Archive for the ‘Intellectual property’ Category

cover_sm_13-over[And now, Part 5 of this ongoing interview with Robert W. Harwood about his book I Went Down To St. James Infirmary. Part 1 is here,  Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here, and Part 4 is here. This may or may not be the last installment in this series — it’s all I have planned, but I reserve the right to extend if new questions come up. As a reminder: It’s a fascinating book, and I recommend it  highly.]

Q: I’d always wondered how Primrose/Mills managed to claim credit for a song that, among other things, had been included in Sandburg’s American Songbag as a “traditional” number, without some kind of legal challenge. Turns out there was a legal squabble, as you detail in the book, but it wasn’t someone challenging Mills — it was Mills challenging someone else!

I don’t want to give away what’s in the book, but I guess I’m safe in revealing that Mills prevailed and that’s how he held onto the copyright. This is some of my very favorite material in the book, and I have no idea how you managed to track it down, but the details of the court battle are fascinating, particularly getting a look at the legal logic.

Ah, yes, that court case produced some interesting information. I have about 640 pages of examination, cross-examination, testimony, legal pleas and summations, most of which come from two court cases. There was a trial in 1931 and appeals that were heard in 1931 and 1932. Mills fired off the initial complaint on March 13th, 1930. So this is the thing to keep in mind: Mills was the plaintiff, not the defendant. It’s a very odd situation, I think, and I have often wondered why the defendant — music publishers Denton and Haskins — did not initiate a copyright challenge.

20071011irvingmillsc19253x4x72Mills launched his complaint in New York State court. It had nothing to do with copyright, though. I mean, even if this court agreed that “St. James Infirmary” was been incorrectly copyrighted, it would have been legally meaningless. Copyright was a Federal concern and had to be addressed in Federal court. As it turned out, Mills did have to admit that he was not the original composer of “SJI.” But it didn’t matter, for nobody took that issue further. Legal challenges are expensive, and I suppose that’s the main reason Mills was able to hang onto the copyright for so long.

What he was concerned about in this trial was the name “St. James Infirmary.” In early 1930 there appeared on the streets of New York copies of inexpensive sheet music carrying the title “St. James Infirmary or The Gambler’s Blues also known as St. Joe’s Infirmary.” Irving Mills saw those sheets and said something like, “Whoa! Hold on there, we can’t allow that. Why, once these characters find they can sell ‘St. James Infirmary’ there’ll be no stopping the rest of the world.” And he issued a legal complaint. Cease and desist. Immediately.

It seems that Denton and Haskins did not immediately cease and desist. They continued to sell the material (undercutting Mills’ price, yet) and ended up in court. Mills’ argument was that, sure, this song is known under a variety of names, but it is only popular as “St. James Infirmary.” If Mills could talk to us today he might say, “I created that title, I paid lots of money to advertise the song, to make it popular, and these characters are taking advantage of me, they are making money off my hard work.”

What Mills was arguing was that he had a proprietary interest in the title. He wanted Denton and Haskins to remove the words “St. James Infirmary” from the covers of the sheet music. It’s as if he was saying, “Let them sell it under the title ‘Gambler’s Blues’ and see how many copies it sells. Very few, I’ll bet.”

1931 Legal Brief

Cover of 1931 Legal Brief, courtesy Robert W. Harwood

Here are some interesting numbers from the first few pages of the documents I have:

On March 11th 1931 the Mills group stated that, to date, they had sold 37,000 copies of the sheet music with a retail price of between 25 and 30 cents a copy — the price to the dealer being 21 cents, and to the jobber 18 cents. (I believe a “jobber” was one who sold the music in the streets, or bought a large number of copies for distribution to newsstands and the like.) In addition to this piano/vocal score they had sold, since March 1929, 10,000 complete orchestral scores for which they received 30 cents a copy from dealers, 25 cents from jobbers. To that date Mills had licensed 16 companies in the United States, as well as 4 in Canada, to manufacture phonograph records and piano rolls. About 200,000 records had been sold so far.

Q: And that’s just from the first few pages. Is the rest of the transcript as interesting? (more…)

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Owning music

Since the subject of copyright and the conversion of music into an ownable commodity is very relevant to the story of “SJI” — having come up most recently in one of the entries in the ongoing Q&A with I Went Down To St. James Infirmary author Robert W. Harwood — I thought it was worth mentioning this:

Soup Greens points out the  travails of indie movie Sita Sings The Blues. Apparently the filmmaker used some 1920s recordings on the soundtrack. While the recordings are in the public domain, the compositions are not.

