Archive for the ‘Q&As’ 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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cover_sm_13-over[And now, Part 4 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, and Part 3 is here.]

Q: I want to get back to the legal wrangling, which was among the most eye-opening sections of I Went Down To St. James Infirmary, but first a quick digression.

You hipped me to this post detailing Louis Armstrong’s various takes on the song. Vis a vis the 1928 recording, the author remarks that the “record must have sold quite well because a score of ‘St. James Infirmary’ records hit the market in 1929 and 1930.” What do we — or can we — know about sales of that recording at the time? Was the Armstrong a “hit,” as they say?

A: One of the appendices in the book details the versions of the song that were released between February 25th, 1927 and December 23rd, 1930. Armstrong’s version was recorded on December 12th, 1928, but wasn’t released until February of 1929. The Primrose copyright was registered on March 4th. The next versions didn’t appear until October — by The Hokum Boys — and then three more recordings were released the next month, including an instrumental version by Kansas City Frank. The song was really heating up the airwaves by this time, and seven or eight new versions appeared in January of 1930.

This was when Denton and Haskins released the sheet music labeled “St. James Infirmary or Those Gambler’s Blues also known as  St. Joe’s Infirmary.” [Below right.] Mills launched a law suit and simultaneously copyrighted — again as Joe Primrose — a new “St. James Infirmary,” as a variation on a traditional song, with new lyrics: “Tho’ she treated me mean and lowdown, Somehow I didn’t care, Now my soul is sick and weary, I hope we’ll meet again up there.” I think he did this as a cushion, in case Denton and Haskins won their right to market the sheet music. One of those January releases was by The Ten Black Berries (aka Duke Ellington and his Orchestra) with Mills himself — as “Sunny Smith” — handling the vocals.

Here I have to note that racially integrated music groups didn’t exist yet, although Mills had tried to put some racially mixed groups together in the recording studio. Part of the reason was discriminatory, but it was also due to the record companies insistence on classifying their releases; there was no category for this.

Anyway . . . Mills’ group, Mills’ Merry Makers, also released the song, with a sixteen-year-old Jack Teagarden handling the vocals. I remember, Rob, your comments on this version in Letters from New Orleans: Jack “delivers a take that works so hard to get the verb tense right that it sounds like a grammar teacher delivered it” and he thereby “misses the mysticism and the nastiness” in the song. That’s good. Both these versions — The Ten Black Berries (using the Armstrong/Redman arrangement) and Mills’ Merry Makers — were based on the second copyrighted version.

sji-sheet-music-cover-1930-8x12x721Eight more recordings came out before the end of 1930. I mean, this song was really hopping! By March of 1930 — one year after Armstrong’s version hit the streets — over 37,000 copies of the sheet music had been sold by Gotham Music Service, Inc. (the publishing arm of Mills Music). It was a valuable commodity, and continued to gain value. Within two years of its release it had sold over 200,000 records and was considered one of the hottest sheet music sellers in the country.

These were really big numbers for the 1930s. It was the start of The Depression. Victor’s total record sales had dropped by over 50% between 1929 and 1930, and in 1931 were a third of the previous years’ sales. But “SJI” was like a galloping race horse, nothing seemed to impede its momentum. Armstrong’s version remained the model, and was undoubtedly one of the biggest hits of those early Depression years.

That’s interesting. I’ve always had trouble gauging the “hit” level — I knew enough about the way the “song plugger” stuff worked, and the sort of overlap between sheet music and actual record sales as revenue streams (I think that transition was in its final phase by this time), and it always made wonder if a lot of versions was a sign of a hit, or just a sign that something was being pushed. So I’d never never seen sales figures before —  there wasn’t like a Billboard Top 40 in those days, was there? Was it hard to locate that data, number of records sold, sheet music sold?

I would love to get hold of sales sheets for OKeh around this time. I’ve got no idea if they exist, though, and no idea how to locate them if they do. I got most of those numbers from a 1930s court case, where lawyers for Gotham/Mills Music were showing what a valuable commodity they had in “St. James Infirmary.”

All those variations of “SJI” that emerged at the end of 1929 and then through 1930 were definitely a sign of its popularity. Not everybody could afford Armstrong’s recording of the song. Many of the alternate versions were marketed through budget labels. The two released by Duke Ellington, for instance, were for budget labels. These would go for 25 or 50 cents a record, as opposed to around a dollar for a “premium” recording like Armstrong’s OKeh release. This is why Ellington used pseudonyms — if he released premium recordings and also budget recordings under his own name, he would be in competition with himself; sales of his more expensive records would slip.

