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo" (also known as "Whatever Happened to the Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo?") was published by Jack Mills Music in 1924, six years after the end of the "Great War." It is based on a very popular WWI song, "Mademoiselles from Armentieres" that was sung by British soldiers as they marched towards battle. "Mademoiselles" was itself based on a song popular with troops during the Boer War in the 1880s. These songs were in the public domain.

While "Mademoiselles from Armentieres" had its popularizers, the marching song was far too blue for public performance back home. The troops would improvise verses while on the march; sex and the dark humor of war dominated the lyrics.

A typical, mild version of the lyric went like this:

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez vous
Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez vous
Mademoiselle from Armentieres
She hasn't been kissed in forty years
Hinky dinky parlez vous

For the 1924 release, Irving Mills got together with Al Dubin (posthumously inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1970), Jimmie McHugh (also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970, a year after he died), and Irwin Dash (not much is known about Dash, but under the name Fred Heatherton he later wrote "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts"). The sheet music cover boasted "With twenty new choruses!" From reading the lyric, one gets the impression that many ex-soldiers actually missed the war (or maybe the writers were being sarcastic?):

What has become of the Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo
What has become of all the happy times you knew
I'll bet there are lots of married men
Who wish they were back in the army again
Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo

The lyrics - devised for a popular audience - could be fodder for researchers into social attitudes of the time. For instance, both Uncle Tom and the devout and devoted Eliza (or Liza) were the central black characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin:

What has become of Uncle Tom and Liza too
Up in his cabin on the hill
I hear his daughter is running a still

"Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo" opens with the verse:

Do you ever think of the time
When all the boys went 'cross the sea
To the land of Wee Wee Wee,
Where they strolled with sweet Marie,
Then the boys came back with a song 'bout
"Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo"
If you don't recall the song at all
I'll sing it over for you (shout) Say!

I wonder how well this sheet music sold? You can read the "twenty new choruses" here (clicking should enlarge):

Friday, March 14, 2014

When Our Brown Skin' Soldier Boys Come Home From War

Sheet music cover for a 1919 Porter Grainger song
This is the oldest sheet music by Porter Grainger that I have found. Dated 1919, Grainger would have been about twenty-seven. It is a patriotic song of soldiers returning home after World War I.

Let's go down to the station, people,
Our boys come home today
With great honors won in a grand and noble fray.
Do join us,
There'll be great politicians waiting,
Taxis all in a row.
See Old Glory!
Waving as down the streets they go.

In an era that gave rise to such patriotic favourites as "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," "Over There," "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," and "When the Boys Come Home," there cannot have been many that celebrated the contributions of black soldiers to the WWI United States war effort. (The armed forces did not integrate until 1944, twenty-five years later.) And considering that this was still a year away from the first black blues recording, it is probably a wonder that the sheet music was published at all - that is, music companies were not yet convinced of the financial viability of marketing to an African-American population.

Kudos to Porter Grainger - one gets the feeling that he was not taking the easy route with this song.

(If you are interested in the sheet music, you can find it here)

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.

Thursday, February 2, 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.

Friday, January 6, 2012

MP3 Another Porter Grainger Song: "Song From A Cotton Field"

I was going to post a 1927 recording by Porter Granger entitled, suitable for this time of year, "I Wonder What This New Year's Gonna Bring To Me." Unfortunately I have been unable, so far, to render a listenable mp3 from the 78 rpm record. So, instead I am posting this:

Back in November I posted a Porter Grainger song - one that, as far as I am aware, has never been made available since its release in 1927. Here is the other side of that record, "Song From A Cotton Field" as performed by "The Singin' Piano Man" himself, Porter Grainger. This one has a more serous lyric:

Ain't no use kickin' 'cause I'll be pickin'
'Til all my chillun is grown
By then I'll shuffle and skimp and scuffle
To have a field of my own

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

What follows is a direct transfer, using my turntable, of a 78 rpm record that is 84 years old. What you hear has been saved at 128 kbps, which is the lowest sound resolution I find tolerable.

So, to hear The Singin' Piano Man" Porter Grainger, click on "Song From A Cotton Field" MP3

You can follow the full lyric in the post below.

