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Archive for the ‘Antecedents and Variations’ Category

Views differ on whether “SJI” ought properly be traced quite so far back as “The Unfortunate Rake.” My take remains that there’s somewhat of a connection there, so I read with interest today this entry on NineBullets.net. It’s about “The Cowboy’s Lament”/”Streets of Laredo” a song cycle with a connection to “The Unfortunate Rake” that seems more obvious. But:

While it appears to have descended from “The Unfortunate Rake,” the origins go a little deeper all the way back to an Irish ballad “Bard of Armaugh” which later mutated into “A Handful of Laurel” which is the work “The Unfortunate Rake” was based on.

Read (and listen to) more on this subject, here.

“Bard of Armaugh”? I admit, that’s a new one on me. I’ll investigate as time allows, though comments and tips in the meantime are obviously welcome.

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In a comment on the About page of this site, JP Bruneau wrote: “There’s a version of ‘Barroom Blues’ that’s not on your list. It’s in Stripped Down the new Cd (on Arhoolie Records) by The Magnolia Sisters, an all women Cajun band. In the liner notes I read that the band learned the song from another Cajun band, The Alley Boys of Abbeville (that recorded in the 30’s on the Columbia label).”

“Barroom Blues” is not a frequently used title for “SJI” and its variations, generally speaking (I think I’ve made one just reference to such a version on this site, by a fellow named Herman Davis, here.) But in any case, title aside, this is pretty much the “Gambler’s Blues” version (quite close to the one Jimmie Rodgers recorded, and Preservation Hall/Yim Yames followed, as mentioned Monday).

As JP Bruneau suggests, the Magnolia Sisters version is a Cajun arrangement, and pleasant enough, although I wasn’t personally crazy about the vocal (decent fiddle though — and I’m guessing others may disagree about the vocalist, since Stripped Down was nominated for a Grammy). A few of the lyric tweaks — full lyrics after the jump — involve the gender-adjustments sometimes made when the vocalist is a woman. (Earlier post on versions sung by women here.) In this case I liked the singer recounting “someone a-callin, ‘Young gal, your baby’s down.'” I like to think that indirectly refers to the “Unfortunate Rake” descendants that make the young woman the focus of the story, such as “Bad Girl’s Lament” and “When I Was A Young Girl.” But I don’t know if that was the intent.

As for The Alley Boys of Abbeville: I have a number of songs by them (all from a record called Abbeville Breakdown), but not a version of “Barroom Blues.” I haven’t yet researched this extensively, but it appears the Dixie Ramblers, another Cajun group of similar vintage, did record the song — although of course that doesn’t mean the Alley Boys didn’t record it too.

Anyway a final quick note on this strain of versions that tie in to “Gambler’s Blues:” One of the distinguishing characteristics, included in the Magnolia Sisters take, is the narrator returning from the infirmary or the graveyard or some other site of bad news, to the barroom (Joe’s, Big Kid’s, whoever’s), finding the crowd drinking, and joining in. I hadn’t thought about it, but that narrative conclusion does in a way tie into the usual “SJI” narrator’s shift to bragging, etc. Perhaps the sentiment that “she’ll never find a man like me” is a drunken one.

(more…)

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Literally since January I’ve had a half-written post about the Louvin Brothers’ “SJI” variation “Let Her Go, God Bless Her,” in my “drafts” folder. And yet I never find time to write it. Been that kind of year.

Anyway, our friend Robert W. Harwood has meanwhile stepped up with a post about that very song. Check it out here; the post draws some connections to other recent topics (e.g., the “let her go” lyric), too.

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[Part 1 is here.]

Q: Anybody who starts looking into “SJI” these days will before too long encounter the theory that connects it back to “The Unfortunate Rake.” But the link wouldn’t be obvious to anybody who simply heard “The Unfortunate Rake” and “SJI” back to back.

I’m pretty sure that in my case, when I first got interested in the tune, my curiosity led me to the 1960 Folkways disc that starts out with that old folk song and charts its musical descendents, most obviously “Streets of Laredo”; it includes “SJI” among the descendents – with none other than Alan Lomax singing a rendition called “St. James Hospital” and claiming in the liner notes that it “provides the link between the folk ballad and the pop tune.”

