Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Denton and Haskins influence in a new variation of SJI

I was looking through the Mudcat Cafe site the other day. Mudcat is devoted to the exploration and preservation of traditional songs, and is a valuable resource. One correspondent, Dorothy, recently wrote, "My brother used to sing me a song. The lyrics seem similar to ones I have read in your listings. I used to love him singing it . . . I am still confused as to where my brother would have heard it. I miss him so much, he died of a brain hemorrhage aged 42. This was 31 years ago. I still miss him so much, but my memory of his singing is so vivid I can still hear him." Dorothy included the lyrics to the song, which can be found here.

Those lyrics, Dorothy, are really interesting. It would be good to know how long ago your brother started singing them. They come from all sorts of places - from recorded songs, from the Sandburg versions . . . and even, judging by the second-to-last verse, sort of made up but similar to earlier verses.

The first two verses, though, first appeared in 1930, when the company Denton and Haskins published a version of "St. James Infirmary" to rival the stranglehold Mills Publishing had over the song. On the inside front cover they included traditional versions of the song that had been collected by the poet (and folk song archivist) Carl Sandburg. But what they were selling - or, once Mills launched a cease and desist lawsuit, trying to sell - was a new version of the song, arranged by Claude Austin with additional lyrics by William J. McKenna.

I have never encountered a recording of this version of the song. In fact it died pretty quickly once the legal wrangling ended. Still, there was a brief time when this sheet music was circulating, probably mostly around New York City. Obviously parts of it found their way into your brother's song, which is an example of the many guises "St. James Infirmary" has assumed in its adventurous life.

Lyrics to St. James Infirmary - Denton and Haskins edition

In reference to the posting above, here are the lyrics from the version of "St. James Infirmary" as published (and copyrighted) by the music publisher Denton and Haskins in 1930. (You might find it interesting to compare them with Dorothy's version, found here.)

I'm a gambler, never did refuse a bet
Played for millions in my time
But I've had the biggest loss that I ever met
Tho' I didn't lose a dime
Lady Luck threw me as a pal
When she took my lovin' gal

I went to Saint James Infirmary
My baby there she lay
On a long cold marble table
I looked and turned away

What is my baby's chances?
I asked old Doctor Tarp
He said "By six this evening,
She'll be playing a golden harp"

Back to St. James Infirmary
I saw my baby's face
So white, so drawn and faded
Of her good looks not a trace

I started in a prayin'
Right there upon my knees
"Good-Bye, my lovin' baby"
My heart began to freeze.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Porter Grainger - birth date discovered

Above, a detail from the 1925 New York City telephone book, showing addresses for music partners Porter Grainger and Robert Ricketts

I recently received an email from an enthusiastic Porter Grainger fan. In fact, his first comment was to point out that "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" actually made it onto piano rolls! Readers of this blog - and of the book - will know that the composer of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues" was Porter Grainger. Grainger was one of those souls who disappeared almost completely from public consciousness, even though he left a significant mark on the music of the 1920s. His contribution has been minimized, and I (as well as my correspondent, Andrew Barrett) think that is inaccurate and unfair.

Generally, not much is known about Grainger, aside from the fact that he wrote songs for Bessie Smith, and accompanied her in concerts and revues (a very fancy dresser, he was for a time part of Bessie's inner circle). He is one of the characters central to the story of SJI, and makes an important appearance in my book. Still, even the most reliable resources, such as the remarkable allmusic.com, say things like "Very little is known about the pianist Porter Grainger . . . even his birth and death dates are unknown."

I can't help with the date of his death, but while researching the book I did discover when (and where) he was born. The census records don't help. He first makes an appearance in the 1900 records, which show he was living with his grandfather, and was about nine years old. His draft cards, however, are another matter.

Above, Grainger's WWII draft card, revealing his date of birth.

Both Grainger's WWI and WWII draft cards reveal his birth date as October 22, 1891. He was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky. His 1917 card declares his profession as "Composer of songs." His WWII card shows he was employed at the Minsky-Eltinge Theatre at W42nd Street, in New York City.

These draft cards - both for Grainger and his friend Robert Ricketts - bring up further questions that are covered in the book.

For those who enjoy clarifying the obscure, Mr. Barrett wrote to me, "If you think Porter Grainger is obscure, try his friend Robert W. Ricketts (bandleader, pianist(?), led 'Ricketts' Stars' accompanying many blues singers) and Everett Robbins (a FANTASTIC blues pianist and singer)." Everett Robbins - whose piano rolls are of particular interest to Mr. Barrett - shared writing credit with Grainger for the famous blues song (first recorded by Bessie Smith) "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Blues in da fog - striding into the present

I don't usually do this. In fact, this is the first time. Taking a giant step into the present, I mean.