Filmmaker/cartoonist Nina Paley laid out the basics on her blog back in August:

Sita Sings the Blues includes 11 songs recorded by Annette Hanshaw in 1927-1929. The recordings themselves are not protected by Federal Copyright. The underlying compositions are. So we (my sales rep’s law firm, to whom I now owe additional thousands of dollars) approached the so-called music publishers to negotiate rights. After all demanded $500 per song to permit the film to play at festivals (for which I make no money and am in debt), here’s what they “estimate” for me to legally sell DVDs:

$15,000 to $26,000 per song.

Her working estimate of the total cost is about $220,000 — which she says exceeds the entire cost of the film itself.

Not being familiar with any of this until now, I’ve had to work backward a bit and may have some things wrong. But one interesting development seems to be that she has worked with Hanshaw fan record collectors to make available a free soundtrack of sorts — the 11 Hanshaw performances used in the film.

I’m not totally clear on the status of the film, I gather it is still on the festival circuit, where it has certainly been well-received. And Paley’s most recent post (as of this moment) is about Roger Ebert giving the film the proverbial thumbs-up.

Meanwhile, Paley has been radicalized on the subject of copyright law. October 3:

I don’t want the lesson others take from Sita to be “don’t do that!” My hope is that Sita shows that yes, you CAN do this. The film violates some immoral and unconstitutional laws, but it EXISTS. If I’d followed all the rules, the film would not exist. If you take a lesson from Sita, let it not be to fear creative expression; let it be that US copyright laws are broken.

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cover_sm_13-over[And now, Part 3 of this ongoing interview with Robert W. Harwood about his book I Went Down To St. James Infirmary. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.]

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.

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The other night I watched a short documentary about The Carter Family on PBS. It wasn’t the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, but given how little I really know about The Carter Family, it was somewhat educational. And it did have a few interesting moments. This related web site mentions one of the things I found interesting:

A.P. [Carter] provided the songs, traveling in ever widening circles in Appalachia to collect lyrics and melodies, then along with Sara and Maybelle “working them up” into something new and more modern.

The site has a show transcript, and here’s the relevant bit of how the documentary addressed this:

Narrator: To build a repertoire for the next recording session, A.P. relied heavily on the musical tradition of Poor Valley.

Barry Mazor: He did the subtle thing that might have been the most important. He got a hold of these songs. He found a way that would make them work cause they kind of knew what people would respond to. He changed them. He arranged them. He updated them.

Bill Clifton: And often he would say just well no, I didn’t write it I just kind of fixed it up. And that was his way of talking about making an arrangement he fixed it up.

Carter Family Singing, Archival Film: Lord I told the undertaker, “Undertaker, please drive slow, for this body you are hauling…”

Bill Clifton: When he fixed them up he fixed them up right. Everybody who sings Will the Circle Be Unbroken sings the way A.P. fixed it up. And they don’t sing it the original way.

I suppose this is what happens with any traditional song, including “SJI” and its antecedents: It gets “fixed up” by somebody. In fact, “SJI” can be viewed as an extremely “fixed up” version of “The Unfortunate Rake.”

Of course, when “fixing up” intersects with copyright law, the upshot can be that the right fixer-upper, at the right time, gets credit (or at least future royalty streams) not just for any fixing up he or she did, but for all the fixing up built into the whole tradition of that song up to that moment.

In the specific case of “SJI,” it’s not completely clear how much fixing up the credited writer, “Joe Primrose” (Irving Mills), actually did. But leaving that aside for now, I’m reminded of the earlier observations of Mr. Robert Harwood, described in this post, about the “Redman” credit on the old Louis Armstrong “SJI” 45, and Don Redman’s apparent skill as an arranger. Perhaps he’s the fellow who’s “fixing up” is most important to the song’s history….

Which isn’t to say other musicians  shouldn’t keep adding their own fixes. And I’m sure they will.

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[Here is Part 3 of the Rolling Jelly Series]

In the first — and admittedly way too long — installment of the Rolling Jelly series, I recounted some of what Jelly Roll Morton had to say about authorship and intellectual property issues. There is one footnote on that from Alan Lomax’s 1949 interviews with other New Orleans musicians who knew Morton and his mileu.

