Showing posts with label St. James Infirmary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label St. James Infirmary. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Phil Baxter, 1925 co-composer of Gambler's Blues (aka St. James Infirmary)

Phil Baxter was a pianist and band leader in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a prolific song-writer. Among his better known compositions are the rather risque "Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas" (recorded by a host of musicians from Phil Harris to Louis Armstrong), "Piccolo Pete" and the follow-up, "Harmonica Harry" (both were major novelty hits for Ted Weems and his orchestra), as well as "A Faded Summer Love" (which was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1931).
Phil Baxter

Baxter and Carl Moore published "Gambler's Blues" in 1925. Four years earlier Baxter and Moore toured together as a duo.They would ride the train from town to town and perform skits and music, with Moore on drums, Baxter at the piano. Eventually Baxter settled in Kansas City where, leading a band at the El Torreon ballroom, he displaced the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks as Kansas City's favourite dance orchestra. Moore created his own band; with a mixture of sophisticated dance arrangements and down-home humour, he was a popular entertainer.

Baxter was unable to perform after 1933 because of arthritis in his hands. On the verge of his leaving for Texas, the Kansas City Journal-Post ran a long article about Baxter which included this comment: "Baxter has had some litigation over the authorship of one song, which has been in circulation as 'St. James Infirmary,' but which he said he composed long ago and called 'Gambler's Blues.' He said he published it privately in Texas years ago, and that a New York publisher picked it up." That New York publisher was undoubtedly Gotham Music, whose president was Irving Mills (aka Joe Primrose).

(In 1924, a year before Moore/Baxter published "Gambler's Blues," Carl Sandburg published a book of "traditional" American songs containing a very similar piece, "Those Gambler's Blues.")

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary includes a brief biography of Baxter. Information about him is not easy to find. Recordings of his can still be discovered on CD and on streaming services, in compilations with titles like volume 2 of Jazz the World Forgot, or Texas and Tennessee Territory Bands. If anyone has information about Phil I would love to hear from you. Baxter's friend, Cliff Halliburton, wrote a biography, but I have been unable to find it and suspect it was never published.

Phil Baxter's band with his 1929 composition "I Ain't Got No Gal Now."

Original recording of Phil Baxter's 1928 "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas."
Baxter's published version has seven verses, so this is a bit abbreviated.


Original recording of Phil Baxter's and Carl Moore's "Gambler's Blues"
(aka "St James Infirmary") 1927 - recorded one year before Louis Armstrong's
"St. James Infirmary" and two years after Moore/Baxter published it.


Louis Armstrong's original 1928 "St. James Infirmary." He recorded the song at
least twice more.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Backstage Virtuoso Improv - St. James Infirmary


Not long ago friend Michael Ward-Bergeman, renowned accordionist and composer, sent me a clip in which he and celebrated jazz trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, sitting backstage, were caught riffing off St. James Infirmary ... you know the song?

I wrote to Ward-Bergeman, and asked how this came about:

"Dominick Farinacci is a virtuoso jazz trumpeter that  I have been working with off and on for about a decade. Our most recent collaboration has been a sonata for poets and jazz ensemble titled 'Life and Loves,' produced by the Catskill Jazz Factory. We premiered an early version of this in London last spring.

"When Dominick first got in touch about the project he sent a draft program. It was a bit of a shock to see St. James Infirmary on there."

Ward-Bergeman has had a long association with St. James Infirmary. He has performed the song with Gypsy/Roma bands (featuring members of Taraf de Haiduks), with Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (including Rhiannon Giddens on vocals, Reylon Yount on yangqin), and has performed it, or variations of it, with a number of renowned chamber groups, roots bands, and so on.

"I said to myself " Ward-Bergeman continued, "'I can't escape this song!!'

"In London, Dominick and I worked with another collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Christian Tamburr, in putting the set together and arranging the songs.  We were arranging for a jazz singer and an opera singer.  Someone had the bright idea to mashup St. James Infirmary sung by the jazz singer with the violent Mack the Knife (with German lyrics) sung by the opera singer.  We pulled this off in one arrangement that was a highlight of the London performances.  There are some big things planned for this project over the next couple years.