This site concerns itself with the early days of "St. James Infirmary" - mostly the first three decades of the last century. After all, this blog is subtitled "Inquiries in to the early years of SJI." And I want to keep it's focus sharp, well defined.

For a more inclusive overview of the song - that is, embracing the whole gamut from ancient to contemporary - nobody can better the web's premiere St. James Infirmary website, Rob Walker's NO NOTES. NO NOTES, in fact, is where this particular posting most appropriately belongs.

Still, today I can't help myself. I recently received a note that read: "Hi we are a french band and this is our version of saint james infirmary, please tell us what you think."

Well, the fact is that I really like this. Don't expect to fully understand the lyrics on first listen. The vocalist leans heavily on her vowels, playing her voice like a reed instrument. While the photograph above this post shows four people, this (very well executed - it's lovely to look at) single-camera video shows six musicians, all of whom are fully engaged in the music.

Blues in da fog brings it all together in a wonderful jumbo of sound, a kind of sculpture in song.
If this is evidence of the evolution of the song, give us more!

(May, 2013) I have found that since this posting the YouTube video has been deleted. In fact, I cannot find a video at all. Instead, I offer a link to a (worthwhile) MySpace sound file. So, travel here, and click on "St. James."

Friday, August 28, 2009

On the Trail of "Let Her Go, God Bless Her"

Just when I thought we were done with tracking the "Let her go, God bless her" lyric from St. James Infirmary, correspondent Richard Matteson sent me a number of emails. Thanks to Richard I have purchased a copy of the 1902 Harvard University Songs. It arrived in the mail today.

In an introductory note the compiler E.F. DuBois wrote that he "has tried to make a collection of songs that are actually sung at Harvard, by the Glee Club, by the crowds at the football games, and by the undergraduates and graduates." The result is a collection of twenty-seven songs starting with "Fair Harvard" and ending with "The Marseillaise." Sprinkled in between are titles such as "The Levee Song," "Jolly Boating Weather," "Bring the Wagon Home, John," and "The Mulligan Musketeers."

"She's Gone, Let Her Go," with its chorus that is so familiar from SJI, appears on page 72. The melody is utterly ordinary, a kind of parlor ditty that one could imagine being sung by hearty fellows in argyle sweaters, gathered around a piano with drinks in their hands. The lyric is the same as that identified in a March 21st entry on this blog, from the 1909 Harvard song book. The fact that it has appeared in at least two of these books, and that it is joined by only twenty-six others in this 1902 book, attests to its popularity at the time - at least among students at Harvard.

If you click on the music sheet here, you should view a larger copy that is easier to read.

While in "St. James Infirmary" this lyric gives the song a sinister quality, here it is as if the singer is saying about a woman who has left him, "It's your loss, Toots." Regardless of the fickleness of love, the singer remains constant: "There may be a change in the weather . . . but there'll never be a change in me." One can get the impression that this verse was indiscriminately, to use modern terminology, cut and pasted into SJI - and that the sinister shadow it casts is little more than a careless mistake. Had "St. James Infirmary" waited another ten years for its first recording, perhaps this verse would have dropped away, or been altered.

Of course, the 1902 date of this song does not help in tracking the birth of "St. James Infirmary." In that case, even circumstantial evidence does not take us much further back than, say, 1916.

Many thanks to Richard for this. (Mr. Matteson has a number of interesting areas on the web, including a series of entries on different versions of SJI - one of those pages can be found here: St. James Infirmary - Version 4 Jimmie Rodgers 1930.)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Paul Whiteman and the Beatles

During the years that I was researching and writing I Went Down to St. James Infirmary I exchanged many letters with the big band historian Joseph. E. Bennett. In fact, we continue to write to each other.

Recently I sent him a copy of Elijah Wald's most recent book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (Oxford University Press, 2009). Having sent the book via amazon.com I quickly wrote him a letter, explaining why I thought he would be the least bit interested in a book about either the Beatles or rock 'n roll. Bennett had played with big bands in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He befriended many of the big band leaders, researched and talked to them about their various histories, and wrote many articles for publications such as the recently defunct Joslin's Jazz Journal. He has an as yet unpublished 500 page history of the big bands, including many photographs, several of his own paintings (such as the one you see here, of "Hot Lips" Henry Busse), and previously unpublished biographical details about many of the band leaders.
In several letters to me Mr. Bennett noted that histories of popular music generally disparage the types of bands he played with and wrote about. While these bands, parlaying pre-arranged, "sweet" jazz, were by far the most popular and the most long-lived of the bands, it's the "swing" orchestras that are credited as being most representative of the big band era. "The commercial, stylized sound," Bennett wrote, "was criticized as 'Mickey Mouse,' 'corny,' and 'dull' by the swing enthusiasts" but "without exception the swing bands faded quickly while remaining in recorded form as what the big band era was all about."

