Showing posts with label Rob Walker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rob Walker. Show all posts

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Mysterious E and SJI

Many familiar with this site are also familiar with NO Notes - the other (presently paused) blog dedicated to St. James Infirmary and created by author Rob Walker. In NONotes, which I followed assiduously, Rob often referred to a person called "E."


E was a mystery.

A little later Pam and I read Walker's book "Letters from New Orleans" (profits going to victims of hurricane Katrina). Before Pam and I were finally able to travel to New Orleans, we read a lot of books about the place. As it turned out, Walker's was the best of the lot. A good read, in Letters from New Orleans the mysterious E kept popping up. Who the heck is E???? I became convinced that she went deep, beneath the waves.

I stumbled upon something unexpected, as these web searches go. E once lived in Savannah, Georgia, near military bases. She saw soldiers in shops, on the street, some recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. The artist in her must have asked, "How do you represent these people as individuals?"

Have you seen 19th century photographs, in which the subjects stare seriously back at the camera? In those days a portrait required a long exposure. One minute. Two minutes. It is almost impossible to hold a smile for that long. And so our ancestors appear to have been somber people. Photographically, a smile was a rare thing. In photos of civil war soldiers, they had this same demeanour ... although one could ask if they had much to smile about, anyway. Today, of course, we can take a dozen photos a second, and then choose the most attractive - perhaps a transitional expression. I would argue that the held pose, in which one does not move for a minute or so, is more resonant. More representative of the person. More revealing of the subject, more responsive than is possible with our digital fastness. You can't pretend for that long.

E used 19th century photo techniques to portray 21st century soldiers.

Eventually Pam and I met E. She and Rob were living in New Orleans. We knocked ... she answered. E. The mysterious E stood in the doorway and ushered us in.

Of course we chatted about St. James Infirmary. E cued up The White Stripes.

Sometime during the evening I asked her for her favourite recording of St. James Infirmary. She said something, I said something, and afterwards neither of us remembered. But, when I wrote to her later, she did recall the Hot Eight performing the song in New Orleans ... "I have a vivid memory of that performance and song. It was skillful, raw, and moving, in part because the performers were so young, so local, and so convincing in the way they sold the song. It was a magical, divey, sweaty evening. I don't think hearing a recording would have the same effect, but if a live performance can be said top be a favourite, I guess I could go with that."

So, here's the official video of Hot 8 - of course not what E experienced in a live performance. But you'll get an impression.

E & SJI.

Depth and mystery.

Some of E's collodion images have been selected for display, at huge size, in The National Museum of the United States Army, in Virginia. Slated to open in June, 2020. here's a rendering of the "Army and Society" section of the museum, where E's portraits will be featured..

Some of E's collodion portraits in the projected "Army & Society" space at the museum


All collodion images courtesy of Ellen Susan

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Betty Boop & St. James Infirmary (1933)

From Betty Boop's "Snow White" with
Koko the Clown (aka Cab Calloway)
A reader recently reminded me of Betty Boop and St. James Infirmary.

Back in the 1930s, because of his contributions to the animation department at Fleischer Studios, cartoonist Roland Crandall was given free reign to develop his own notion of a cartoon story. He chose the tale of Snow White (the title of his creation) and, working alone for six months, single-handedly drew and formatted a seven-minute fable of delirious invention. In those days each frame of the film had to be drawn by hand, so it was a most intense process.

The soundtrack was a Cab Calloway version of SJI.

For parts of the film Crandall drew over rotoscopes of Cab Calloway, in order to capture Calloway's idiosyncratic dance moves for Koko the clown - and the ghost that the witch turned Koko into. (There can be no doubt that Michael Jackson closely studied Calloway's moves.)

In 1994 Crandall's Snow White was voted into 19th place of the greatest cartoons of all time by cartoon animators. The Library of Congress, that year, selected it for preservation in the national film registry. The film is now in the public domain.

In 1999 the White Stripes started their adventurous interpretation of St. James Infirmary with the exclamation "Oh, Koko!"

If you are drawn in, you can find some pretty interesting stuff by visiting Rob Walker's (unfortunately now defunct but hopefully to be resurrected) blog NO Notes and entering "Betty Boop" in the search rectangle. Rob was/is fascinated by this bit of cinema, as am I.

The wild imagination of Roland Crandall. Mysterious, analogical, weird.