"Dominick recently invited me to perform with him alongside some of his other collaborators in Easton, MD.  It was a show produced by "Jazz on the Chesapeake."  The program was a kind of 'best of" of the many projects Dominick has been working on over the past few years.

"About a half hour before show time he asked if we could do St. James Infirmary as a duo.  Cool!  After the show we were still messing around with the tune backstage and someone caught a bit on camera.

"Here it is."

(Double-click to get the full image via YouTube)






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?

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



Brilliant


All collodion images courtesy of Ellen Susan

Friday, August 2, 2019

Richard Jenkins on The Unfortunate Rake, Folklore, and St. James Infirmary


Logo for The Folklore Society
London, England
The British folklorist, Richard Jenkins, first sent me an email in 2008, in which he asked, "Where, in the whole saga, would you place 'Gambling Blues,' recorded on 16 Jan 1928 by Buell Kazee, from Eastern Kentucky?" That was an important question, and led me to a reevaluation of the chronology of SJI recordings.

I was glad to hear that, earlier this year, he was chosen to deliver the annual Katharine Briggs memorial lecture for the revered Folklore Society in London, England.


Jenkins' lecture focused on the song The Unfortunate Rake, tackling it from at least three perspectives. The one most pertinent to this site: Is there a relationship between The Unfortunate Rake and St. James Infirmary? Jenkins said,"As far as I know, Harwood was the first to question the link between St. James and The Rake." He's right. And, as he suggested, this was not an easy thing to do. When the authorities, the folklorists and scholars, have settled on an explanation, who dares to question their conclusions? Jenkins investigated this conundrum.



Which leads to another of Jenkins' approaches to this Rake controversy. Can scholars lose objectivity as a result of their own desires and biases? I wrote in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary that "each folk music researcher has his own motivation for undertaking the work, and this will influence both what he looks for and how he interprets what he finds." In his lecture Jenkins went more broadly into this: "There is also the role of what psychologists call 'confirmation bias': the role of preconceptions in the selection of evidence and the encouragement of unsupported, and often unacknowledged, speculation ... people find what they are looking for and what they already believe in, even if, in extremis, doing so requires fraud or invention." His elaboration on this theme is engrossing.

Jenkins also raised the question of The Unfortunate Rake's title. He explained the history of a song known, historically, as The Unfortunate Lad, and asked why a 20th century researcher might have been tempted to alter the title to something, well, a little more rakish. His discussion about this is both involved and thought provoking.


Jenkins's piece roams over much more territory than I have suggested in these few words. You can read his lecture here: The Unfortunate Rake's Progress. Highly recommended!


Richard Jenkins can be contacted at  r.p.jenkins@sheffield.ac.uk


PS Further thanks to Dr. Jenkins for saying, during his lecture: "Harwood's is the fullest account of the history of 'St. James Infirmary' and its relationship to other songs that we have." I wish I'd had his lecture as a reference when writing I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

________________________________________________

Here, a bit of fun - The Copperfield Ensemble use the word "infirmary" but, hey, it's the 21st century. Nicely done.

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.)


Friday, May 24, 2019

Rhiannon Giddens & St. James Infirmary


Accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman once vowed to play a gig every day for a year. That took him through North America, Europe, and Asia. He did it. A gig a day. Maybe on the street, maybe in a concert hall.

You can hear some of these on his GIG 365 album.

During this period Bergeman wrote a Romany arrangement of St. James Infirmary: "When I first heard St. James Infirmary Blues performed live in the back room of a dingy London pub," he said, "I felt it was at once a blues song and something that would feel equally at home with my Roma musician friends." You can clearly hear the Roma instruments (and Roma instrumentalists) on the piece:



Since then Michael has performed this arrangement (or a variation of it) many times, including on recordings with chamber band "Eighth Blackbird," (who the Chicago Tribune declared "one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensemble on the planet") and with Yo Yo Ma's "Silk Road Ensemble" (a loose collective of musicians from across the geographical and musical spectrum of the Silk Road, a historical trade route through Asia and Europe).