Paul Whiteman is the most obvious example of this form of historical exclusionism. The self-titled "King of Jazz" was an accomplished, classically trained musician. (In fact, he and Phil Baxter - one of the characters who makes frequent appearances on this blog - served in the navy together during WWI. Neither Whiteman nor Baxter had yet made names for themselves, but Baxter organized a jazz band that he would take ashore when they were on leave. Baxter had no room in his "hot" band for a violin, though, and so Whiteman remained aboard ship.) Whiteman was the most popular band leader for years, often racking up six or seven of the best-selling records-of-the-year during the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, the Joel Whitburn book, A Century of Pop Music, lists no less than 78 Whiteman records among the top 40 rankings between 1920 and 1934.

Writers on music history have their biases, and generally prefer more esoteric performers over the ones who appealed to the masses. Elijah Wald attempts to correct this imbalance in his book, and in fact devotes a goodly amount of space to Paul Whiteman in doing so. Do not be distracted by the title - it's the subtitle that matters here. An Alternative History of American Popular Music is a fantastic read, it moves seamlessly through the eras, and recognizes the common (wo)man as having a powerful influence on the evolution of musical forms.

Joseph Bennett has at times opined that his time has past, that nobody cares about the music that swept the nation for at least two decades of the twentieth century. If Elijah Wald has any say, Mr Bennett will be proven wrong.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

And yet another "Let Her Go, God Bless Her" post

Over the past three months I've written at least six posts focusing on songs containing the "Let her go, God bless her" lyric so famous in "St. James Infirmary." These have ranged, chronologically, from their appearance in a 1909 university song book to a recording by the Louvin Brothers in 1958. Thanks to readers of this blog, I have two more examples to share in this, yet another posting about "Let her go, God bless her."

Reader Jesse said "Nelstone's Hawaiians recorded a song called 'You'll never find a daddy like me' which has the same chorus and is contemporary to or earlier to the Burnett & Foster recording." Jesse added that s(he) had only heard it on 78 rpm record.

The Rutherford and Foster song, "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her" was recorded in 1929. The song Jesse referred to, by Nelstone's Hawaiians, was recorded September 21, 1928. Neither Hubert Nelson nor James Touchstone were Hawaiian. They came from Alabama, they sounded like they came from Alabama, but their music featured wonderful Hawaiian-style guitar playing. Our friend "The Old, Weird America" has an excellent article about them, which you can access here. You will also be able to listen to "You'll Never Find a Daddy Like Me;" keep an ear out for:
There's been a change in the ocean
There's been a change in the sea
If they'll give me back my sweet mama
There'll probably be a change in me

Reader Root Hog Or Die informed me about the version by Rutherford and Foster, which I covered in an earlier posting. He also mentioned "J.E. Mainer and his Mountaineers (pictured here), of North Carolina, who did a version of 'Let Her Go, God Bless Her,' from 1935, that also bore the 'Sometimes I live in the country ...' verse, but otherwise employed all different - although equally common - floating verses."

One of those "floating verses" again includes mention of the ocean:
She may ramble on boats on the ocean
She may ramble on boats on the sea
She may travel this wide world all over
But she'll never find a friend like me

According to liner notes for the JSP CD J.E. Mainer - The Early Years, as a teenager Mainer labored in the cotton mills. He was an experienced banjo player, but one day watched a man playing fiddle while leaning against a telegraph pole at a railway crossing. As he walked across the track, the man was hit by an incoming train. Mainer returned to the scene that evening to find the broken fiddle lying in a ditch. He got it repaired and learned to play it - that might be the same fiddle he's holding in this photograph. Fiddle, guitars and banjo - those are the Mainer Mountaineer instruments. Mainer's fiddle playing is one of the highlights of "Let Her Go, God Bless Her."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blind Willie McTell and the authorship of Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues

Last November, shortly after we finally published I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, the remarkable Rob Walker posted the first part of a five part interview with me on his blog NoNotes. Those interviews appeared intermittently on his site until January of this year. The interviews cover a lot of territory, from Irving Mills to John and Alan Lomax. The first of them centered on Blind Willie McTell and his famous song "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues."


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?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

One more "Let Her Go" lyric

Over the past couple of months we have looked at several turn-of-the-twentieth-century songs that contain the infamous "Let her go, God bless her" lyric. Here's one more. (Many thanks to Root Hog or Die for telling me about this one!)

In 1929 the fiddler Leonard Rutherford and the guitarist/singer John D. Foster teamed up to record a handful of tunes for Gennett Records. One of those songs bumps into "St. James Infirmary" at least a couple of times.