But to my ears, at least, this assertion doesn’t hold up when you actually listen to the original version of what sings, and then listen to the “St. James Infirmary” that we’re all familiar with.

Not to put you on the spot, but was Lomax just being sloppy, or what?

Was Alan Lomax being sloppy? I don’t know — he was certainly being hopeful. The version he sings, called “St. James Hospital,” is reasonably close to James “Iron Head” Baker’s rendition, the one that he and his father, John Lomax, recorded in 1933 at the State Prison Farm in Sugarland, Texas. But it does not, as Alan suggested, resemble “St. James Infirmary” and certainly does not provide a missing link between SJI and “The Unfortunate Rake.” It is similar to “Bad Girl’s Lament” which is one of those songs that exists in the space between “The Unfortunate Rake” and “Streets of Laredo.”

Lomax was not the first person to link SJI with “The Unfortunate Rake.” The English folklorist A.L. Lloyd wrote an article on the connection between the two songs in 1947. That article appeared in the now defunct music magazine Keynote. When he wrote this article, “St. James Infirmary” was already an immensely popular and often recorded song. I find it intriguing that, despite the smokescreen that Irving Mills surrounded SJI with, Lloyd knew it as a traditional ballad. But it’s not like connecting “Streets of Laredo” to “The Unfortunate Rake.” That’s an obvious relationship.

With “St. James Infirmary” we have the St. James name and a (quite different) list of funeral requests. That might be enough to suggest a casual relationship, but certainly not enough to show a direct connection. Abb Niles, a lawyer (good friend to W.C. Handy) and music writer (with an intense attraction to American music folklore), recognized as early as 1930 that SJI was “cowboy stuff if I know my cowboys, and built upon such whiskered Americana as ‘Wild Bill Jones’ and ‘The Cowboy’s Lament.'” “The Cowboy’s Lament,” of course, is none other than “Streets of Laredo.” Niles did not jump on Laredo as being a reference point for Infirmary — he was essentially saying that all these songs share a kind of je ne sais quoi quality.

Anyway, Lloyd seems to be the one who put the idea out there, and Lomax tried to run with it. Why he took the notion seriously, why he claimed he’d found the missing link — or why he thought there could be a missing link at all — is beyond me. But it has become common currency, that this 1933 “St. James Hospital” is — as even Bob Dylan, repeating Lomax’s claim, said on his Theme Time Radio show — “the real link between the folk ballad and the pop tune.” One just has to listen to the two tunes to recognize that this is not the case. But Lomax made the claim and the words were inscribed with his authority.

Music folklorists have provided an immeasurable service, but they are not always pure in their intentions. Often they are looking to crystallize a notion they privately subscribe to (such as, oh, that the Mississippi Delta was the birthplace of the blues, or that traditional songs evolve as an unbroken chain) and I suspect Alan Lomax had some sort of personal investment that drove him to make his claim about “St. James Hospital.”

Some people also relate “The House of the Rising Sun” to “The Unfortunate Rake.” That’s even more of a stretch. It was Alan Lomax who ensured the survival of “Rising Sun” when he recorded it in 1937 during a trip through Kentucky. The singer, Georgia Turner, was tracked down by Ted Anthony, who describes his adventures in Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song.

Baker

Baker

Here’s a kind of interesting side-light: Alan Lomax was eighteen and travelling with his father in 1933-1934, when they first encountered Iron Head Baker. Lomax, as you know, collected field recordings, trying to discover the songs we sang before the intervention of record players and radio — which, Lomax thought, threatened to homogenize everything, cause the old songs to be displaced and forgotten. This was their first trip with a newly designed “portable” recording device that used durable aluminum disks. (Previously, they had used fragile wax cylinders and a hand-wound, spring-driven motor.) This new machine, complete with speakers, batteries, and a microphone, fit in the trunk of their car. It weighed a mere three hundred pounds.

During the early part of their trip — driving all day, sleeping in fields and on beaches at night — they found themselves in the Central State Prison Farm near Sugarland, Texas. John was convinced there were untouched songs to be found in the prison systems where, he believed, convicts remained segregated from the malign influences of city life, the polluting airs of the radio — and where their songs hearkened back, unchanged, to the early days of American folk song. In Sugarland they recorded, among others, James “Iron Head” Baker and Moses “Clear Rock” Platt. It was here that Baker presented them with “St. James Hospital.”