Which brings us to Rhiannon Giddens. When "Silk Road" recorded SJI for their album Sing Me Home, they brought in Rhiannon for the vocals. Along with the Chinese percussive string instrument, the yangqin, the arrangement includes accordion, cello, shakulute, clarinet, bass, darbuka, violin.

By going to this site: http://compmjwb.blogspot.com/, you can view the Silk Road, featuring Rhiannon Giddens, recording/performing the song,. That's the first selection. The third selection features Giddens live at a 2016 TED conference in Vancouver, with the "Silk Road Ensemble" and with Ward-Bergeman again hoisting accordion.

More western, but no less exciting, here's an energetic duet with Tom Jones:



Maybe Rhiannon should record a variation of SJI with every album. Click here for a link to her latest venture, there is no Other (an exciting album, albeit sans "St.James Infirmary.")

Monday, December 17, 2018

St. James Infirmary at the 2019 Grammy Awards

Photo of Jon Batiste from his 2018 album,
Hollywood Africans
St. James Infirmary is up for a 2019 Grammy Award!

New Orleans jazz pianist, Jon Batiste, has recorded at least two versions of "St. James Infirmary." First, in 2013 with his band Stay Human. And this year, 2018, he reinterpreted the song for a solo album. (Batiste is an accomplished, nuanced, inventive, deeply committed musician and arranger.) Both recordings are remarkable.

His earlier SJI is the more anguished of the two, the most thick with sound, opening with an Arvo Part-like piano theme but ultimately driven by a relentless percussion that unfolds into an exuberant jazz abstraction.

His 2018 SJI is reflective, an interior monologue with apparently simple piano but unfolding with profound melancholy in orchestration and chorus. Deeply felt and intensely communicated.

The category for Batiste's recording is "best American roots performance."

There is another category called "best American roots song." I think the difference is that the song needs to be an original, contemporary composition with a rootsy flavour, while the performance might or might not be. Looking at the nominees, "St. James Infirmary" is the only actual olden-days song listed. All others in both categories are (arguably) in the "roots" style, but contemporary. For instance, Willie Nelson's "Last Man Standing," another contender in the  performance category, was written by Willie for his 2018 album of the same name.

Here's Batiste's 2018 interpretation of this timeless song:



SJI, eh?

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Original Lyrics for "I Wish I Was in Dixie" (you might be surprised)

The lower half of page 29 of the Atlanta Constitution
newspaper, Sunday, July 14, 1895.
I wish I was in Dixie; Hooray hooray!
In Dixie Land I'll take my stand
To live and die in Dixie
Away, away. away down south in Dixie


"Dixie" was a Confederate battlecry in the march against the Union. It had not been composed as a battle song, though.

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904) premiered this song for a minstrel show a couple of years before the American Civil War broke out. As I documented in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, while he was not the first blackface minstrel, Dan Emmett created the minstrel show (with his Virginia Minstrels) around 1841. At that time he wrote what is probably the United States' first homegrown popular hit, "Old Dan Tucker."

 Audiences usually assumed that minstrel songs were either original "negro songs," or written in the "negro style." Really, most were probably modified Irish ballads and jigs. The lyrics were printed in a sort of vernacular, to reflect speech patterns of the slaves. For instance, "I wish I was in the land of cotton / Old times there are not forgotten ..." was written as, "I wish I was in de lan ob cotton / Ole times dar am not forgotten ..."

Emmett's Virginia Minstrels toured Europe (to great reviews) but were short-lived, and by 1859 Daniel Emmett was working with Bryant's Minstrels as songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For a rousing close to their show the Bryant's asked him for a stirring melody, "a regular whopper that would wake things up." Emmett quickly composed "Dixie" (aka "Dixie's Land," "I Wish I Was In Dixie," etc.).

Two years after its composition, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter and the Civil War was underway. The song, already popular, caught on like wildfire. Confederate soldiers, inspired by the thrilling strains of the chorus, rushed into battle "to live and die in Dixie."

