Inquiries into the early years of SJI
Showing posts with label Willy the Weeper. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Willy the Weeper. Show all posts

Saturday, September 21, 2013

American roots music in Belgium: The Golden Glows

The Golden Glows (image from their website)
A few months ago I was doing some research on the song "Willie The Weeper." In my most-recent-entry-but-one you can read how "Willie The Weeper" became "Minnie The Moocher" which retained the instrumentation of "St. James Infirmary" while becoming Cab Calloway's signature song at The Cotton Club, and how parts of "Minnie The Moocher" have sometimes become embedded into renditions of "St. James Infirmary." Anyway, while doing this research I stumbled upon a contemporary version of "Willie The Weeper" on YouTube by a Belgian trio called "The Golden Glows." Consisting of two female vocalists and a male vocalist/guitarist, the Golden Glows lean heavily on vocal harmony, and this has been their mainstay through successive CD releases. They do it well. One of their members, Bram Van Moorhem, recently suggested that if I listen to their three CDs in succession, I shall be able to detect an evolution in their musicianship and sound. I did so, and discovered a second connection between The Golden Glows and "St. James Infirmary."

"Willie The Weeper" is from their first CD, titled A Songbook From The 20s. Their most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, is a tribute to the prison songs collected by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm (aka Mississippi State Penitentiary) in Sugar Land, Texas in 1947. (The Golden Glows call these Lomax collections "the holiest of holies," and their treatment is both innovative and reverent.) It was 13 years earlier that Alan and his father, John, recorded James "Iron Head" Baker singing "St. James Hospital" - a song that Alan himself recorded and, through some reasoning that I would describe as weird, declared it to be the link between "The Unfortunate Rake" and "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary."

In a way, that's beside the point. I can only describe The Golden Glows most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, as a remarkable accomplishment. These songs, while sparsely orchestrated, emphasize - in fine European style - the melodic underpinnings of these songs while incorporating a strong percussive drive that represents the pounding of spades and hoes on the hard ground that the prisoners had to work, without respite, day after day, year after year. While I am fond of all their re-creations I think this, A Prison Songbook, is a wonderful achievement. You can see some videos of their work by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Willie the Weeper - a Max Morath MP3

In the 1930s and 1940s, Cab Calloway was one of the biggest singing stars in the U.S. His manager, Irving Mills (famous in the story of SJI), secured him a position in Harlem's Cotton Club where Calloway used "St. James Infirmary" as his signature tune. Calloway might even be the only singer to have achieved a top-forty hit with the song, in 1931. (As an interesting tidbit, Calloway, dressed in a white tuxedo, performed a dynamic version of "St. James Infirmary" on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 23rd, 1964, the date of the Beatles' third appearance on the program. Cab was 56.)

Cab's search for a more "original" signature song led him to the very old folk song, "Willie The Weeper" which he and his songwriting collaborators transformed into "Minnie The Moocher" - a song with definite echoes of SJI in both its melody and instrumentation, and which owes an immense lyrical debt to "Willie the Weeper."

To me this presents an interesting contrast. SJI is a song that was stolen from the public domain. Minnie The Moocher is a song that was, uhm, to speak generously, inspired by a song in the public domain.

Anyway, you can read a more detailed story here, in an earlier post. My intent with this post is to offer you a compelling version of "Willie the Weeper," compliments of Max Morath.

On a fine CD titled Jonah Man, the original Piano Man, Mr. Ragtime himself, performed with a quintet in a tribute to the great Bert Williams. Among other treats the album includes a wonderful version of my favourite Bert Williams song, "Nobody." (Max has also recorded "Willie The Weeper" as a solo piece, but that recording is sadly no longer commercially available.)

Here we go, then. To listen (4:41 at 256 kbps), click here: Max Morath's "Willie the Weeper" MP3

Sunday, October 5, 2008

St. James Infirmary, Willy the Weeper, and Minnie the Moocher

In the early days of his career Cab Calloway used “St. James Infirmary” as his signature song. By 1931 – when he was the house musician at the Cotton Club – he was looking for something new, something a little more original to serve as his theme. His manager Irving Mills, like many of the music makers of the day, owned a copy of Carl Sandburg’s recently published collection of American traditional songs, The American Songbag. He happened upon “Willy the Weeper” and used this as the foundation upon which to build a new song. (You can hear a 1927 recording of "Willy the Weeper" here.)

Willy hailed, probably, from the days of the Wild West – from the days when, as Alan Lomax put it, “taking dope was not regarded as a much more serious habit than drinking or chewing tobacco.” The song developed many variations, most of them adding verses that described further drug-induced dreams. Inevitably, though, Willy wakes up and, weeping, has to return to his mundane life and his mundane job.

Irving Mills claimed he wrote "Minnie the Moocher" himself. He completed it in a couple of hours, using one of the Mills Music house musicians to transcribe the melody. Calloway then, according to a 1933 newspaper interview with Mills, “injected his catching musical personality into the piece.” The song has writing credit to Mills, Clarence Gaskin and Calloway.

Willy was a chimney sweeper. Minnie was a red hot hootchie cootcher. Willy and Minnie were both hopeless addicts and the songs recounted their drug-induced dreams. Willy’s dreams took him to Bulgaria where the queen gave him a car with a diamond headlight and a silver steering wheel. Minnie wound up with the king of Sweden, who gave her a diamond car with a platinum wheel. The queen of Bulgaria had a million dollars in nickels and dimes which she’d counted a million times. The king of Sweden gave Minnie a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes which Minnie sat around and counted a million times.

In both Calloway's 1931 and (especially) 1933 recordings, one listens to the orchestral introduction expecting to hear "St. James Infirmary." But then, as Calloway starts singing, a variation of the earlier "Willy the Weeper" melody emerges. This was a really big hit for Calloway, and other related songs followed in its wake, including: "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day," "Kicking the Gong Around" (a euphemism for smoking opium), "Minnie's a Hepcat Now," and "Ghost of Smoky Joe" (Joe was Minnie's boyfriend, who taught her how to kick the gong around).

"The Hi-De-Ho Man" was another song in this Calloway stream - based upon the Hi-De-Ho call and response chorus of "Minnie the Moocher." The audiences loved this. When singing "Minnie the Moocher" Calloway would call out "Hi de hi de hi de hi" and the audience would shout it back; gradually the call and response would become more complicated until Calloway returned to the story. Coincidentally (or not) the earlier "Willy the Weeper" had a call and response chorus of its own.