Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lady Day and SJI

Here is an example of song borrowing that used St. James Infirmary as its model. Billie Holiday, it seems, really liked the song and wanted something similar but 'original' that she could take into the recording studio. The result was a song called "Tell Me More" based on SJI but with writing credit to Holiday herself. Holiday recorded the song in 1940.

In his book Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, Donald Clarke quotes songwriter Arthur Herzog. Herzog is recalling the encounter beween Billie Holiday, himself, and his songwriting partner Danny Mendelsohn which led to the writing of the 'new' song:

"She came rushing in to Danny. She was a great artist, but creative - no. She said to Danny, 'Danny, I've got a great tune, take it down for me.’ And she sings, da-daing, 'St. James Infirmary'. So Danny says, ‘Yes, Billie, it’s a great tune, but it's St James Infirmary' .' ‘Oh, Danny, bend it a little for me, bend it.' So Danny took out his pencil, put it in blues time, four/four, attached a bridge to it and said, 'All right Arthur, give me some words.' So I popped the first thing that came into my mind: 'Tell me more and more and then some', inane kind of thing, so we scratched this underneath and forgot about it completely. Six months went by, and there's a record out - 'Tell Me More', words and music by Billie Holiday, sung by Billie Holiday, accompanied by the Billie Holiday Orchestra - of which there was no such thing, of course. There it was. 'Danny, what are we going to do about this? This idiot friend has done this to us and the song isn't worth a goddam.’ I mean, 'St. James Infirmary'. After she died, Herbie Marks called me up and said. 'I seem to remember that you had something to do with this song, and I'd like to do something with it,' and I said, 'Herbie, I can't prove anything, but this song was written by yours truly and the late Danny Mendelsohn.’ That's how it happened. It never made any money."

Donald Clarke continues: "Herzog is being unfair to their own hackwork, to say nothing of using the word ‘creative' in a very limited sense. Lady had commissioned the song and even told them how to write it; of course they should have got some credit. The song has a strong blues feeling, and its lingering resemblance to ‘St. James Infirmary' doesn't hurt a bit, so that it sounds as though you've heard it before but can't remember where. The way the words fall is pleasing, and with the arrangement's stop-time moments and a solo from Teddy, it's an unusual love song and a nice record."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Song and Dance

The versions of “St. James Infirmary” that appeared in Carl Sandburg’s collection of traditional American songs (The American Songbag – ©1927) were written in 6/8 time. They were ballads. One of the significant differences between these songs and the recordings that both included and followed the 1928 Louis Armstrong recording was a change in rhythm – to 4/4 time. With this change in rhythm the song had become danceable. More specifically, one could dance the foxtrot to it.

The foxtrot originated around 1914 in vaudeville, by dancer Harry Fox. As part of his act Fox was executing trotting steps to ragtime music. Referred to as "Fox's trot" the dance was set to a broken rhythm (slow-slow-quick-quick). Bit by bit the dance moves changed, and with remarkable speed the foxtrot came to dominate the dancehalls and the music scene.

The foxtrot became the dance phenomenon of the 1920s. And the 1930s. And the 1940s. One could whirl around the dance floor, or one could execute the steps in the crush of a crowded venue, dancing (oh, dear!) close together and more or less in place. In those days, before television and computer games and tupperware parties, people danced. Dancehalls were everywhere. It might not be too great an exaggeration to say that dancehalls littered the landscape like Starbucks franchises in the 21st century. Irene and Vernon Castle, the exhibition ballroom dancers pictured here, were among the main celebrities of the day. In fact, by including the scandalous foxtrot in their routines, they sped its popularity.

The "St. James Infirmary" we know was partly shaped by the passion for dance that swept the nation and the world in the decades after the First World War. The song had already become something of a dancehall staple before it entered the recording studio, coming north with traveling musicians looking for work with the big bands. As musician Claude Austin said in 1931 (as transcribed by a court stenographer):

“Well, if there was any lapse in the dancing and the entertainment that was going on, the boss had a way of playing things that they used to call the Rocks, and the Rocks is the same thing as you call the Blues now, and this just happened to fall into that category. It was just one of those things that you did not need any music for, because there was no music for it, that they were able to pick up at the time while they were searching for something else to play of a popular trend, but at that time it was just a general piece we would play, ‘St. James Infirmary.’”