Much of the lyric had changed in those two years. Racial references were erased, four-line stanzas became two-line stanzas, and the song's comic patter became racially indiscriminate.  It had migrated from a "comic" minstrel stage performance into a folk song.

Regarding this, the July 14, 1895 edition of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper explained that, "the words of the song have undergone many additions and modifications during the thirty-six years of its existence, but a pencil copy in the author's own hand gives the following as the original version, as sung in New York in 1859."

And so we read, in one of the original verses, "In Dixie lan' de darkies grow / 'Ef  white fo'kes only plants der toe / Dey wet the groun' wid 'backer smoke / An' up de darkie's head will poke / I wish I was in Dixie, etc."

Incredibly (a sad comment on the times they lived in) the article praised the lyrics as having considerable value: "Those who seek for literary excellence in the homely rhymes will be disappointed, but recognition of the author's design gives the key to their merit, and one sees in them unsurpassed reproduction of negro thought and versification."

"Unsurpassed reproduction of negro thought and versification." How could anyone, reading the lyrics, have even thought that, much less published it in a newspaper??

Although Emmett could be an absurdist (as illustrated by these lines from "Old Dan Tucker:" "Old Dan Tucker was a mighty man / Washed his face in a frying pan / Combed his hair with a wagon wheel / Died with a toothache in his heel"), his lyrics were often uncommonly denigrating (again, from "Old Dan Tucker": "Tucker on de wood pile - can't count 'lebben / Put in a fedder bed - him gwine to hebben / His nose so flat, his face so full / De top of his head like a bag ob wool").

Here, as reproduced by the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1895, are those original lyrics to "Dixie."

I wish I was in de lan’ ob cotton;
Ole times dar am not forgotten —
In Dixie lan’ where I was bawn in,
Early orn ne frosty mawin.’

I wish I was in Dixie — Away! away!
In Dixie Lan’ I’ll take my stan’,
To lib an’ die in Dixie.
Away! away! away down souph in Dixie!
Away! away! away down souph in Dixie!

In Dixie lan’ de darkies grow,
Ef white fo’kes only plants der toe;
Dey wet de groun’ wid’ ’backer smoke,
An’ up de darkey’s head will poke.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

’Dey hoe an’ rake and dig de lan’
An’ plant de cotton seed by han’;
When master’s gone dey down will sit,
De young folks dey git up an’ git.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

You court de gals right on de squar’
An’ smoove de wool in deir curly hair;
Dey am not drunk, dey am not sober —
Dey try to faint, but dey fall cl’ar ober.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

Ole Missis marry Will, de weaber;
William was a gay deceaber;
When he put is arm aroun’ ’er,
He looks as fierce as a forty-poun’er.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

When Missis libbed she libbed in clobber;
When she died she died all ober.
Here’s a health to the nex’ old Missis,
An’ all de gals dat want to kiss us.

I wish I was in Dixie, etc.

_____________________________________________
Here are two contemporary (and necessarily sanitized) versions of the two songs mentioned here. First, Bob Dylan, from his film Masked and Anonymous:



And Bruce Springsteen, from a 2006 tour:



In each case, double-click to receive the full-frame video.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

WXDU Radio 88.7 FM - finishes every show with a different version of SJI

WXDU 88.7 FM
Michael Akutagwa hosts a weekly radio program. It's called Out There a Minute. For around eight years he has ended each edition of his show with a different rendition of "St. James Infirmary." It might be Ray Condo & Hardrock Goners, or Cannonball Adderly, The Doors, Marva Wright or Arlo Guthrie, Cab Calloway or Allen Tuissaint, Artie Shaw, James Booker, Pat Verbeke, Earl Hines, Throat Culture ... every week, for eight years. That's a lot of SJI variations.

His programs feature (to say the least) an eclectic mixture of songs. Sun Ra & His Orkestra, BB King, Bob Dylan, Link Wray, Iggy Pop, John Coltrane ... you can find a list of his archived programs here  and, if you check out some of the titles on, say, Spotify, I am sure you'll find much to stimulate further explorations. Remarkable stuff, remarkable program.