Lyric: Porter Grainger's "Song From A Cotton Field"

Mmmmm mmmmm
Hay Hee Hi Ho Pickin' Cotton all day
Hay Hee Hi Ho Just a-pickin' away
The white folks knows I'm workin'
They knows won't be no shirkin'
Hee Hi Ho I knows I'll get my pay
Ain't no use kickin' 'cause I'll be pickin'
'Til all my chillun is grown
By then I'll shuffle and skimp and scuffle
To have a field of my own
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
Things gets brighter and load gets lighter
So I'll keep a-pluggin' away
Sing my song like I'm happy and gay
All day
Jus' tell the world for me
My soul done set me free
That's the song I'll sing 'til they puts me under the clay
Ohhh chillun stop your grumblin'
No no, 'cause that's a block for stumblin'
Mmmm mmmm Jus keep on workin' and prayin'
You'll see that you'll conquer some day

Ain't no use kickin' 'cause I'll be pickin'
'Til all my chillun is grown
By then I'll shuffle and skimp and scuffle
To have a field of my own
All my life I've been makin' it
All my life the white folks takin' it
This old heart they jus' breakin' it
Ain't got a thing to show for what I've done done
But things gets brighter and load gets lighter
So I'll keep pluggin' away
Sing my song like I'm happy and gay
All day
Jus' tell the world for me
My soul done set me free
That's the song I'll sing 'til they puts me under the clay

Monday, November 28, 2011

Max Morath and St. James Infirmary

This illustration is a detail from a painting by the author
Not long ago, in my continuing research into SJI, I bought some sheet music on eBay. (More about that in an upcoming post.) When the vendor informed me that the sheet music was on the way I wrote back, I don't know why, and told him the reason I had purchased the music. We've enjoyed a few email correspondences since then. He once told me, in passing, that "I forgot to mention that I recorded Porter Grainger's Ain't Nobody's Business...for George Buck's SoloArt label back in 1994. I re-wrote it a bit." Recorded? I looked into that, and lo and behold there he was on emusic, and any number of websites, many devoted to ragtime piano. That's when I found out I was chatting with the Max Morath, who Wikipedia introduces like this: (He) "is an American ragtime pianist, composer, actor and author. He is best known for his piano playing, and is referred to as 'Mr. Ragtime'. He has been a devoted and prolific performer, writing several plays and productions, as well as being variously a recording artist, actor and radio and television presenter. Rudi Blesh billed Morath as a 'one-man ragtime army' . . ."

Max, I found out, has quite a presence in places like and eBay - by which I mean he has recorded a lot, written some books, and so on. He seems a tireless fellow who also, I venture to say, feels a primal connection to music of the early SJI period. Max sent me the following delightful anecdote about playing SJI:

Years ago I was working with a melodrama company in Phoenix. After the show I'd stay late at the piano doing requests, hustling the drunks for tips. One night a well-dressed guy staggered over and asked me if I knew St James. I said yes, and sang two choruses -- "I went down..." and "Let her go...etc." He was ecstatic. "Nobody knows that song.!" He stuck a five dollar bill in my cup, (a huge brandy glass) and said he'd give me another five for every other verse I knew. I didn't know ANY more, but I figured by then I knew my donor well enough (and he was blotto enough) that I could increase my evening's net considerably if I took my time and used my imagination. . So I MADE UP three more verses on the spot. I have no idea what they were, but he kept the fives coming!  I venture to say we were both happy.

I'd love to have been there!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

MP3 Porter Grainger Song: "Nothin' But A Double Barrel Shot-Gun ('S Gonna Keep Me Away From You)"

As promised on a posting eight months ago, I am uploading an MP3 of a song Porter Grainger recorded on October 4, 1927. I have found this nowhere on CD (or anywhere else, for that matter).

I set up my old Revolver turntable, connected it to a USB interface and transferred the original 78 rpm recording to my hard drive. I did try to remove some of the scratches and other noises, but decided against it as the result was worse than you will find here.

So here is Porter Grainger, the composer of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," here billed as "The Singin' Piano Man," performing his composition (click on the title) "Nothin' But A Double Barrel Shot-Gun ('S Gonna Keep Me Away From You)" MP3. You can read along if you want - the lyrics are in the post below.

Lyric: Porter Grainger's "Nothin' But A Double Barrel Shot-Gun ('S Gonna Keep Me Away From You)"

I'm mad, I'm mad today
I can't see nothin' but red
So mad yes I'm sad today
I'd just as doggone soon be dead
My gal just said she was through with me
She didn't even say what for
I know there'd been some dirty work,
So here's what I says to her

T'ain't nothin' but a double barrel shot-gun
Gonna keep me away from you
Now sister you'll think I'm the Battle of Bull Run
If you quit me like you said you'd do
Now listen: Even if I didn't want ya'
Just get this under your hat
Ain't nobody else gonna have ya'
So momma that's that
'Cause nothin' but a double barrel shot-gun
Gonna keep me away from you

Now I'm mean and I'm evil
As a jealous man can be
When it comes to a piece of furniture
What belongs to me
And I don't mind no funeral
'Cause I ain't scared to die
And I couldn't be no different
If I doggone try