The chorus of "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her" sounds familiar:

Let her go, go, I'll meet her
Let her go, go, I'll meet her
Let her go, go, God bless her so
She is mine wherever she may be

The song is also one of the few that reflect the odd sailor verse that appears now and again in versions of SJI. Mattie Hite, for instance, phrased it like this:

I may be killed on the ocean
I may be killed by a cannonball
But let me tell you buddy
That a woman was the cause of it all

The Rutherford & Foster variation puts it like this:

I have a ship on the ocean
A boat that sails on the sea
A pretty girl that lives in the country, boys
Has sure made a fool out of me

Admittedly, those are fairly far apart, but close enough to be entered into the list of possible influences in the early evolution of "St. James Infirmary."

As with the Louvin Brothers version (see below), "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her" contains the "Sometimes I live in the country" verse which is most famous as part of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene."

To hear this song click on: "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her" MP3

Lyrics to "Let Her Go, I'll Meet Her"

LET HER GO, I'LL MEET HER
- Recorded by Rutherford and Foster, 1929

Oh where did you stay last night
Yes, and the night before
I stayed in the pines where the sun never shines
And shivered when the cold wind blew

Let her go, go, I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , God bless her so
She is mine wherever she may be

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I take a fool notion like this
To jump in the river and drown

Let her go, go, I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , God bless her so
She is mine wherever she may be

I have a ship on the ocean
A boat that sails on the sea
A pretty girl that lives in the country, boys
Has sure made a fool out of me

Let her go, go, I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , I’ll meet her
Let her go, go , God bless her so
She is mine wherever she may be

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Carl Sandburg version - What did it sound like?


In recent posts we have seen that bits of the "St. James Infirmary" lyric can be found in songs from as far back as 1902. The earliest evidence of the written music, though, is from Carl Sandburg's 1927 collection of American folk songs, The American Songbag.

By 1929 - after Louis Armstrong became the third person to record the song (preceded by Fess Williams and Buell Kazee) the song had crystallized into a bluesy melody with a fox trot rhythm. But what did it sound like to the people who sent the song to Carl Sandburg?

This afternoon, with my digital reorder in hand, I asked Bill to play the Sandburg version on an electric keyboard. What I have posted here is only sixteen seconds long, but the song is basically that sixteen seconds repeated over and over again, perhaps with variations. Some think of it as repeated choruses, others as "one little rhythmic verse and a series of endless words." So, there is enough music in these few seconds to let us know how the entire song sounded to Sandburg and his song-collecting collaborators.

To hear this sample of the music for Sandburg's version of the song from "The American Songbag" click on: Those Gambler's Blues. And . . . Bill, many thanks for doing this!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"Let Her Go, God Bless Her" mp3 - Willie Trice

Willie (or Welly, depending upon your source) Trice made two recordings under his own name in 1937, and then not again until 1970. His take on the "Let Her Go" theme is from 1937, with both he and his brother Richard playing guitars.

Document Records had a CD called Carolina Blues (1937-1947) that featured a couple of songs, including this one, by "Welly" Trice - but that's a rare find nowadays. The four disk Blind Boy Fuller Volume 2 from JSP records features the two songs by Welly and eight by Richard Trice.

Although the recording quality is good, the lyrics can be difficult to make out. One verse, for instance, sounds something like, "Oh Scarbird wants your body / And Megalon wants it too / Oh Scarbird turned his long-headed since / She was gone and she won't come back." If you can make more sense of this, please drop me a line.

To hear this song, click on "Let Her Go, God Bless Her" MP3.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Let Her Go, God Bless Her" mp3 - the Louvin Brothers

This is a bit of fun. The Louvin Brothers once recorded a song called "Let Her Go, God Bless Her." It's from a 1956 album titled Tragic Songs of Life, and completely different from the song posted above. From some of the recent posts here, one gets the impression that the "Let Her Go" chorus from "St. James Infirmary" served as the structural cornerstone for a number of songs.

Well, that SJI chorus is here in full, and you will also recognize, unchanged, a verse from Leadbelly's "Good Night, Irene."

This is an infectious little ditty. To hear this song click on: "Let Her Go, God Bless Her" MP3.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Carl "Deacon" Moore - "A Woman Gets Tired" mp3 - and Margie Moore turns 93!


A recent photograph of Marjorie Moore, with her daughter Carol

As readers of this blog, or of the book, know - Carl Moore was credited as co-composer of "Gambler's Blues" when it was recorded by Fess Williams in 1927. "Gambler's Blues" would soon become known as "St. James Infirmary" - and credit for authorship would change; first to Don Redman, and then to Joe Primrose.