Later on the same trip they were at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, and there met Huddie Ledbetter, aka Leadbelly. John Lomax (arguably) helped free Leadbelly from the prison and toured with him (Leadbelly acting as chauffeur), presenting him as an example of primitive purity. Leadbelly had a massive store of remembered and created songs and could hold audiences transfixed with his performances. Eventually Leadbelly rebelled against the expectations and constraints put upon him by John Lomax. John returned to Texas, and took on “Iron Head” Baker as Leadbelly’s replacement. [Related 1936 Time Magazine brief here.]

Baker soon defected, as well. Neither could long tolerate being treated as primitives.

Get your own copy of I Went Down To St. James Infirmary right here. Mr. Harwood’s blog is here.

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An interesting question came across the transom the other day, from a Mr. McGinley. I mention that name because it’s actually related to his question.

You may recall that many singers use a longer set of lyrics for “SJI” that include the narrator walking into Old Joe’s Barroom, on the corner by the square, or some variation thereof. Sometimes the proprietor of Old Joe’s is named Joe McKennedy or similar — but sometimes he’s Joe McGinley. (Refresher course here.)

Mr. McGinley wrote:

I am particularly interested in the Joseph McGinley version. Where does this name fit into the history of the song? Is it old or perhaps a personal or made up version by the Animals? Who was Joseph McGinley?. You state that the song has an old Irish origin. Do either of the two names appear that far back in any version of the song? McGinley is an Irish surname that would have been known in Ireland in the 1790’s and before.

And later:

The funny thing is my grandfather used to sing this song in the 1950’s (I think) using the Joseph McGinley version. With The Animals being English, the song ‘probably’ refers to an Irisman in Ireland or England at the time….I dont know.  Yet the earliest I have found using this name in print is for The Animals in the mid 1960’s! Have you seen the Joseph McGinley version in print any earlier than that?

Here’s what I can say.

First, although “SJI” has been traced back to an Irish folk ballad called “The Unfortunate Rake,” the lyrics to that (very different) tune makes no mention of a McGinley or a McKennedy — or, for that matter, a bar. Read the lyrics here.

Second, I took a moment to revisit the lyrics offered up by Kenneth S. Goldstein to accompany the 1960 Folkways collection, The Unfortunate Rake. That collection includes Dave Van Ronk’s rendition of Gambler’s Blues, the made-in-America tune that is basically “SJI” by another name, and Van Ronk does refer to the barroom scene and “Big Joe McKennedy.” Nother of the earlier variations on “Unfortunate Rake” in Goldstein’s roundup (and there are a lot) have anything like this.

Next I looked at the two versions of the lyrics to “Those Gamblers Blues” set out by Carl Sandburg in his 1927 book American Songbag. One set starts out in “old Joe’s barroom,” and in this case it’s “Joe McKenny” who tells the tale. (The other set does not have such a scene.)

Finally I re-listened to a few versions, and consulted Robert W. Harwood’s I Went Down To St. James Infirmary for good measure. Fess Williams’ “Gambler’s Blues” starts out in “old Joe’s barrom,” but refers to Sam Jackson, “the driver of a delivery car” as the storyteller. Jimmie Rodgers’ sets his  version (“Those Gambler’s Blues”) in Big Kid’s Barroom.

I listened again to the Animals version, and the lyric in this take does seem to be “Joseph McGinley.”

I will admit that I have not re-listened to every single version of “SJI” that own, but so far as I can figure, the Animals version seems to be the only one that renders the name that way.

And that is the best I can do. Of course, if anybody out there can add to the answer, I’d love to hear it — and I presume Mr. McGinley would too.

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Something like a year and a half ago, I received an email from composer (and blogger) Daniel Felsenfeld, who suggested that I look into the work of Ezra Sims. Specifically, Felsenfeld told me, Sims had written some pieces partly based on Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary” – “mostly because of the microtones involved.”