Neither lightnin' nor thunder don't scare me a bit
Bring on your six-shootin' pistols
I ain't even bothered about it
I'd just take my bare hands and hit a lion on his jaw, grrrrgh
I ain't even scared of a mother-in-law, no sir
Now I'll fight a nest of hornets with four rattlesnakes throwed in
I'll grab a tiger by his whiskers and I'll smack him on his chin
But two long steel barrels with its triggers pulled back
Make me run clean on down the railroad track, yessir
But nothin' but a double barrel shot-gun
Gonna keep me away from you

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

1927 Porter Grainger songs

I've just received a 78 rpm record by Porter Grainger with side A titled, "Nothin' But A Double Barrel Shot-Gun ('s Gonna Keep Me Away From You)," and side B titled, "Song From A Cotton Field." This is OKEH 8516, and so recorded October 4th, 1927. That's the same year his "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" was recorded.

On the label of this record Grainger is called "The Singin' Piano Man." I plan to transfer these two songs into MP3 files, but we're still a little unsettled here in Saskatchewan. I've been busy renovating our new home while we live in friend James Page's house (aka Wild Prairie Man), and expect to move in in a couple of weeks. Then, once Pam and I get the study set up, and I'm able to find my trusty Revolver turntable, I will be able to, first, listen to this recording and then post it on this site. Meanwhile, if anyone has any information about these tracks we shall, of course, more than welcome your comments!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Addresses of Porter Grainger

Mr. Walter J. Morrison III, who you can read more about in the post below, noted that at least one of Porter Grainger's hand-written pages of sheet music included his address. Mr. Morrison suggested that if we could discover when that particular song was copyrighted, we would know where he lived that year.

As it happens, the Duke Ellington Music Society (DEMS) contains the following entry: "Make Me Love You, with words and music by Porter Grainger and Jo. Trent, was deposited for copyright on 15Mar27. The song was recorded by Miss Evelyn Preer with Duke Ellington's Orchestra on 10Jan27; the title was never issued and the masters were destroyed; test pressings are unknown."

We now have a number of addresses for the elusive Mr. Grainger:
- The 1925 New York City telephone book notes that Porter Grainger and Robert Ricketts were a song-writing team, with addresses at 2347 7th Avenue, and 1547 Broadway Rm 204, NYC.
- Mr. Morrison's page of sheet music shows that in 1927 Grainger was living at 1809 7th Avenue, Apt. 20, in NYC.
- The 1930 census shows Grainger living at 2 W. 130th, in NYC.
- His World War 2 draft registration gives the same address as above, but notes the street as 120th - I think we can safely assume that one or the other is in error, and that Grainger was living at the same address for at least twelve years.

Does anyone know of Rita Arnold?

I recently received a letter from Walter J. Morrison III informing me that he owns quite a few pieces of sheet music that were handwritten by Porter Grainger. Many of these were made specifically for a Rita Arnold, who Mr. Morrison believes was a vaudeville/broadway singer. He purchased the music . . . wait, I'll let Mr. Morrison tell the story:

"I don't know much about Rita Arnold. I bought from the estate of - if I remember correctly - her granddaughter, many many years ago, a box of sheet music. It had to have 400-500 pieces. Most I traded off. These were period music sheets, marked with addresses in the NYC Tin Pan Alley, of which I'm sure you're familiar. I was told by the auctioneer that Rita Arnold had been a Broadway/vaudeville actress and singer, but I never pursued it because at the time I didn't know what was in the box.
"In the pieces I've kept, I have a typewritten lyric sheet for the song 'Fit to be tied,' the title of which was edited down from "I'm fit to be tied" (edit is on the page), and is copy-written 1934 . . . I also have typewritten lyrics for a song called 'Try gettin a good nights sleep.'

"In original hand written music, I have the following titles,

"The ones that are signed, state they are by Porter Grainger. The ones that are not signed are definitely written by the same hand, but I assume they may not be by him but are adaptations of songs for Rita Arnold, done by him."

It seems that Mr. Grainger wrote some music specifically for Ms. Arnold, and hence the hand written pages. I have searched for information about Rita Arnold, but nothing has turned up. If anyone out there has knowledge of Ms. Arnold, please drop a line. Meanwhile, Walter J. Morrison III was kind enough to send me scans of several pages of this sheet music (one of which you see here) as written by Porter Grainger.

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

Friday, October 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Porter Grainger

Anonymous just dropped me a line, reminding me that Porter Grainger was born on this day, October 22, in 1891 (a birth date, by the way, that was discovered right here, at I Went Down to St. James Infirmary).