But Carl Moore (along with Phil Baxter) was the first of these. He is one of the most interesting of the characters that I explore in
I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. After many years as a big band leader - and dapper, tuxedoed, comical hillbilly hick - he became one of the first (and one of the most popular) country music djs. Although he retired in 1969, Dave Sichak's website Hillbilly-Music dawt com announced that in 2008 Carl "Squeakin' Deacon" Moore had the most visited page of the many disk jockeys the site features.

Carl Moore was born in Paragould, Arkansas in 1902. He died in
Huntington Beach, California, in 1985. I telephoned his wife, the lovely Margie Moore, a few days ago. She celebrated her 93rd birthday this past weekend!

Happy Birthday Marjorie!!

In celebration of Margie's birthday, I am posting the fourth - and last - song of Carl's complete recorded output. Much of Carl's inspiration came from the vaudeville and minstrel stages, and this song - written by Paul Carter and C.H. Barker (who are today as obscure as songwriters can get) - was popular on vaudeville. Deacon drawls, the orchestra swings.

To hear this song, click on: "A Woman Gets Tired" MP3. Be warned that a few seconds in it might sound like the recording skips a beat. I edited the file a bit in order to removed a loud click.

New book review in "penguin eggs"

The Canadian magazine devoted to folk and roots music, penguin eggs, publishes four times a year. The spring issue has just been delivered to stores, and contains a review of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

I consider penguin eggs to be one of the best magazines of its type, and am flattered that they chose to review my book. Here is an excerpt:

“[I Went Down to St James Infirmary] is a fascinating study and anyone who has an interest … in the way songs evolve and are passed along through history will find it an utterly compelling read. This critic confesses to a weakness for this type of book and devoured it with relish over a few days, though it will retain a favourtie place in his library and remain a reference for years to come.” — Barry Hammond, Penguin Eggs, Spring 2009

The complete review can be read here: Penguin Eggs book review.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Old, Weird America - The much expanded Harry Smith anthology

I found this blog thanks to The Celestial Monochord.

The blog is called The Old, Weird America: My Exploration of Harry Smith's Anthology. The writer, who seems to be anonymous, has set him/herself the task of examining all the songs in the Harry Smith Anthology and providing:

1. commentary on each song
2. for each performer on the anthology, files of other songs he/she/they recorded
3. files of other variations of the song being discussed
4. other things

As there are something like 84 tracks on the anthology, this is quite a task. Still, the first 18 songs have been discussed already - pretty good going, as the project only came online in November 2008.

The most recent post is all about "Gonna Die with a Hammer in My Hand" (aka "John Henry") by The Williamson Brothers & Curry. Our ambitious blogger discusses the performers, offers the few recordings they made, gives links to other sites that discuss the song, offers 100 variations on "John Henry," and even posts some video.

This is really important stuff. Congratulations to The Old Weird America!

Addendum: I have just found out that the author of the blog The Old, Weird America is a fellow called Gadaya. He is actually quite active on the web, including this Youtube Channel in which you can watch/hear him perform a ton of songs like "Casey Jones," "Worried Man Blues," "Barbara Allen" and so on. All of these he does very well indeed, accompanying himself on guitar, banjo ukelele . . . Gadaya lives in France. And while one would think that his involvement in American roots music is large enough a bite for any one man, his blog "The World's Jukebox" shows him casting his net about as wide as anyone can.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Old Time Gambler's Song" - St. James Infirmary in 1926.

At the suggestion of John Garst (see yesterday's post) I searched for a copy of Songs of the Cowboys. The original edition, by Jack Thorp, was published in 1908. It was a mere 50 pages long, consisting of 23 cowboy songs. That edition contained a version of "Cow Boy's Lament" (aka "Streets of Laredo") that I had not encountered before:

My curse let it rest, let it rest on the fair one
Who drove me from friends that I loved and from home
Who told me she loved me, just to deceive me
My curse rest upon her, wherever she roam.

In this 'new' (1966) edition, Austin and Alta Fife elaborated on the original book, providing commentary and additional variations for each of the songs Thorp published. This edition is almost 350 pages long.

Within the chapter on "Cow Boy's Lament" is a song that I don't think really belongs there, but which is of great interest to me. By this time it had become a common assumption that there was a direct link between "The Unfortunate Rake," "Streets of Laredo," and "St. James Infirmary." And so we find a song called "Old Time Gambler's Song," with a lyric very close to - and very different from - the "St. James Infirmary" that has been popular from 1928 to the present.

One thing that intrigues me about "St. James Infirmary" is the relative rarity of alternate versions. I think this was one of the effects of Irving Mills securing copyright for the song. Because of legal restrictions, and of the immense popularity of the early recorded version, those alternate variations fell into disuse. This song was sent by Terence McKay to Robert Winslow Gordon in a letter dated April 5, 1926. Gordon was a song collector who would, two years later, found the American Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

Of the versions of SJI that we know, several refer to dying on the ocean, being killed by a cannonball. This song offers a more reasonable "I may die out on the ocean, be shot down in a gambling house brawl." The rest of the lyric is equally interesting.