(Click on the video to take you to the proper framing at YouTube.)

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Friend and fellow SJI enthusiast, Rob Walker, recently sent me a link to the "tease" for the finale of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. The theme music is, of course (otherwise why would I be writing this?) "St. James Infirmary."

Thanks, Rob!!
ps For those who might not remember, Rob Walker ran the first blog that was primarily concerned with "St. James Infirmary" - check it out here.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Contemporary performances

With this blog I have always (with one exception) been careful to limit my postings to matters referring to the early days of SJI. That was largely due to my respect for Rob Walker's very fine No Notes blog  which, for over six years, has been tracking the evolution of the song and (among other things) referring us to its most recent variations. Sadly, Rob recently decided to put his blog on hiatus, and until further notice will not be writing further articles.

And so, every now and again, until Rob returns, I shall be posting links to more recent interpretations on the "St. James Infirmary" song, as well as to other songs intimately related to SJI. In fact a number of postings are already waiting in the wings, including some wonderful MP3s from Max Morath, an artist I have already referred to several times.

Today we are introducing (at least as far as this blog is concerned) a version of SJI that was posted on YouTube. This is by a duo (I think now a trio) called The Groanbox Boys. One of the Boys recently purchased a copy of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary and informed me of this video. And, you know, it is really good! At about 1:45 into the song they pick up the pace and with accordion, banjo, and vocals launch into the stratosphere.

I have already ordered a copy of a Groanbox CD. You might want to look into this group too. Here they are with "St. James Infirmary."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ruminations on "Let Her Go"

Readers of this blog will be familiar with quite a few recent entries discussing various incarnations of the verse that begins "Let her go, let her go, God bless her."

Over at No Notes, Rob Walker has posted a lengthy rumination on "St. James Infirmary" and its "Let Her Go" verse. As always, his writing is vivid and captivating. I too had been pondering the almost - or seemingly - haphazard injection of the "let her go" sentiment, and how it gives the song its peculiar aura. Rob's conclusion is well worth reading, but I advise none to rush to the end of his narrative - there is great pleasure to be had in the journey.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Blues in da fog - striding into the present

I don't usually do this. In fact, this is the first time. Taking a giant step into the present, I mean.

This site concerns itself with the early days of "St. James Infirmary" - mostly the first three decades of the last century. After all, this blog is subtitled "Inquiries in to the early years of SJI." And I want to keep it's focus sharp, well defined.

For a more inclusive overview of the song - that is, embracing the whole gamut from ancient to contemporary - nobody can better the web's premiere St. James Infirmary website, Rob Walker's NO NOTES. NO NOTES, in fact, is where this particular posting most appropriately belongs.

Still, today I can't help myself. I recently received a note that read: "Hi we are a french band and this is our version of saint james infirmary, please tell us what you think."

Well, the fact is that I really like this. Don't expect to fully understand the lyrics on first listen. The vocalist leans heavily on her vowels, playing her voice like a reed instrument. While the photograph above this post shows four people, this (very well executed - it's lovely to look at) single-camera video shows six musicians, all of whom are fully engaged in the music.

Blues in da fog brings it all together in a wonderful jumbo of sound, a kind of sculpture in song.
If this is evidence of the evolution of the song, give us more!

(May, 2013) I have found that since this posting the YouTube video has been deleted. In fact, I cannot find a video at all. Instead, I offer a link to a (worthwhile) MySpace sound file. So, travel here, and click on "St. James."

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!

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, August 10, 2008

Copyright Infringements Project

Fellow SJI enthusiast Rob Walker forwarded to me a letter he received from Charles Cronin. Mr. Cronin, among other things, runs a website from UCLA devoted to the question of music copyright infringement. This is a such a thorny issue. Music, of course, has a rich history of borrowing; that is essentially how new songs get written. But how to distinguish between borrowing and theft? And, are we in danger of mistaking the former for the latter, in danger of crippling the creative process in the service of business and profit?

This is an extraordinarily ambitious site. You can read an outline of a 1931-1932 court case that figures prominently in my book. This is in the "Case List" section, but it is also informative to browse the "Song List" section, where Mr. Cronin comments with both clarity and humour about specific songs. Read, for instance, his comments on the (in)famous case of "He's So Fine" vs. "My Sweet Lord."
Inquiries into the early years of SJI