Ezra SimsAt the time, I wasn’t sure what that last phrase meant. But looking into it a bit, I found that Mr. Sims, a resident of Cambridge, Mass., has been a composer of microtonal music since 1960 or thereabouts. He has also written and lectured in a variety of settings, and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other awards. I tracked Mr. Sims down and dropped him a line. He was receptive — but I had a problem. The piece of his that I felt I most needed to hear, “Sextet,” wasn’t particularly easy to get hold of. I was living near New York City at the time, and while the library there did own a copy, they were in the midst of some sort of reorganization of that particular part of their collection, and I was told I would have to wait “several months.”

I was in the middle of some projects myself, one of which was moving to Savannah. Somewhere along the way, however, I was finally able to obtain “Sextet” by other means: The Avant Garde Project (“a series of recordings of 20th-century classical-experimental-electroacoustic music digitized from LPs”), which makes available “Sextet” and several other Sims pieces, along with links that allowed even someone like me to figure out what software I needed to get and, and how to get it, in order to acquire the (digital) piece.

Plus I got hold of a relevant article that Mr. Sims had told me about: A piece he wrote for Computer Music Journal (Winter 1988 issue) called “Yet Another 72-Noter,” in which he discussed microtonal music, Louis Armstrong’s version of “St. James Infirmary,” and his piece “Sextet” – which he describes as being “based on” Armstrong’s performance. (That is to say, it’s not a “cover version.”)

This was helpful (and entertaining) but parts of it did raise another problem, which is that I don’t really read music. So having absorbed all I could, I got in touch with Mr. Sims again, and we arranged a time to chat via phone.

An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Q: In “Yet Another 72-Noter,” you start with a brief introduction to your history with microtonal music, and in one of the amusing passages you say that by 1960 you could “no longer avoid joining the lunatic fringe.” That being how microtone enthusiasts seemed to you then, and maybe how they still looked to many people, as of 1988, at least. So how would you explain to someone like me: What is microtonal music — and what’s lunatic fringe-y about it?

A: [Laughs] Well, to start off, microtonal music requires, for its proper notation, pitches that are not on the piano. Things in the cracks, in other words. Lots of people sing things in the cracks — and that’s just called “out of tune.” [Laughs] But you know, to really write down, for example, Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary,” and be able to reproduce it, you must be able to indicate much smaller intervals than the half-steps that are on the piano, much smaller increments.

A lot of people write music that, in its notation, requires only the notes that are on the piano, but played in one fancy tuning or another, so that the sound is actually different from the piano, but they are still writing a diatonic C-major music. That to me is not microtones, it’s tuning. Microtonal compositions need all of the those differences available at any moment, for structural reasons. (more…)

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And finally, just to bring to a conclusion my unintended mini-series on versions brought to my attention by my communication with Jason Baldinger, a couple more quick notes.

First, one of the versions he said he’d played, and that I didn’t know, was by Tony Rice. (Rice’s work “spans the range of acoustic music, from straight-ahead bluegrass to jazz-influenced new acoustic music, to songwriter-oriented folk,” according to his site). Upon inquiry, I was informed that it was very, very similar to “Doc Watson’s 1964 version” — which I didn’ know either. I’ve now gotten hold of and listened to both, and it’s true, they are much the same. For one thing, while both use the title “St. James Hospital,” both are actually the tune and lyrics more commonly title “One Morning In May,” far closer “The Unfortunate Rake” than to “SJI.” (I believe Watson has also recorded “SJI” a couple of times, but that will have to wait.) Both go with the singer/one guitar arrangement; Rice’s version is a bit more upbeat and sort of a gallop. Neither, however, was really my kind of thing.

Lastly, Baldinger mentioned a rendition of “Those Gamblers Blues” by Elton Britt, which was “just a slight varient” on Jimmie Rodgers take. And indeed this bio on the CMT site starts off by noting Britt’s “Jimmie Rodgers imitation.” He had hits of his own, and is alleged to have been a better yodeler than Rodgers, but the bottom line is I haven’t tracked down this version yet. Baldinger’s description did add that it’s “a little peppy country-politan number complete with the Jordinaires,” which sounds worth hearing but … well, I’ll get to it at some point, I guess.


Doc Watson - Doc Watson - St. James Hospital
“St. James Hospital,” Doc Watson

Tony Rice - Native American - St. James Hospital “St. James Hospital,” Tony Rice

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