So - Happy Birthday, Porter Grainger.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ethel, Portia, and Porter - Porter Grainger's family?

As I try to find out more about Porter Grainger, the view becomes murkier where one would hope for clarity. For example, there are plenty of references to Ethel Finney (or Finnie - even the census reports record her surname differently; Finney seems to be the correct spelling), with whom he recorded a number of songs between 1923 and 1926. With Ethel he (apparently) had a daughter, Portia Grainger. In his excellent book "Never Sell a Copyright"about Joe Davis (with whom Grainger collaborated), Bruce Bastin wrote, "When renewing the copyright for "Wylie Street Blues," Davis claimed it in his name and that of Portia Grainger, daughter of the late Porter Grainger. When first published by Triangle Music in 1927, Davis and Grainger were credited as writers. Upon renewal, more than one might have been tempted to drop the name of the deceased co-writer."

The suggestion here, of course, is that Davis was being kind, as Portia could now receive royalties. The song, however, never made much of an impression, and her royalties must have been close to nil.

Still, Portia Grainger and Ethel Finney (or Finnie) Grainger remain elusive. Bastin's reference is one of the few that suggests Grainger had a family. In researching U.S. census records, I have found Ethel Finney in 1900, 1910, 1920, as well as 1930. In 1920 she was living in New Orleans, with her father Noble (a butler), her mother Mary, and her brother, also named Noble and a pastor. Ethel was a grammar school teacher. She was 22 years old, and single. In 1930 she was (again or still?) living with her parents at the same address. She was now Ethel Grainger (her parents' name is recorded as Finnie, rather than Finney as in the earlier census records). Her daughter Portia was five years old, and she had a step-son called Marion LeBlanc, aged 6. (As a sidebar, a young couple called LeBlanc - Joseph and Mattie - were neighbours in 1910.) She reported her age as 30 (2 years younger than in previous census records), and that she had been married for 10 years. (Meanwhile, in New York City, Porter Grainger declared he had been married for five years.) Ethel was working as a cook in a private home - nowhere in the 1920 and 1930 records does she claim the profession of musician.

It seems unlikely that these census results are coincidental (although, of course, that is a possibility). What they suggest is intriguing. We could create a variety of scenarios. Perhaps Porter was correct, and they had been married a mere five years - that is, after Ethel became pregnant with Portia. Returning home - having become disillusioned with the music business, or with her husband (who, remember, is reputed to have been homosexual), Ethel altered the wedding date to something more socially acceptable.

Then again, there is no solid evidence that the Grainger in question with these census results was Porter (aside, that is, from the striking similarity with Ethel's daughter's name). Coincidence seems unlikely but not implausible.

Thanks to reader Andrew Barrett for leading me to Bruce Bastin's most interesting book, Never Sell a Copyright: Joe Davis and His Role in the New York Music Scene 1916 to 1978 (Storyville Publications, 1990)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Looking for George Clardy (and a bit more about Porter Grainger)

Sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, George Clardy co-wrote a song called "Quit Throwin' It, McGivern!" with Porter Grainger. Bob Hutchins, who has commented on this blog about Clardy, is researching his life .

According to Mr. Hutchins, George Clardy was born in Dubuque in 1886. He worked as a lyricist and a cartoonist/illustrator, living in New Jersey and in New York City. He wrote campaign songs for Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey. Along with Willie "the Lion" Smith he wrote the songs, "It's the Breaks," and "Down in Chicazola Town."

Clardy's aunt was Mr. Hutchins' grandmother. In 1948 Clardy wrote a letter to his aunt, mentioning briefly Porter Grainger (and, separately, Willie "the Lion" Smith). Clardy had suffered a couple of strokes, and this might account for some of the syntax in his letter:
"The enclosed song, 'Quit Throwin' It, McGivern!" was with Porter Grainger. Twenty years ago, Porter put on his colored musical comedy in 'Lucky Sambo.' Like a rest of others cleaned up 2 1/2 Million Dollars when he sold out to Hurtig & Seamon's Theatres. Then he saved his money, bought wisely in real estate in Bowling Greene, Kentucky."

This suggests that Grainger struck it rich with "Lucky Sambo," and invested wisely in his home town of Bowling Green. Neither Mr. Hutchins, nor music historian Elliott Hurwitt, believe that 2.5 million dollars is a remote possibility for a black songwriter of that period. "Lucky Sambo," an all-black musical comedy, had a one week run at New York's New Colonial Theatre in 1925. It might have also had life as a traveling show. It seems that Grainger co-wrote all the music and songs, and probably played piano during the performances.

If you have any information about George Clardy, please leave a message - either at this blog or to Mr. Hutchins himself at

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, 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