So, as The Ten Black Berries, the Ellington orchestra released three separate takes of “SJI” (all recorded on the same day) on a number of budget labels including Romeo (sold exclusively in the S.H. Kress & Co. department stores), Oriole (sold through the McCrory store chain), and Conqueror (sold through Sears, Roebuck). These budget releases also included records made from a flexible “Durium” material (a kind of shellac-covered cardboard) and sold from newsstands throughout New York City for about 15 cents. The public didn’t know who a lot these performers were; it was the song that was the draw.

Mattie Hite did a fine version of “St. James Infirmary” — which she called “St. Joe’s Infirmary.” She recorded it in January of 1930, so this was in the very early days of the song’s recording history. “SJI” had already made a mark, though, and I think people bought her record because it was “SJI,” not because it was by Mattie Hite. Hite did not record many songs, about eight altogether, and while she was something of a local draw she did not have an established reputation. Much is made of Mattie Hite’s recording. I’ve read that she had a chance of making herself better known through this song, but was knocked out of contention by the popularity of Cab Calloway’s release. I really have my doubts about that. Almost a year (and ten other versions) separated Hite from Calloway. Hite’s version contains eleven verses, it clocks in at three minutes (the maximum that a 78 rpm record could hold) and she sounds just a little chipmunk-like, as if it had been sped up in order to fit it all on the record. Anyway, she was one of many lesser-known or pseudonymous performers who recorded the song in those early years. Although stars such as Gene Austin and King Oliver also had versions on the market. It would be really interesting to know how well these individual versions sold, but I don’t know of any surviving record for that sort of information.

But, Rob, to get back to your question: How big a hit was SJI in, say, 1929 or 1930? I don’t think we can know for sure. We can deduce, based upon the available evidence, that it did very well indeed. But they weren’t collecting music sales data then as they are today; there were no Soundscan or Billboard charts. Billboard had been around for quite a while, as an entertainment magazine, but it didn’t post its first chart until 1936 (listing the most-played songs on several radio networks) while its first chart of best-selling records didn’t appear until 1940.

In those days, as you said, its popularity would have to be gauged through sheet music sales as well as record sales. Sheet music sales of 37,000 copies in a year would have made it a valuable bit of merchandise, but not a runaway success. I’d guess that Armstrong’s release of the more socially acceptable song “When You’re Smiling” at around the same time sold more records. But I’d also guess that “When You’re Smiling” did not generate the numbers of budget recordings that “SJI” did. If we could add up the total sales of the twenty recordings released in 1929 and 1930, how would those compare with sales of Armstrong’s version alone?

Having said all that, Rob, I’ve just run across a book that lists the top pop songs from 1890 to 1954. This is an ambitious project, and many of the lists must be educated guesses. Still, Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music places Armstrong’s SJI at #15 in 1929, King Oliver’s at #9 in 1930, and Cab Calloway’s at #3 in 1931.

Maybe someone who reads this will know the actual numbers of records sold. I’d sure like to hear from them.

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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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[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.



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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cover_sm_13-overI’ve already mentioned that Robert W. Harwood recently published a fascinating and entertaining book, I Went Down To St. James Infirmary, choc full of new discoveries and fresh insights about the song that this blog is (mostly) about. I’m pleased today to begin a Q&A series with Mr. Harwood about that book. I had lots of question and thoughts about it, of course, but decided that rather than overhwhelm you with one humongous interview, I’d spread thigns out, and go one question at a time, in a way that works for my schedule and Mr. Harwood’s. I think it’ll be more fun and surprising this way — not to mention more open-ended. So we’ll see where it goes!

It starts here, with a question about “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” a tune many people (like me) had thought was Blind Willie McTell’s unique reinvention of “SJI.”

Q: One of your many original discoveries is that “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” is not, as I among many others had assumed, Blind Willie McTell’s re-invention of SJI. Turns out the way he sings that song is almost identical to the way Porter Grainger wrote it years earlier. How did you make that particular discovery?

A: It was a real shock to me when I found out about the earlier versions of Crapshooters’ Blues, Rob, but in retrospect it’s surprising that this is not generally known. I assume part of the reason is that McTell was very convincing when he said to John Lomax on a 1940 recording, “This is a song that I wrote myself . . .” and then in a 1956 recording, to Ed Rhodes,  “I started writing this song in twenty-nine, tho’ I didn’t finish it — I didn’t finish it until 1932 . . .” In other words, there is no reason to look for a song’s composer if we know who the composer is.