Lyrics to "Old Time Gambler's Song"

          OLD TIME GAMBLER'S SONG

I dreamed I went down to St. James Infirmary
Thought I saw my baby lying there;
Laid out on a clean white table,
So pale and yet so fair.

If she's gone, let her go, God bless her,
For she's mine wherever she may be;
You may search this wide world over
You'll never find another pal such as she

I may die out on the ocean
Be shot down in a gambling house brawl;
But if you follow me to the end of my story
You'll find a blonde was the cause of it all

When I die just bury me in a box back suit,
Blue shirt, roller hat, pair of shoes with toes so tall;
Put whiskey in my coffin, deck of cards in my hand;
Don't let them weep and wail, don't let them moan at all.

Put marihuana  in my coffin,
Smoke it as you carry me along;
Take even rolling crap shooters for pall bearers,
Coke sniffers to sing my funeral song.

Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch charm
So the boys'll all know I'm standing pat;
Put ice on my feet, for in that place where I'm going
I won't even be cool with that.

Just carve it on my tombstone
In letters bold and black,
"Here lies an old time gambler,
Pray God won't you please bring him back!"

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Let her go, God bless her - dated 1909

I've had a number of conversations in the past about those lines from St. James Infirmary, "Let her go, let her go God bless her . . ." and so on. They combine with the rest of the song to tell a very strange story. Where did these words come from, at what point did they enter the song? Were they original sentiments, placed there deliberately, or imported from elsewhere as the song evolved?

John Garst is an organic chemist and amateur folklorist, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia. He has recently (and very generously) sent me information about several songs that we shall discuss in upcoming posts, but I wanted to share this lyric as soon as I could.

John tells me that this song, "She's Gone, Let Her Go" comes from the Song Book of the Harvard Club of San Francisco, dated 1909. I'm not sure we could find a more Caucasian collection of people. There is no music, but here are the lyrics:

SHE'S GONE, LET HER GO

They say true love is a blessing,
But the blessing I never could see,
For the only girl I ever loved
Has done gone back on me.

Chorus.

She's gone, let her go, God bless her,
For she's mine wherever she may be,
You may roam this wide world all over,
But you'll never find a friend like me.

There may be a change in the weather,
There may be a change in the sea,
There may be a change all over,
But there'll never be a change in me.

It's easy to think of this as the likely inspiration for the song discussed in the entry below.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"God Bless Her" - Echoes of SJI in a WW1 song

Buried on the 348th page of American Air Service historian Edgar S. Gorrell's book Gorrell's History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-1919 (stored at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration - NARA) is a song with some resemblance to "St. James Infirmary." Gorrell assembled a few pages of songs enjoyed by the World War One airmen. These words introduce this section of the document (obviously written by someone with less than expert proficiency on a typewriter):

"One of the pleasantest recollections which the officers of the Ninetieth will carry with them from France back to the States is of the convivial evenings spent in the mess hall after the dinnerplates had been removed, cigarettes and Pierson's cigars lighted, and the cares of the day forgotten. With Conover at the head of the table leading the songs, assisted by Rohrer's dramatic tenor and Lakes melodious bass, the hours passed quickly. Sweethearts gone but not forgotten and the ties which bound us to the Ninetieth were the favorite but by no means the exclusive themes of our songs.

"We were particularly fortunate in having not only a glee club of such high ability, but also writers of such merit as Capt. Schauffler and Harvey Conover proved to be. Yet this collection does not pretend to be comprised of exclusively original songs. We have disregarded all copyright laws both as to words and music. For some of our songs we owe a debt of gratitude to the Ambulance Corps. Others will be recognized as mere naked parodies on well-known college songs. Our object has been merely to make a collection which would in future years refresh our memories of those merry evenings at Souilly and Bethelainville, and incidentally preserve from oblivion the genius of our aviator poets."

The song, "God Bless Her" looks as if it had been cobbled together, perhaps using the refrain of "St. James Infirmary" as its inspiration. This is one of the few concrete references to SJI that precede the 1920s. I am convinced there were many variations about, some of them probably quite daring - but these fell by the wayside, forgotten, after Irving Mills secured the copyright.

Lyrics to "God Bless Her"

GOD BLESS HER

Oh she turned me down last summer
For she said she didn't love me anymore;
But now she has written that she'll be my wife
An I've gone and joined the Flying Corps.

She has gone, let her go, God Bless her

She is mine wherever she may be

She may search this wide world over
But she'll never find another like me.

Oh there may come a change in the weather
And there may come a change in the sea.
And there may come a change all over
But there will never come a change in me.