Addendum, June 27, 2018: Michael Akutagwa recently informed me that: It's been a hectic couple of months, but I have managed to make some additions to the STJINF ("St. James Infirmary") stash. Current count is 1217, but in truth I have expanded things a bit, and I've got some "Streets of Laredo" (and the like) in there, a handful of versions of "The Bard of Armagh," of "Tell Me More," and a couple of other songs that either somehow reference or allude to STJINF, and I'm about to add in the Tom Waits songs "Lucinda" and "Tango 'Till They're Sore" (all with appropriate, albeit brief notes in the accompanying spreadsheet).

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Silliness of On-line Book Sales

It can be an odd experience, trying to sell books online.

Cover of current edition
Here's an example: We at Harland Press offer I Went Down to St. James Infirmary through our own website, through this blog, and through Amazon.com.
Via this blog, the cost outside Canada is $29.50 (including postage). On Amazon, the cost for the book alone is $35.00 - but, because of Amazon's percentage, plus the cost of mailing the book to them, and their annual fees, we actually lose money with each sale. Still, what point is there in writing a book if it can't be read?

We attempted to post the book on Canada's Amazon site (we live and publish/print the book in Canada), but the process was too onerous. So you can't find it there ... unless you are willing to buy from secondary sellers for up to $210. That's just silly.



Cover of previous edition
Things get more interesting. The first edition of the book (2008) is no longer available. The current second edition is a complete rewrite; it is longer, it is more accurate, it has greater depth, and it contains both a subject and a song index. Still, the earlier editions are for sale on the Web at sometimes extraordinary prices. Today, I could purchase an out-of-date copy via a secondary Amazon seller, if I was willing to shell out up to $1,057. (Plus $3.99 shipping.) That's right, $1,060.99!
If you look for it on Abe's books, it will only cost you $180. (For those interested, we have a few leftover copies, and will sell them for even less. ; ) )



First iteration of the book
But there's more. In 2004 I wrote a precursor to I Went Down to St. James Infirmary called A Rake's Progress. The title referred to both the song "An Unfortunate Rake," which depicted the death of a soldier from syphilis, and William Hogarth's series of eight eighteenth century paintings, "A Rake's Progress," which illustrated the moral and physical decline of a wastrel. Ultimately, the title was meant to signify the evolution - or progress - of the song "An Unfortunate Rake" as it transitioned into "St. James Infirmary." A Rake's Progress was based upon current knowledge. But I soon discovered that current knowledge was awry, was the crystallization of erroneous assumptions. The story was utterly wrong. The tale had to be retold.

We printed fewer than a hundred copies of A Rake's Progress - none of which can be found on the Web, at any price. I still have a few copies. But, you know, I hope nobody is interested in them.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Irving Mills sings (with Jack Pettis And His Pets) 1928


Irving Mills
Correspondent Beverly Mills Keys sent a link to a song in which Irving Mills is the vocalist. Historically, of course, Mills was not known as a singer - although he did contribute to a few recordings, including some by Duke Ellington. Mills is better remembered as an entrepreneur who managed many artists in the 1920s and 1930s, including Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. In the realm of the song St. James Infirmary, of course, he was - as Joe Primrose - an alleged composer.

Therein lies another story.

Irving Mills is a central character in my tale of St. James Infirmary. So it is good to actually hear his voice.

Jack Pettis
Below is the YouTube video Beverly Mills Keys sent to me, a 1928 recording by Jack Pettis and His Pets. For this song Irving Mills assumed the pseudonym of Erwin McGee. In other records he sang as Sonny Smith, Goody Goodwin, and so on. The pseudonyms were sometimes necessary, as he often recorded with predominantly black musicians; racially mixed performing groups could be, uhm, difficult in those times. (Mills, to his credit, was one of the first to record racially integrated bands.)