Lomax asked Johnny St. Cyr about Morton’s songwriting. St. Cyr says that, yes, Morton wrote “Wolverine” and was playing it way back in 1906, well before it was published, as well as “Whining Boy.” Lomax also asked about “Tiger Rag:” “Jelly Roll seaid that he developed that tune.”

St. Cyr replied a little evasively that the Dixieland Jazz Band and was the first outfit he heard playing it, supposed to be there number. Lomax pursued this and St. Cyr said:

Well, I’ll tell ya. Those boys, they learned their instruments down here, and they picked up pretty much, their numbers from parts from differetn numbers down here, made up thee tunes. That Tiger Rag was nobody’s particular melody. It was a combination of several different melodies they picked up and just put ‘em together.

Kind of remind me off Blind Willie McTell explaining that for “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” which he suggested he’d written over a few-year period, “I had to steal music from every which a-way to get it, get it to fit.”

<–Part 2 / Part 4–>

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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.”


Part Two –>

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Here is the final installment in a four-post series drawn from an interview with A Rake’s Progress author Robert W. Harwood. (Here are Parts One, Two, and Three.)

The way we first connected, as I recall, is that you helped me out with an open question I’d had in early versions of the “St. James Infirmary” essay, about who on earth “Moore-Baxter” (credited as the writer on Fess Williams’ 1927 recording of “Gambler’s Blues”) might be. As you write in A Rake’s Progress, Moore-Baxter refers to Carl “Squeakin’ Deacon” Moore and Phil Baxter. Moore, a drummer, and Baxter, a band-leader best known for writing novelties.

I was curious about this Moore-Baxter credit for the Fess Williams song, of course, but was unable to find very much. But one day I got lucky while searching the web. Just happened to put in the right request. I came across a remarkable site devoted to old hillbilly music (Hillbilly-Music.com) which, even now, is the only one I’ve found with any information about Moore. It also made mention of Baxter — and he was a bit easier to research, although he’s something of a forgotten jazz man. They both have interesting stories. I really left it at that for a year or so, until my curiosity resurfaced. I mean, what if they did actually write the song? It seemed unlikely, but Baxter had penned some famous (at the time) tunes, that were performed by a wide range of artists — Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Rudy Vallee, Benny Goodman, Bob Wills . . . But there’s a big divide between “Gambler’s Blues” and “Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas,” or “Faded Summer Love.” And, you know, “Gambler’s Blues” just doesn’t sound like a composed song. But, who knows? Much is made of Armstrong’s 1928 “St. James Infirmary” and Ellington’s and . . . but this was the first known recording of it, and it’s been virtually ignored. Did Irving Mills actually steal the song from Moore and Baxter? I tried to find out.

My first step was to contact the webmaster, Dave Sichak, of that hillbilly site. It’s amazing how helpful people can be. He sent me scans of some articles about Carl Moore and, in a later email, asked if I was aware of a recent book called Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop — A History, in which Baxter is mentioned (very briefly) as the author of “G.B.” I ordered the book, tracked down one of the authors, Chuck Haddix, who — again remarkably helpful — mailed me some old news clippings about Phil Baxter and directed me to a Kansas City librarian, Mary Beveridge. So now I had information that Baxter claimed he had privately published “Gambler’s Blues” in Texas, possibly in 1926, and that he was in some litigation with a New York publisher over the copyright.

Following that I have exchanged emails with quite a few people, hoping to track down Baxter’s original score. Some of these people are authorities on the music of the time — who did, more often than not, refer me to other experts. One of these, Bruce Nemerov, informed me that “privately published” could well mean little more than paying a publishing house to print out a handful of copies for personal distribution. So it’s been a real needle-in-a-haystack search. And not very fruitful. But I still have a few inquiries out there.

One afternoon it occurred to me that, perhaps, I was looking in the wrong place.

A kind of serendipity led me to a law librarian at the New York City Appellate Court. He was, again, more helpful than I had any right to expect. Now I have copies of court rulings from the early 30s that, although they don’t much illuminate the Moore-Baxter question, do cast some light on “St. James Infirmary” as an owned song. I don’t want to reveal more than that, as the pieces are still coming together. But it has spurred me on to rewriting A Rake’s Progress — the title might have to change, though, as “SJI” has emerged as the real core of the book.

