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

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.

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, 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.)
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