The first book that I wrote about “St. James Infirmary,” A Rake’s Progress, made the assumption that McTell was completely responsible for “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues.” In fact, the entire history of “St. James Infirmary” as we know it is rife with incorrect assumptions. In the first months after I had finished A Rake’s Progress I discovered that much of what I had written was incorrect. That book followed the well-trodden path, but as I looked more closely at the “facts,” the tale started to unravel. Realizing that one can accept nothing on assumption, I started to reinvestigate the history of the song and rewrite the book. In part, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary is an attempt to correct the record — to place the song in a more accurate historical context.

And so, in this second phase of research, nothing was taken for granted. If I read, for instance, that Irving Mills was born on such-and-such a date, I checked the census records. Regarding the origins of “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” the information has been fairly easily available since the mid-nineties. In 1990 the Document record label was created by Johann Ferdinand Parth, with the notion of reproducing the complete recorded output of blues and gospel singers from the late 19th century to the early 1940s. This was an immense project to be sure, but by 1995 two of the CDs Document released contained versions of “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” that had been recorded in 1927. This was two years before McTell claimed he started writing the song, thirteen years before he first recorded it.

These artists remain pretty obscure even today, though, and are unlikely to enter the collections of people interested in the likes of McTell, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and so on. Some listeners might even consider them to be jazz songs. I think the jazz folk and the blues folk don’t cross into each other’s territory that often — which is odd, seeing as it was all mixed together in a bubbling gumbo at the beginning of time, in the 1920s.

Anyway, I actually found one or two of these old recordings on the jazz site www.redhotjazz.com. In the process of checking all my “facts,” I entered “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” in their search box and was given a list of artists to search including Ma Rainey, Lucille Bogan, Ida Cox and a host of others who never recorded the song. But eventually it turned up, as did the name of the original composer. As you know, Rob, Porter Grainger is an interesting character. He’s one of those people who have almost been rejected by history, but about whom small scraps of information can still be found. But there’s very little out there. I think the bit I wrote about him in I Went Down to St. James Infirmary triples what was previously known about Grainger.

When I learned about the authorship of “Crapshooter’s Blues” I was excited, of course. But I was simultaneously dismayed. By all reports, McTell was an honest, bright, and well-intentioned man. He did not, however, write that song, and yet he was adamant that he did. This symbolically underscores the relationship we have with everything of potentially commercial value. If something — be it an object, an idea, or a song — can be “owned,” it can be sold. The incessant flogging of songs, particularly when the song grew of its own accord, emerging out of the earth, seems wrong. If enough people can be made interested in something, it’s worth selling. Often it’s worth stealing. And that leaves me wondering if that’s just the way we are, or have we somehow lost our way?

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

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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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Barry Lee Pearson has been teaching a course on ballads and folk songs at the University of Maryland for about 30 years, and a course on blues songs for almost as long. He’s also written a number of books, and overseen several CD compilations, including the recent “Classic African-American Ballads.” (It includes the Snooks Eaglin version of “SJI.”)

As he writes in the accompanying notes, that collection’s goal is “to reacquaint the listener with a relatively neglected body of African-American folksong.” He draws a distinction between these “story songs” and the blues, and defines the ballad in this context as “a song that tells a story, comes in short verses (with or without a refrain), and is sung to a short, repeated melody.”

Most of the selections are African-American compositions; “St. James Infirmary” is one of four that are “adopted from British traditions.” (The others are “The Gallis Pole,” “Mouse on the Hill,” and “Stewball.”) Pearson writes that the heyday of the African-American ballad was the period from 1885 to 1925, an era of black migration from the rural South to cities from St. Louis to New York. He goes on to explain other factors that led to the neglect of these ballads as a particular form: many were covered and reworked by white singers, and many scholars were put off by “the lack of a cohesive chronological storyline … misread[ing] improvisation as forgetfulness or confusion.” But in Pearson’s view, one of the great traits of these ballads is the way individual singers altered them.

Barry Lee Pearson was kind enough to spend some time on the phone recently, answering a few questions I had. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Did you have specific songs in mind at the beginning of the process of putting this together?

I approached Smithsonian Folkways, wanting to do a ballads CD. African-American ballads, while they were kind of central to folk-song scholarship thirty or forty years ago, have kind of fallen by the wayside as people have become focused on blues. My constraint was that I essentially had to use the Smithsonian folkways catalog, so what I wound up using was different than some of my initial ideas.