Pettis, though, was Caucasian, as were the members of his bands; an innovative saxophonist, he recorded occasionally with Mills' "Hotsy Totsy Gang" alongside such youngsters as Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa ...  all soon to become among the biggest names in jazz/pop music. Mills had an uncanny way of recognizing talent.

You can read more about Jack Pettis here.

It is likely that Mills was managing Pettis when this record was made. "Baby" was written by two of Mills' stable of songwriters, early in their careers, Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. Both were eventually inducted into the songwriters hall of fame.

Mills' vocal comes in at about 58 seconds.

Friday, February 9, 2018

SPOTIFY playlist for I Went Down to St. James Infirmary

Image by author, using sheet music for St. James Infirmary as background

All songs, all things, are connected.

While investigating the history of "St. James Infirmary," many other songs came into view.  Because of this I created a Spotify playlist of some of the songs mentioned in my book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. I couldn't find everything, though. Neither Daisey Tapley nor Florence Cole-Talbert are in the list. Aside from two or three women who were part of choirs, these were the first two black women to appear in recordings (1910 and 1919). I was able to include the first recorded solo black man (also, probably, the first solo male recording artist) - George W. Johnson with "The Laughing Coon" (c. 1894). Unfortunately, his first tune, "The Whistling Coon" (1891) is not on Spotify.

Neither are any of the songs by Carl Moore, aka "The Squeakin' Deacon." Moore was the first person, in 1924, to claim co-writing credit for SJI. From Arkansas, he adopted the persona of a hillbilly hick while fronting a smooth, swinging jazz orchestra. He recorded four catchy songs, but none of them migrated beyond their original 78 rpm discs. The only place you will find them today is on this site - enter "Carl Moore mp3" into the search box.

So far I have included 55 songs on the SJI playlist. You can hear Irving Mills introducing Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club on "Cotton Club Stomp." The Hokum Boys with their lost versions of "Gambler's Blues/St. James Infirmary." Gene Austin and "My Blue Heaven" (the best-selling song of all time ... until Bing Crosby's "White Christmas") - as well as his take on SJI. Bessie Smith. Blind Willie McTell's "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." Bob Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell." Cab Calloway. Alphonso Trent's 1930 SJI tantrum. Sophie Tucker. Hank Williams. Ward-Bergeman's 2011 gypsy version of SJI. Jimmie Rodgers. Victoria Spivey's 1926 "Black Snake Blues."

I shall add more from the book's song index as time goes on.

If you have a Spotify account, look for "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary" in the playlists, and enjoy.

Friday, December 15, 2017

"A Sparkling Book"

The Phil Baxter moustache
Musician and film-maker Digger recently read I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Here is part of his reaction, referencing characters and places that appear in the book. Thanks to author Gordon Bailey for forwarding this to me.

"This book makes me want to be at the El Torreon Ball Room dancing the Foxtrot with Irene Castle followed by a late date with Valadia Snow at the Noble Hotel where in the background I hear Don Redman's "Chant of the Weed." Mr. Harwood opened up so many musical alleys to explore. A sparkling book! One of the side-effects of this book is that I now sport a Phil Baxter moustache."

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Hot 8 Brass Band (and SJI)

Image from the Hot 8 website http://www.hot8brassband.com/
The Hot 8 Brass Band is a New Orleans staple. They have been playing for twenty years, and have stayed together through tragedies that include Hurricane Katrina, and the shooting deaths of four band-mates. They made their first recording in 2007, and have recently released their fourth album ... which includes a dynamic interpretation of "St. James Infirmary."

The Hot 8 Brass Band have embarked on a European tour which will take them to Germany, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Poland, and the U.K.

There is something special about The Hot 8 Brass Band. You can hear/see this special musicality in the video below.

(YouTube videos on this blog lose the edges, for some reason - double-click to see it in its full size ... or click here.)






Monday, August 21, 2017

The Original Sheet Music for SJI???

This, to the left, is the generic cover of the 1929 sheet music for "St. James Infirmary." The cover was designed so that a performer's image could be inserted without breaking the flow, as in the next picture. In those days images had to be set physically - that is, with an editor's hands placing the components in place. And so it was important for the Mills organization - and everybody else - to create flexible background images.