She has gone, let her go, God Bless her.

She is mine wherever she may be

She may search this wide world over
But she'll have to fly to France to catch me.

Oh I've looked at the girls in New York
In London and gay Paris
And there’s one conclusion that I have got
There are other little fishes in the sea.

She has gone, let her go, God Bless her

She is mine wherever she may be

She wanted to marry a tin soldier

But a home-guard I never would be.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

WFHB Community Radio - yet again!

I can't believe I'm entering three posts in a row about WFHB, in Bloomington, Indiana. This must be quite the happening community radio station.

I have just heard that folklorist Margaret Lynn Steiner will be broadcasting on Tuesday, March 17th - St. Patrick's Day - from 9 to 11 pm (Eastern time). She says that her program will be split between songs from Northern Ireland (where I was born) and songs from Miramichi, New Brunswick (near where my brother lives). Of the former Margaret says, "Newtownbutler, in Co. Fernmanagh, Northern Ireland, had a very active living song tradition, certainly in the late 1970's. Local songs abounded, centering around hunting, Gaelic football,  and cockfighting, as well as songs celebrating the local topography, etc. All I had to do was walk into McQuillan's Pub, and I could just happen on a 'singsong.'"

Regarding Miramichi, Ms. Steiner has been attending their folksong festival since 1986. This is the oldest folk music festival in Canada. Dating from 1958 it has the primary function of preserving traditional songs and culture. One of the treasures of Miramichi has been Wilmot MacDonald, a singer with an impressive store of old songs  - and who is featured on a 1962 Smithsonian recording. Margaret Steiner contributed to a CD and book about MacDonald, that is available from the Maine Folklife Center, University of Maine.

Margaret Lynn Steiner: "Edward D. (Sandy Ives) has done a lot of work on the English-language tradition, especially focusing on 19th-century folk poets such as Larry Gorman and Joe Scott. Ronald Labelle, of the University of Moncton, has worked a lot with the Francophone tradition, and I've been working with singers who are bilingual and bicultural and looking at how they juggle their biculturalism musically."

Folklorists are important people. Song collecting is important work. In this - as Lucas Gonze puts it - age of copyright extremism, we need to broaden our base of inspiration. We need to be reminded that songs can be living things with a vitality and meaningfulness that, in terms of cultural and personal value, far outstrips the monetary lifespan of Mickey Mouse.

So, that's WFHB on Tuesday, March 17th, from 9 to 11 in the evening, Eastern time. I shall be scheduling an audio capture, so I can load it onto my iPod.

More about Border Radio on WFHB - Live!


The above image is from the web site of Bloomington, Indiana's Buskirk-Chumley Theater. This historic building will be the site for WFHB's March 27th live broadcast after the style of Border Radio - of interest here because of a) its historical context and b) it promises the first live performance after the style of Carl "Deacon" Moore in perhaps 70 years.

I was doing a bit of surfing this morning, and noticed that WFHB's home page had added the following notice:

WFHB holds live radio show at Buskirk-Chumley Theater March 27th
Remember the days when the radio announcer would say "Who's this on the Wolfman telephone?" or "Put your hands on the radio to feel the power of His love..."? Then you'll want to mark the date for WFHB's Spring Variety Show on Friday, March 27th at the historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater in downtown Bloomington. Local and regional musical acts, radio skits, live sound effects and more will transport you back to an earlier age when preachers, psychics, and purveyors of snake oil prevailed.

There is more detail here.

So, if you happen to live nearby, or are visiting Bloomington, Indiana, the live show is from 8 to 10 pm on March 27th. Those of us further away can catch it via their live feed at www.wfhb.org.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Coming soon: Border Radio - live feed - including Carl "Deacon" Moore!

I have been exchanging emails with Mike Kelsey, dj of a really interesting radio show at the WFHB community radio station in Bloomington, Indiana.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the name Carl "Deacon" Moore - and probably with the recordings I have posted here. Recently Mike played some of the Carl Moore records on his show - this is probably the first time they've been heard in broadcast since sometime in the 1930s! But later this month he will be doing something even more exciting!

Mark your calendars for Friday March 27th, between 8 and 10 pm Eastern Time. Turn your digital dial to http://www.wfhb.org/ for a live broadcast patterned after the Border Radio of the 1930s and 1940s. Among the songs to be broadcast will be live covers of at least one of the Moore songs. What will it be? "Evolution Mama?" "Nobody Knows Where She's Gone?" Place your bets at the window.

There are a number of books about Border Radio, but one in particular manages to sum it up nicely in its subtitle: "Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves." The broadcast promises to be a real treat so, see you there!
ps There is a good chance that Carl's wife, the vivacious 92 year-old Marjorie Moore, will be listening in, too.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Jack Shea revisited - or should that be Irving Kaufman?