And was “St. James Infirmary” on the list from the beginning?

I have to admit when I started I was probably thinking more of African-American compositions. But the more I thought about it, I realized it was more important to do a representation of the songs that were in the African-American repertoire. “St. James Infirmary” was strongly an African-American song, even though its earliest roots came from Britain. It was adapted so much by African-Americans. As soon as it got localized – perhaps in New Orleans – and especially after the Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong versions, big hit versions, it really resonated with the African-American community.

I first heard John Cephas sing it, back in the 1980s. It was so central to his repertoire, that song used to tear him up on stage, his version was so soulful.

I liked what you had to say in the liner notes about how some scholars would say such-and-such doesn’t make narrative sense, so that’s a problem. But those weren’t errors, it was a different context.

It’s interesting to me, the more I work on this. There’s a lot of interesting transitions from ballads to blues, from the Anglo European perspective to the African-American perspective, and the aesthetics of what constitutes a good song. But it’s pretty clear to me from the earliest writings that Anglo Europeans or white Americans did on African-American music, that they really had very little understanding of the concept of improvisation, or of suiting a song to the context. They’d always be asking people, “Where’d you learn that song? How’d you learn a song about what’s happening now?”

It doesn’t mean there wasn’t improvisation in European songs as well. But African-American tradition was so directed to group participation, and the event, it put a high premium and value on being able to come up with your own version of the song that suited the occasion. Especially for dancing audiences, being able to keep the song going as long as you could — people wanted that.

I guess the other factor is the legal system: Someone just claims the writing credit under the law, whatever the tradition.

It’s a problem that you run into all the time. In those days, that’s just what you did, until someone called you out. For a lot of these songs, you’ll find that they have hundreds of copyright applicants. And a lot of people would claim a song because it really was their version – like “John Henry,” people would say “Yeah, I wrote that, that’s my way of doing it.” The legal system is one thing, and what happens in a tradition is another.

Clearly storytelling in song, the folk tradition, goes back quite a ways. Is that something that black musicians began doing in the context of the United States, or were they drawing on a different African narrative tradition?

African narrative songs are a little bit different. They’re a lot like what you might think of in European tradition as epic songs – really long, long narratives. There’s hundreds and hundreds of those throughout Africa.

The ballad has specific characteristics: the short verse, sung to the repeated melody, and coming in a specific stanza format. As far as I’m concerned, despite the fact that most blues artists will say a blues song tells a story, it’s a very different type of story. It’s more like a person thinking about something out loud. In other words, in a ballad, you’re going to have actions occurring. Often somebody gets killed. In a blues song, a person’s going to threaten to kill somebody if they don’t get right. But with some exceptions, it doesn’t occur. It’s a person thinking about what might happen in the future, not a straightforward description, “Here’s what happened.”

Also you’ll find a sort of more cause-and-effect format in a lot of ballads, like “Stagolee.” And the blues songs, because it’s a much more ritualistic form, it’s designed for people to think about the situation they’re in, and maybe offer potential directions – you might change, I might change – that’s where a blues song is going to end. In the ballads you have a narrative that describes something that occurred.

Does the ballad have a geographic home base, as people link Mississippi to the blues, and New Orleans to jazz?

It’s an interesting question, because you find ballads in a lot of places. Many of them are urban songs, and if I were to really look at a pathway where the tradition seems to be strongest, it would be along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Louisville, Cincinnati maybe, and then especially St. Louis and Memphis. The river pathway seems to be one of the strongest ways these works were disseminated.

I also think piano players were important. At least at one time, they were the ones creating a lot of these narratives. Like Jelly Roll Morton, in his recordings for Alan Lomax, has one called “The Murder Ballad” –

I just heard that! It’s amazing, it goes on for thirty minutes.

Right. And that indicates to me that this was a format people were familiar with. And you find similar things with some other piano players who are more blues artists. I think this was a tradition, not unique to piano players, but at one point in time they were familiar with this idiom, so they could talk about local events, in a tavern, maybe if it was in Memphis, and a local celebrity or hero got into a scrape or whatever, yeah, they could come up with a song about it.

You also compare the ballad form to rap.

That came about through talking about it in class, especially when hip hop first came along and people complained about how violent it was. I would say, “If you want to hear something violent, listen to some of the Child Ballads.”

The real connection to me would be the connection to urban music, talking about street life, semi-improvised, using a lot of the same themes. I do think there’s a strong correlation.

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