This is the first music score ever released for "St. James Infirmary." In the same year Mills Music (aka Gotham Music Service) also released an orchestral arrangement for SJI (which you can find elsewhere on this blog - search "sheet music"). The Mills music machine was fully engaged. The song had been subsumed.

Ahhh. But while it's the first music score for "St. James Infirmary," the sheet music for "Gambler's Blues," an earlier title for the song, had been printed four years earlier. The composer credits were to, not Joe Primrose, but Phil Baxter and Carl Moore. I wrote a bit about it here: The Golden Grail - you'll find more in the book.

"St. James Infirmary" aka "Gambler's Blues" had been around for many years before being taken into a recording studio. There were a ton of variations. There were many verses. The song, chameleon-like, changed its colour for the environment it stumbled into. The sheet music below, the first of its kind, gives us a taste of the song. But the song was more than this. It assumed many shapes; there were many versions.

This was just one of them.





Thursday, August 3, 2017

SJI on Ukulele

While researching the book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, I collected quite a few sheet music scores for popular songs of the 1920s and 1930s. While all contained the piano score, most included the chords for ukulele accompaniment. None of this sheet music refers to guitar accompaniment.

The ukulele is a relatively recent creation, Hawaiian in origin, it probably developed in the late nineteenth century - although with precedents in the Portuguese machete, which is probably related to the European lute (dating back about 800 years), which is probably related to the Arabic oud (dating back thousands of years) ... and so on.

It's doubtlessly a truism, but it bears reiterating: everything - including musical instruments and musical composition - is related to something that came before.

Following concerts in the U.S. by some Hawaiian bands, the ukulele became intensely popular in the early years of the jazz era. So, whether the sheet music was for  Phil Baxter's "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas," or Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," or "St. James Infirmary," it was likely to have the ukulele chords included.

Now, what does SJI sound like as played on ukulele?

I recently exchanged some brief emails with Toronto ukulele player, Jennifer Schmitt. She had just posted a recording of the song on YouTube, and was curious about how to credit the composer ... "it was a favourite of my father's. He died ten years ago today, and I used some of my Lake Opinicon time to record this in his memory."

I like Schmitt's treatment of the song. Direct, expressive, and sweetly melodic.
(To view in its proper aspect ratio, watch it on the YouTube channel.)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A New Orleans country band does SJI


The New Orleans country band Loose Cattle has just released a video of their version of "St. James Infirmary." If you follow this link you can read about this interpretation, and watch the video. The song starts off slowly, and quickly builds, develops a country twang. You will like what you hear.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Interview with Michael Enright on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) "The Sunday Edition"


Michael Enright is one of the most celebrated hosts on Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) radio. His The Sunday Edition - with its mixture of revelatory cultural and political content - has a large and dedicated audience.

Last year a friend in the tiny village of Val Marie, Saskatchewan - the writer and performer Madonna Hamel (you can read her latest musings here) - traveled east to take care of business. On the way she stopped off at her old haunt, the CBC studios in Toronto. She gave Michael Enright a copy of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. A few months after that I received a message from Chris Wodskou, a CBC producer affiliated with Enright's show. And not much later I was in the CBC Victoria studios, chatting with Michael about "St. James Infirmary."

The interview, complete with snippets of sundry versions of SJI, is fun. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Thanks Michael. Thanks Chris. Thanks Madonna. Thanks to all of you!!



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.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Silk Road Ensemble, live from Vancouver


Michael Ward-Bergeman in the Purgatory Garden

It might get better than this, but one wonders how.

Friend Michael Ward-Bergeman composed this brilliant interpretation of St. James Infirmary and is also the accordionist in the video. From the Vancouver TED talks in February 2016, the Silk Road Ensemble cooks at a high heat and the vocalist, Rhiannon Giddens, grabs the song impeccably. Together they run through fields and marshes, howl through trees, bend with the wind, fly across oceans and deliver an interpretation of St. James Infirmary that is fit for the world wherever we are.

Inquiries into the early years of SJI