[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.
Mills 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.”
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…)