Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Dick Robertson - St. James Infirmary mp3

This is a version of St. James Infirmary that, as far as I know, has never been heard except on the original 78 rpm records. It was made somewhere between late 1929 and late 1930 for Brunswick Records. Dick Robertson, the singer, was very popular in that period and recorded with a variety of bands including Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. It is possible that Irving Mills was his manager for a while, but of that I'm not positive.

If you look closely at the label you will notice that Robertson is referred to as "Comedian With Orchestra." (When Fess Williams performed "Gambler's Blues" in 1927, he was also listed as a Comedian on the record label.) Robertson's delivery might be a little exaggerated, but from my perspective - almost eighty years after the record was made - I don't hear anything that makes me want to chuckle. His take on the song is interesting in that he starts with the complete Armstrong lyric, then he incorporates the changes Mills/Primrose included in his second copyrighted version, and concludes with a verse that is peculiar to this recording. You can hear an mp3 by clicking: "Dick Robertson, St. James Infirmary" MP3.

Blind Willie McTell bio

Visitors to this site (and I know there are one or two) might not be aware that Michael Gray recently published a biography of Blind Willie McTell, Hand Me My Travellin’ Shoes: In Search of Blind Willie McTell (Bloomsbury, hardcover, 2007). It has just come out in paperback. Strangely, it is still only available in the UK.

A biography of McTell must have been a real challenge. Information about him has - until now - been uncertain and, depending upon one's source, contradictory. Michael Gray has accomplished a remarkable feat with this book, which will be a valuable and absorbing read for anyone interested in "roots" music, early blues, Blind Willie McTell or "St. James Infirmary." This is an important book about an important musician. The Sunday Times, for one, calls it “Shrewd, lucid and immensely well informed.”

McTell, of course, was responsible for resurrecting the remarkable SJI-influenced "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues." McTell actually did record "St. James Infirmary" - in a small Atlanta record store owned by Ed Rhodes. That was in 1956. Unfortunately the CD, Last Session, is incomplete, and so his rendition is not generally available. (Although in 2004 record producers Laurence Cohn and Marino De Silva teamed up to create a box set of McTell recordings that was to include the complete Ed Rhodes tape, the complete John Lomax recording session, and many other treats. People who got wind of this kept their eyes and ears open through 2004 and 2005 and 2006 . . . the web site finally went down in 2008. There are odd rumours afloat about the cause of the project's failure, but the much anticipated box set is dead - and one wonders when these items will come into the light.)

I ordered my copy of Gray's book from amazon.uk and was impressed by both the final cost and the speed of delivery.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Carl "Deacon" Moore - "Evolution Mama" mp3

Some of my earlier posts discussed Carl "Deacon" Moore, a fascinating personality who became a central character in my book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Pictured here with his orchestra in 1940, Moore (leaning against the piano) was credited as co-composer on Fess Williams' 1927 recording of "Gambler's Blues." Born and raised in Arkansas, Moore adopted the persona of the hillbilly hick in his performances. His drawling vocalizations contrasted appealingly with the smooth sounds of his orchestra. He made only four records, all during the same session for Decca records on August 9th, 1938. None of his recordings have ever been reproduced since those early 78s. In upcoming posts I shall make these recordings available - here's the first one.

"Evolution Mama" is Moore's strangest record. Referring to the controversy over evolution vs creation ("Evolution Mama, don't you make a monkey out of me") the song was written by Terry Shand . . . according to the credit on Moore's record label, anyway. The song had been recorded perhaps three times between 1925 and 1927, generally credited to Doc Dasher and Eddie Heywood. Since then it has been recorded by the Even Dozen Jug Band in 1964 (credited as a traditional tune).

By clicking on the song title below, you can hear Carl "Deacon" Moore and his orchestra perform "Evolution Mama" MP3 - the song is courtesy of Moore's wife, Marjorie Moore, and was transferred to tape for me by the big band historian Joseph E. Bennett.

Lyrics to "Evolution Mama"

Well old Lucian Burn had a gal, way down in Tennessee
Now, she told Lucian all about evolution
While she was sitting down on his knee
When one fine day she got gay and started steppin’ out
Well sir, then ol’ Lucian started a revolution
And the neighbours heard him shout

He said, Evolution Mama, Evolution Mama
He says, Honey Lamb don’t you make a monkey out of me
'Cause Evolution Mama don’t you think you’ve got me up a tree
I remember the time you had me nice and tame
and I was eating right out of your hand
But some sweet day I’m going to take dead aim
And knock that peanut whistle right off your stand

‘Cause Evolution Mama, sweet smellin’ mama
Listen here while I get you told
This is odd, but you ain’t no organ grinder
And I ain’t a hangin’ on your chain
He says I got me a razor and I got me a gun
And I’m gonna cut you if you stand still
And shoot you if you run

‘Cause Evolution Mama, sweet smellin’ mama
Don’t you make a monkey out of me
Says, I ain’t half man and I ain’t half beast
But I can do you more good than this here store-bought yeast
‘Cause Evolution Mama, sweet smellin’ mama
Don’t you make a monkey out of me

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Buell Kazee

I recently received a letter from Richard Jenkins, who lives in Sheffield, England. Richard is one of those rare souls who has made a study of SJI; he had just finished reading I Went Down to St. James Infirmary and was kind enough to write, "I've really enjoyed it! Brilliant." He then asked, "Where, in the whole saga, would you place 'Gambling Blues,' recorded on 16 Jan 1928 by Buell Kazee, from Eastern Kentucky?"