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Charleston Cabin - our earliest link?

Although “St. James Infirmary” is undoubtedly a very old song, very few traces can be found that predate Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording. There is the Fess Williams recording of “Gambler’s Blues” the previous year, of course. And Carl Sandburg’s inclusion of two versions of “Those Gambler’s Blues” in his book The American Songbag – also from 1927. A song with lyrical similarities can be found in song collector Dorothy Scarborough’s On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs. We shall no doubt discuss that one further in a future post, but even if we acknowledge a direct connection that only takes us back to 1925, the year her book was copyrighted.

When researching “St. James Infirmary” I found anecdotal evidence that placed the song in minstrelshows around 1916, but not much that was more substantial than that. A little over two years ago, though, Rob Walker posted an interesting discussion about a song titled “In a Charleston Cabin.” It's well worth reading. "In a Charleston Cabin" was recorded – extensively – in 1924. Nothing in the lyric is reminiscent of our song, but the melody reminds one of “St. James Infirmary.” We don’t know, of course, if the melody was borrowed from SJI - but at the very least this extends our excavations back to 1924. (Since writing this over four years ago, I have uncovered much that places the SJI lyric much closer to the turn of the 20th century - RwH.)

For those of you who can read music, I am posting the sheet music to “Charleston Cabin” below. I would be most interested in any comments regarding how closely you find it resembles “St. James Infirmary.” By clicking on the images, you should be able to view larger, readable versions of the files.













Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Carl "Deacon" Moore advertisement

I thought it would be interesting to post a few old newspaper advertisements.

This one, from 1937, announces that on Sunday, for 40 cents a person, Carl "Deacon" Moore and his famous orchestra will be the grand special attraction. The woman pictured is Marge Hudson, one of the singers in his band. She is presented in this ad as "The singing artist's model. An exotic beauty of Spanish type."

But the most interesting part of this advertisement is the announcement that Carl Moore is the composer of "St. James Infirmary," "Bye Bye Blues," and "Ding Dong Daddy." As I've noted in earlier posts, Moore always maintained that he wrote the lyrics for "St. James Infirmary." A 1935 newspaper article, announcing the upcoming appearance of Moore and his orchestra, stated: "Moore and Phil Baxter were responsible for many popular melodies being composed. Among them were "Ding Dong Daddy," "St. James Infirmary," "Ride 'em Cowboy."

Louis Armstrong - St. James Infirmary advert

This advertisement, appearing in a February 1929 Texas newspaper, shows that the language of the minstrel shows was far from dead.

"Hot dancing . . .
"See dis Strutter!
"He's jess like that. Jess like that! And he don't give a doggone whut you say 'bout his clothes.
"Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five are playing No. 8657
"'St. James Infirmary,' 'Save It Pretty Mama.' Fox trots."

It's interesting that, unlike the ad below, this one does not talk about the music. It does suggest, though, that if you owned this record you might very well be a real cool cat.

King Oliver - St. James Infirmary advert

King Oliver recorded "St. James Infirmary" on January 28, 1930. This was the same day, in the same studio that Gene Austin recorded the song. (Their sessions were probably back-to-back; Oliver's catalog no. is 22298, Austin's 22299.) The ad on the left, for Oliver's record, appeared in a March 1930 newspaper:

"Here's a blazing, blistering 'blues' melody, brimful of primitive rhythm and plaintive fervor. Down in the land of cotton they've been singing it for two decades or more; it's the kind of tune you simply can't forget. Come around and listen to this record by King Oliver and His Orchestra. You'll give ear to some of the 'meanest' trumpet playing you've ever heard in your life."

There's no hint here that Oliver was on his way out. Gum disease was making it harder and more painful for him to play the trumpet. Henry Allen and Bubber Miley handle most if not all of the trumpet parts on this record. Still, this is one of my favourite versions of the song. From the opening bells it has a thoroughly composed feel, and yet it is full of vitality.

Other Victor artists mentioned on this advert include Rudy Valee and Maurice Chevalier.

honey, where you been so long?

