Q: You make it pretty clear in the book that what we now know as “St. James Infirmary” was in reasonably wide circulation in the repertoire of plenty of musicians by the 1920s.
One of the things I’ve always been interested in is how Armstrong first heard it — and I am led to believe from what you write that he may not have heard it first in New Orleans, but rather that Don Redman brought it to his attention in Chicago (after having heard it in Detroit, pretty shortly before the Armstrong session that included the tune).
Am I getting that right, is that what you figure is the most likely scenario for how the song got to Armstrong?
A: In the book, I detail how Don Redman got hold of the song. Redman was a multi-instrumentalist, whose specialty was the clarinet and the saxophone. His real strength was as an arranger, though. It’s fair to say that Redman’s innovative arrangements revolutionized band music in the 1920s.
In December of 1928 Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five were scheduled to make some recordings in Chicago. They wound up recording about ten songs over a one-week period including “Basin Street Blues,” “Save It, Pretty Mama,” Tight Like This (Tight Like That),” and “St. James Infirmary.” Redman traveled from Detroit for the sessions, where he acted as arranger for some of these songs (on which he also played clarinet, alto saxophone, and contributed some background vocals).
In I Went Down to St. James Infirmary I discuss how Redman was introduced to “St. James Infirmary” — or, at least, to an arrangement of it. I don’t think we can assume that Louis Armstrong had never heard the song before, though. I’m sure he knew it very well.
But it takes time to create an effective arrangement for seven musicians. And, as you can easily hear, this arrangement is quite complex. So, what Redman brought to Chicago was a version of the song worth recording. The song was making the rounds of the dance halls in the North, and Redman liked what he heard one December night in Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom. He took that arrangement with him to Chicago, although he no doubt altered it considerably. So he was the man responsible for Armstrong recording that song on December 12th.
You note in the book that the original OKeh release credits Redman — it actually came out before Irving Mills got his copyright (as Joe Primrose) for the tune. As you write, Mills got in touch and the “mistake” was changed, Primrose got credit, and Mills Music got royalties. Another instance of prodding you into pure speculation, but any thoughts about why OKeh/Armstrong/Redman wouldn’t say, “No way, Mills, you didn’t write this and you’re not getting a dime!”
I’m certain, Rob, that Irving Mills did not write to Don Redman; I doubt if he ever talked to him. Irving Mills contacted Thomas G. Rockwell about this matter. Rockwell was the Director of Recording for OKeh records. He was also a friend of Mills. In fact, they were business partners. (Mills-Rockwell Inc. had offices at 779 Seventh Avenue, New York.) All Don Redman would have known was that the composer credit went to a fellow called Joe Primrose. As far as Redman was aware, the Mills Music Company had found, in Joe Primrose, the original composer of the song. Redman knew the song existed before he ever made the arrangement, so he really had nothing to base an argument on.
Right. I didn’t mean to imply that Mills would have written to Redman. I guess I was assuming, though, that Redman might have stood to lose out on… something … if the credit changed. Seems like he could have at least argued that he deserved more credit for this version than “Joe Primrose.”
But maybe not. I remember that you make the point that Redman didn’t file any sort of copyright, and I guess we have no way of knowing exactly what value (monetary or otherwise) he would have given his own contribution to the song, via that arrangement. (And maybe he wasn’t even aware his name was on the first pressing.)
All of which gets at one of your big themes in the book — the way traditional song-making and the newer world of song-commodifying (which obviously Mills had a handle on, to say the least) came together in “SJI.”
Hmm. I see what you mean, Rob. I remember trying to find out what happened to Phil Baxter’s complaint against Irving Mills. As you know, Baxter and Carl Moore published the “Gambler’s Blues” that Fess Williams recorded. In a 1930 newspaper interview Baxter (who published the song with Carl Moore in, if I remember, 1925) claimed he had initiated action against “a New York publisher.” That publisher, Baxter claimed, had stolen the composition credit for the song, now known as “St. James Infirmary.” I spent months trying to track some evidence of that legal action, but could find nothing. This is the sort of research that, of course, never made it into the book. The legal action was probably initiated in Kansas City, where Baxter was living at the time. The court houses I contacted there as well as in New York City had no record of this. But certainly Phil Baxter knew as well as Don Redman and Irving Mills that he wasn’t the original writer of the song.
In those days, like today, one could apply for one of two types of copyright. An original composition was completely protected under copyright law. The other type was for a new arrangement of a public domain song. In that case only the new arrangement was protected — anybody could perform and/or modify the original song without infringing on the composer’s rights, but would have to pay if they used his new arrangement.
For instance, Johnny Cash copyrighted the old (public domain) blues song “Delia’s Gone.” Personally, I don’t like his version. I find it the most mean-spirited of all the Delias I’ve heard. But that’s okay, because the Cash estate only owns the rights to his arrangement of the song, and to his lyrical modifications. The original song is available to anybody. As another example, the Kingston Trio lost a lot of money by not checking their facts when they recorded “Tom Dooley.” The song had been around for a long time; it was actually based on an 1866 murder and likely made its first appearance in that decade. The Kingston Trio thought they were recording a traditional song, but they inadvertently recorded a version that Alan Lomax had published as “Tom Dula” in his book Folk Songs of North America. This gave writing credit (as a new arrangement of the traditional song) to both Alan and John Lomax and to the fellow from whom they had collected it, Frank Warner. By the time they settled the suit, the song had sold millions of copies, and it continues to generate royalties for Warner and the Lomax family. So there can be gold in reconfigured songs. But it’s not very likely.
But back to SJI. If Redman and Baxter had copyrighted “St. James Infirmary” it would have been for their new arrangement. And, really, they probably didn’t think they had much to gain from that, because anybody else could record or sell sheet music for other versions without paying them a penny. But then an unheard of writer, Joe Primrose, came out of left field and copyrighted “St. James Infirmary” as his own composition. Wow. Suddenly all variations of the song owed payment to Primrose (well, to Irving Mills).
So, what if Redman or Baxter had carried their argument to the courts? It would have been expensive. And what would they have gained it they had won? A moral victory, certainly, for “SJI” would have had to return to the public domain. However, I cannot imagine that they could have dispossessed Joe Primrose of his claim to the song without proving that neither he nor anyone else wrote it. So, all they would have been protecting, really, was their right to broadcast their own interpretations. Legal action would have been a money-losing proposition.
A likely scenario with Phil Baxter is that he threatened legal action, Mills showed he would not back down, and Baxter calculated that the cost of continuing a legal battle would be much greater than the profits he might realize if he won. Possibly Redman briefly considered a response, but he was a busy man, lots of irons in the fire, lots of his own songs in the marketplace, and decided it was not worth it.
I doubt any of them thought the song would outlast the decade.