Buell Kazee is not a name one would easily forget, so I had to admit that I'd never encountered him before. Although that's not quite true. I am very familiar with songs on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music that were performed by Buell: "East Virginia," "The Butcher Boy," "The Wagoner's Lad." I'd never noted his name, though. Thanks to emusic.com I was able to download Gambling Blues and am amazed. This is, lyrically, very similar to the song that Carl Moore (from Arkansas) and Phil Baxter (from Texas) - both white musicians - put their names to and which Fess Williams recorded in March, 1927. Kazee's recording date of January 1928 makes it, chronologically, the second recording in the "St. James Infirmary" canon, effectively moving Louis Armstrong into third place.

Kazee hailed from Eastern Kentucky. For the sake of posterity he transcribed the traditional songs of his family and neighbours, and recorded about fifty of them between 1927 and 1929. His "Gambling Blues," while lyrically similar to "Gambler's Blues" and "St. James Infirmary" has a different melody, a kind of simple rhythmic chant reminiscent of mournful Appalachian ballads.

What does this mean? Certainly it gives credence to the notion that SJI was all over the map in the first decades of the twentieth century. Where did this version spring from, though? Perhaps "St. James Infirmary" was originally a hillbilly song - or came to America from Britain fully formed.

But "crapshooters," "jazz band" - do these sound like lyrics from an indigenous Appalachian song? Also, that sudden change - without transition - between the fourth verse (her funeral) and fifth verse (his funeral) is odd. It's as if the verse that usually starts "When I die I want you to bury me," had been misplaced. Perhaps the song was adopted by Tennessee townsfolk after a minstrel show breezed through the region. Kazee's discography from 1927-1929 contains cowboy songs and original compositions, so he was not recording only regional tunes; perhaps he'd simply picked this up on his travels. Perhaps . . . there could be any number of possibilities. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Lyrics to Kazee's "Gambling Blues"

I went down to Joe’s barroom
On the corner of the square
A goodly crowd had gathered
And the drinks were flowing there

I sat down by McKinney
His eyes were bloodshot red
He leaned to me and whispered
And this is what he said

I went down to the infirmary
And looked into a window there
Saw my girl stretched on a white bed
So cold, so pale, so fair

Sixteen coal black horses
Hitched to a rubber-tired hack
Took seven pretty girls to the graveyard
Only six of them came back

Six crapshooters for pallbearers
And a chorus girl to sing me a song
Put a jazz band on my hearse top
Let ‘em play as I roll along

And now my story’s ended
Give me one more drink of booze
And I’ll be on my way boys
For I’ve got those gamblin’ blues.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

St. James Infirmary, Willy the Weeper, and Minnie the Moocher

In the early days of his career Cab Calloway used “St. James Infirmary” as his signature song. By 1931 – when he was the house musician at the Cotton Club – he was looking for something new, something a little more original to serve as his theme. His manager Irving Mills, like many of the music makers of the day, owned a copy of Carl Sandburg’s recently published collection of American traditional songs, The American Songbag. He happened upon “Willy the Weeper” and used this as the foundation upon which to build a new song. (You can hear a 1927 recording of "Willy the Weeper" here.)

Willy hailed, probably, from the days of the Wild West – from the days when, as Alan Lomax put it, “taking dope was not regarded as a much more serious habit than drinking or chewing tobacco.” The song developed many variations, most of them adding verses that described further drug-induced dreams. Inevitably, though, Willy wakes up and, weeping, has to return to his mundane life and his mundane job.

Irving Mills claimed he wrote "Minnie the Moocher" himself. He completed it in a couple of hours, using one of the Mills Music house musicians to transcribe the melody. Calloway then, according to a 1933 newspaper interview with Mills, “injected his catching musical personality into the piece.” The song has writing credit to Mills, Clarence Gaskin and Calloway.

Willy was a chimney sweeper. Minnie was a red hot hootchie cootcher. Willy and Minnie were both hopeless addicts and the songs recounted their drug-induced dreams. Willy’s dreams took him to Bulgaria where the queen gave him a car with a diamond headlight and a silver steering wheel. Minnie wound up with the king of Sweden, who gave her a diamond car with a platinum wheel. The queen of Bulgaria had a million dollars in nickels and dimes which she’d counted a million times. The king of Sweden gave Minnie a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes which Minnie sat around and counted a million times.

In both Calloway's 1931 and (especially) 1933 recordings, one listens to the orchestral introduction expecting to hear "St. James Infirmary." But then, as Calloway starts singing, a variation of the earlier "Willy the Weeper" melody emerges. This was a really big hit for Calloway, and other related songs followed in its wake, including: "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day," "Kicking the Gong Around" (a euphemism for smoking opium), "Minnie's a Hepcat Now," and "Ghost of Smoky Joe" (Joe was Minnie's boyfriend, who taught her how to kick the gong around).

"The Hi-De-Ho Man" was another song in this Calloway stream - based upon the Hi-De-Ho call and response chorus of "Minnie the Moocher." The audiences loved this. When singing "Minnie the Moocher" Calloway would call out "Hi de hi de hi de hi" and the audience would shout it back; gradually the call and response would become more complicated until Calloway returned to the story. Coincidentally (or not) the earlier "Willy the Weeper" had a call and response chorus of its own.