This is quite incredible. I stumbled across a blog this evening where something like 110 versions of "St. James Infirmary" have recently been posted. Called honey, where you been so long, the site specializes in prewar blues, and has all sorts of pages devoted to, oh, female blues singers, country blues, field recording, and so on. Certainly worth a look.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Irving Mills: Song Plugger

Even as vice-president of Mills Music, president of Gotham Music Service, and music impresario extraordinaire, Irving Mills remained a song plugger at heart. He was a teenager when he first got into the music business and, together with his brother Jack, spent his early years pushing for the success of newly published songs. In 1919 Jack received a $500 bonus for his efforts in publicizing the song Dardanella (and creating, in the process, possibly the first sheet music million seller). This became the seed money for Mills Music, Inc.

In the late 19th century pluggers were known as "boomers," for their ability to belt out a song that could be heard over long distances. They would often sing through megaphones, with racks of sheet music for sale in front of them. Or sit at pianos behind 40 foot counters at the back of a department store, where shoppers could ask to hear samples of the sheet music on sale. By Mills' day the boomer had become a plugger. A good one would become a sort of advertising whirlwind who, in the words of Isaac Goldberg, "by all the arts of persuasion, intrigue, bribery, mayhem, malfeasance, cajolery, entreaty, threat, insinuation, persistence and whatever else he has, sees to it that his employer's music shall be heard."

One of the tools at Mills' command was the recording studio and radio. In 1925 he became probably the first to advertise a song over the radio, when he and one of the songwriters on his staff, Jimmy McHugh, calling themselves "The Hotsy Totsy Boys," performed "Everything is Hotsy Totsy Now." Song plugging for the new electronic age.

Once he secured the copyright to "St. James Infirmary" Mills ensured that it received the widest possible airplay - the greater the number of recordings out there the more likely it would be played, the more popular it would become, and the more copies it would sell. (Mills looked at popular music as having a very short shelf life.) So, between his copyright in March of 1929 and the end of 1930, at least 19 versions of the song were recorded. These included two by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra - managed by Mills. For these recordings they were known as the Ten Black Berries, and the Harlem Hot Chocolates. Irving Mills served as vocalist for that last one. Mills Merry Makers (created for recording purposes only), with musicians including Charlie and Jack Teagarden, Harry Goodman (brother of Benny), and Ruby Weinstein recorded a version. Mills could not have had any idea how eternally popular the song would become.

The Power of Song?

This headline graced The Charleston Gazette on March 22, 1936. I suspect a song plugger might have been responsible for it, but that's only a suspicion. The article does make one curious about the song, though.

The occasion was the imminent publication of the sheet music to a Hungarian song called "Gloomy Sunday." The article described it as "a melancholy song supposed to have driven 18 Hungarians to suicide since it was first heard in Budapest six months ago."

The article continued: "Possibly to keep people from diving off skyscrapers, the American music publishers have given it a 'happy ending,' with the soothing line: 'Dreaming - I was only dreaming.'
"Henry Spitzer, who handles the song for the publisher here, said sadly today:
"Some of the Hungarians are supposed to have jumped into the Danube with copies of 'Gloomy Sunday' clenched in their fists, and some turned the gas on after they heard it over the radio for the first time. Most of them left notes saying they felt like the song.
"But I believe Americans are good, sound, healthy stock, and aren't likely to go killing themselves because a sad song haunts them. After all, this is the country where 'St. James Infirmary Blues' made a big hit."

The article then printed the entire song lyric. This would seem to kill my theory that a song plugger was responsible for the article. But . . . the last paragraphs of this newspaper piece went as follows:

"The only known dissenter with Mr. Spitzer's hope that his happy ending will neutralize the gloominess of the song is Dr. William Marston, well-known psychologist. He says changing the words won't make any difference, explaining:
"It's not the words to a song that have an emotional impact. It's the music."

So, if you wanted the complete story, the full emotional experience, you had to purchase the sheet music.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Harry Smith Anthology as a Google Map by The Celestial Monochord

The Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music is one of the most influential collections of songs on the planet. Originally released in 1952 on 6 LP records, it is now available on a 6 CD set. Dave Van Ronk wrote that "without the Harry Smith Anthology we could not have existed, because there was no other way for us to get hold of that material."

The songs on this anthology were all recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. You can easily hear an example of musical borrowing by playing The Bentley Boys 1929 "Down on Penny's Farm" next to Bob Dylan's very early (1961) "Hard Times in New York Town." Anyway, this map is an attempt to show "the geographical origin of each cut on Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology." It appears on the site of The Celestial Monochord - Journal of the Institute for Astrophysics and the Hillbilly Blues.

