Some months ago I bought Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings. This is an eight-CD set, with two books, in a box that’s supposed to look like a piano. Pretty fancy. The material itself has been released in various forms before, many times, for many years. But it was new to me.
I rationalized this expense as a quasi-research item: Hearing Morton talk to Alan Lomax in 1938, about New Orleans in the first fifteen or twenty years of the 20th century, could provide (cough) valuable context for my “St. James Infirmary” project. Of course, Morton never mentions “St. James Infirmary,” which was no surprise — surely somebody would have mentioned it to me by now if he had.
Most of what I’d read about Morton’s conversations with Lomax focuses on his racial attitudes, or on some of his wilder claims about his own role in jazz history, or on his identification of “the Spanish tinge” as a vital element in New Orleans jazz. That’s all fine, but it wasn’t the stuff that caught my attention.
Today I begin a series of posts discussing the things that did catch my attention. I’m thinking I’ll try to do this every Monday, in an open-ended, “rolling” fashion, until I’m done.
The first topic is copyright. Obviously, there’s a “St. James Infirmary” sub-plot on this, since the evidence is pretty strong that this was basically a traditional song when Joe Primrose (Irving Mills) claimed it in the late 1920s.
Morton’s first mention of copyright issues comes relatively early on in his discussions with Lomax. Specifically, he mentions several songs that he wrote around 1905, including “You Can Have It, I Don’t Want it,” and adds: “Of course, I never got any credit for it,” because somebody else claimed it.
Why, Lomax asks, didn’t Morton copyright his tunes back then? Morton replies:
Well, I’ll tell you why we didn’t copyright ’em … not only me, but a many other. Why the publishers thought they could buy anything they wanted for fifteen, twenty dollars. Well, the fact was that, at that particular time, the sporting houses were all over the country, and you could go in any town. If you was a good piano player, just as soon as you hit town, you had ten jobs waiting for you. So we all made a lot of money, and ten or fifteen or a hundred dollars didn’t mean very much to us during those days….
So the publishers, we didn’t give ’em anything. So they decided, ‘We know a way to get ’em.’ So, they — a lot of publishers — would come out with tunes, our melodies, and they would steal ’em.
But we kept ’em for our private material. That is to battle each other in battles of music. Battles of music is old, ages old. And of course, if we had the best material, we was considered one of the best men. And of course, the best players always had the best jobs. And the best jobs always meant plenty money.
The subject of publishing comes up a number of times: various songs that were known among musicians to have been written by so-and-so — but somebody else published it. It’s pretty clear that it was a bit of a chaotic time in terms of working out who would get credit for what.
And after all, as much attention as gets focused these days on the transitions of the music business, it’s easy to forget the transitions that it has gone through before. In the first decades of the 20th century, who really knew how important publishing rights to various jazz and blues numbers would be? From about 1904 onward Morton was a peripatetic guy, and tells stories of piano battles and other adventures everywhere from Alabama and Mississippi and Texas to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles. It was, no doubt, an economically sound decision to avoid the publishers to keep songs secret to protect the business interests of the traveling piano player in the early 20th century — economically sound, that is, in the short term.
And there’s one other element of Morton’s discussions of this issue that’s worth note, I think: He never really talks about anything as being “traditional,” per se. That is, for any given tune, he pretty much always produces a name of somebody who actually wrote it, whether it’s him, or Buddy Bolden, or whoever. In some cases, it seems that Morton is guilty of overly aggressive credit-claiming, too. For instance, he says he composed “Tiger Rag” — not (as Lomax noted) a very credible authorship claim.
Point is, it seems that it’s not that Morton didn’t believe in the idea of authorship. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to take seriously the link between authorship and whoever’s name was attached to the published version of the song.
And certainly by the time he sat down to talk to Lomax, Morton seen the way that economics and musical authorship intersect change quite a bit from the days of battling rival piano players in “sporting houses.” As Lomax later wrote in Mister Jelly Roll, by the 1920s, Morton was figuring out that “it was more profitable to publish and own music than it was to compose or play it.”