And then, Rob, you reminded me of Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag which, while published in 1927, was completed by 1926. The Songbag features three versions of “Those Gambler’s Blues.” Since Sandburg was collecting traditional folk songs for this book, it is indeed unlikely that anyone as recent as Carl Moore and Phil Baxter could have created it. Your postings of those 1924 “Charleston Cabin” recordings reinforces that. There is so little known of “SJI” prior to its first recordings. As you wrote about “SJI” in Letters From New Orleans, “It’s startling to look back less than 100 years in search of answers, only to confront the unknowable.”

(By the way, you can’t find any CDs today with Moore’s music, although a few old recordings do exist. Baxter can be found on CDs like Jazz The World Forgot or Hottest Stuff You Never Heard. Neither recorded “Gambler’s Blues.”)

And finally: What do you do when you’re not researching the “St. James Infirmary” and “Gambler’s Blues” and related matters?

What do I do? After writing the book, I started to teach myself how to play guitar, and now can manage (easily arguable, this) a reasonable facsimile of “Gambler’s Blues” — my approach to the song keeps changing. For the past half-dozen years I’ve worked in an outpatient rehabilitation clinic specializing in geriatrics; the best staff I’ve ever worked with, and the clientele are a delight (a goodly number remember “SJI,” but are more likely to have been familiar with Cab Calloway. That is, even though many are in their 80s, “St. James Infirmary” was a bit before their time, and so the 1940s music of Cab Calloway and his contemporaries (Benny Goodman, et al) was something they were more likely to have paid attention to). I take many, many photographs (and have actually sold a handful). I live with my 19-year-old son and my wife (we will be celebrating our first anniversary in May) in southern Ontario.

My sincere thanks to Robert Harwood for his thoughtful answers to my barrage of questions. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the revised and expanded version of his book A Rake’s Progress (perhaps under a new title), which he aims to complete in the fall, or thereabouts. To be notified when it is done and available for purchase at a very reasonable price, contact him at robertharwood@rogers.com. I recommend this.

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To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been much of a Roger McGuinn fan. I don’t even find much pleasure in Sweetheart of the Rodeo, even after years of trying (on the theory that so many people with good taste seemed to like it so much). Nevertheless, McGuinn does have a version of “St. James Infirmary” that’s worth a mention here. His take is part of “The Folk Den Project,” which he began in 1995, and which entailed him recording and posting for free download a series of more than 100 folk songs over a period of 10 years. Recently he put a bunch of these recordings together in a four-CD box set. Here is his “St. James Infirmary.”

There’s definitely something to be said about the parallels between Internet culture and folk culture, but I haven’t quite worked it out yet. Folk expression (and of course I think “St. James Infirmary” is a good example) tends to have a kind of collective authorship. There’s an awful lot of rhetoric about the Internet and other technologies enabling something similar — “open source” projects (from Linux to Wikipedia) that not only allow, but encourage, even depend on, the collaboration of and contributions of many people. People talk about this like it’s something without precedent, but to me, “St. James Infirmary” has a very open source kind of history to it; it has, in my view, no single author. And as discussed in prior entries on Dr. John and Josh White, long after its evolution from “Unfortunate Rake” and “Gambler’s Blues,” the song remains a source of raw material for new creations. Anyway, the Internet has definitely added something new to the long-standing tension between group authorship and individual authorship, but (as admitted above) I haven’t totally worked it out. (McGuinn shared his thoughts about that tension in this April 2004 interview with the Creative Commons folks; click through and scroll down.)

Anyway, The Wall Street Journal ran a short piece about McGuinn’s box set the other day, and in the interview McGuinn explained that the project came about because:

“I thought, ‘This is a great opportunity to get some of these songs up there to share with people around the world. It’s a grass roots thing, and I love the Internet for that, and also more one-on-one. Sitting in front of a computer, it’s more like the oral tradition, with somebody singing the song to you, than it is if you’re being broadcast at by TV.”

Interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about the notion of sitting in front of a computer as being a more authentic listening experience than sitting in front of a television set. But by and large I like the ideology of McGuinn’s project. It’s great to use new tools to make new things.

On the other hand, sometimes the obsession with novelty comes at a cost of overlooking the past. I think it’s cool to use new tools to explore and rediscover old things. But you probably guessed that.

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