Copyright Infringements Project

Fellow SJI enthusiast Rob Walker forwarded to me a letter he received from Charles Cronin. Mr. Cronin, among other things, runs a website from UCLA devoted to the question of music copyright infringement. This is a such a thorny issue. Music, of course, has a rich history of borrowing; that is essentially how new songs get written. But how to distinguish between borrowing and theft? And, are we in danger of mistaking the former for the latter, in danger of crippling the creative process in the service of business and profit?

This is an extraordinarily ambitious site. You can read an outline of a 1931-1932 court case that figures prominently in my book. This is in the "Case List" section, but it is also informative to browse the "Song List" section, where Mr. Cronin comments with both clarity and humour about specific songs. Read, for instance, his comments on the (in)famous case of "He's So Fine" vs. "My Sweet Lord."

Phil Baxter

Phil Baxter was a prolific and successful song-writer. Among his better known compositions we can include "Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas," "Piccolo Pete" (and the follow-up, "Harmonica Harry" - both were early novelty hits for Ted Weems and his orchestra), and "A Faded Summer Love" (which was a hit for Bing Crosby in 1931).

Baxter also claimed co-authorship for "St. James Infirmary." He and Carl Moore actually published the song in 1925, but they neglected to apply for copyright. Baxter, a pianist, was unable to perform after 1933 because of arthritis. On the verge of his leaving for Texas, the Kansas City Journal-Post ran a long article about Baxter, one of the town's favourite musicians, which included this comment: "Baxter has had some litigation over the authorship of one song, which has been in circulation as 'St. James Infirmary,' but which he said he composed long ago and called 'Gambler's Blues.' He said he published it privately in Texas years ago, and that a New York publisher picked it up." That New York publisher was undoubtedly Gotham Music, whose president was Irving Mills.

Information about Phil Baxter is very hard to come by. Recordings of his can still be found on CD, but in compilations with titles like volume 2 of Jazz the World Forgot, or Texas and Tennessee Territory Bands. If anyone has information about Phil, or Carl Moore, I would love to hear from you. I understand that Baxter's friend, Cliff Halliburton, wrote a biography of Phil, but I have been unable to find it and suspect it was never published.

Marjorie Moore and "Deacon" Radio

Carl Moore was born in 1902. Marjorie Moore, who he married in 1941, is a warm and energetic woman of 92. She remains very affectionate towards Carl, saying "He was one neat guy - very kind and loving and caring." She wrote, "'St. James Infirmary' is a mystery to me, also. I always understood that Carl wrote the words to it." She also remembered "Carl telling me that someone took several songs to Chicago and sold them but did not put his name on them."
Margie sent me a number of photographs and press clippings, including this photo that I did not include in the book. This is Carl as a California country radio dj "The Squeakin' Deacon."
Moore's first radio job was an early morning show on Cincinnati's WLW radio station. This station was originally built to help sell radios and used such a powerful transmitter that it interfered with Canadian radio signals. From Cincinnati the Moore's moved to St. Louis (where Carl hosted a country show called "The Shady Valley Gang"). By 1947 the Moore's made California their permanent home. It is still possible to see Carl "The Squeakin' Deacon" Moore on some of the Bear Family videos of the 1950s country TV show, Town Hall Party, making brief appearances to tell jokes and advertise his Sunday morning amateur hour. On the August 8th, 1959 show you can not only see the Deacon telling a couple of his jokes, but also watch a 27 year old Johnny Cash doing an Elvis impersonation.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Introducing Carl "The Deacon" Moore

When, in 1927, Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra made the first recording of "St. James Infirmary" it had the title "Gambler's Blues." The record label showed a writing credit to Moore-Baxter. Carl Moore and Phil Baxter had published the song two years earlier, when both were members of Baxter's band.

Carl was a drummer. By 1927 he had left Baxter's band and was leading his own orchestra. Born in Arkansas, Carl Moore adopted the role of the hillbilly hick, injecting jokes and skits into all his performances. He recorded, for Decca, only four songs in his career - and while he performed "St. James Infirmary" throughout his band career, he never recorded the song.

During World War II, when it became impossible to maintain a touring orchestra, Moore became a radio disc jockey, specializing in the newly emerging country music. Moore always maintained that he wrote "St. James Infirmary."