Back on November 23rd, 2008 I posted an article about Jack Shea, with an mp3 of him singing the Irving Mills/Cliff Friend song "Lovesick Blues" in 1922. This afternoon I received a note from Anonymous, declaring "Say, that's the prolific Irving Kaufman in a bluesy frame of mind as 'Jack Shea'."

Ah, the history of popular music does have its share of mysteries - and it seems plausible that Jack Shea never existed.

Irving (of the singing brothers Phillip, Jack, and Irving Kaufman) frequently recorded under aliases, with the agreement of his contracting record companies. Brian Rust, who listed only a handful of records he deemed of interest to jazz enthusiasts, included the aliases of Billy Clark, Sammy Burton, Harry Topping, Tom Nevill, Arthur Holt, Charles Dickson, Noel Taylor, and Brian Watt.

Kaufman was a prolific singer and performer, who made his first record in 1914 and his last record in 1974, when he was 84 years old. A good brief biography can be found on Tim Gracyk's Phonographs.

I did read a list of pseudonyms that claimed Jack Kaufman (Irving's brother) was Jack Shea. But others feel that Shea's intonation is more reminiscent of Irving's voice. Is the jury still out on the true identity of Jack Shea - or is Irving Kaufman's the voice we hear on that 1922 recording?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

More gems from Lefty's Attic

We've finally finished much of the work on the photo website (you can see that here, although it has nothing to do with St. James Infirmary) and so here's another post. I had been planning something about the song collector Dorothy Scarborough, but in the meantime came across this.

By way of explanation, we tend to think first of John and Alan Lomax when we consider song collectors. There were others who preceded them - in North America these include Harry Odum and Dorothy Scarborough. Scarborough's 1925 On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs includes a song that contains a verse with the familiar, "Let her go, let her go / May God bless her, wherever she may be." Her book is a fascinating document, as she comments on the songs and her relationship to them - and interesting in that many of the "Negro songs" she includes obviously came from the minstrel stage.

And then we have Ralph Peer. Peer was a businessman, with little love for the types of songs he was hunting. Still, he went in search of talent, and was responsible for discovering such luminaries as The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The records he made with them were profit-seeking ventures, and so we generally don't include them in the canon of discovered folk songs; we don't see them as equally representative of the non-commercial music of the period.

But here - now, this is a different story. When auditioning for Peer, the musicians would bring their own songs - the stuff they were playing and singing at home, or at the village barn dances. Eventually Peer would send A.P. Carter in search of Appalachian folk songs that he could "modify" and thereby declare as original compositions (all the better to copyright, my dear). But our friend, Lonesome Lefty, has made available some of the original 1927 Bristol Session recordings. Here are The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, The Tenneva Ramblers (Rodgers' band - they split up while arguing about auditioning for Peer), Ernest Stoneman and others, some of whom never recorded again. The sound quality is good, and the download includes the record covers and liner notes. A wonderful find - thanks, Lefty! You can download that album here.

(If you are interested in more detail about these sessions, I can recommend "The Bristol Sessions: Writings About the Big Bang of Country Music," published in 2005. Other highly readable resources include Nolan Porterfield's Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler and Mark Zwonitzer's Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?: The Carter Family & Their Legacy in American Music.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Carl "Deacon" Moore - "Waiting for the Evening Mail" MP3


It's been a while since I've posted to the site. I've been involved in a number of projects (that include working on a photo web site - although, truth be told, Pam has been doing most of that).

Anyway, we're long past due for another Carl "Deacon" Moore song. Like the others he made, Waiting for the Evening Mail (Sitting on the Inside Looking Outside) was recorded for Decca in 1938. Originally written by Tin Pan Alley composer Billy Baskette, it was a popular ditty recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby and Al Jolson. This is a tragi-comical song, and Moore does it well. To hear the song, click on: "Waiting for the Evening Mail" MP3.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My interview with Rob Walker on NOnotes

Well, the NOnotes interview has now been posted - in five parts!

The first part can be found here - mostly discussing "Dyin Crapshooter's Blues"
The second part can be found here - regarding AL Lloyd, John and Alan Lomax, The Unfortunate Rake, Iron Head Baker, Leadbelly . . .
The third part can be found here - regarding how Redman brought the song to Armstrong in Chicago
The fourth part can be found here - legal issues and early recordings
The fifth part can be found here - "St. James Infirmary" goes to court

Rob is, to put it mildly, an SJI enthusiast. His questions were probing, a challenge and a delight to answer.

If you are among the few who find this sort of stuff interesting, there's more in the book!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

copyright vs public domain and the web


I love bumping into sites like this. How can we share our love of music when reproducing it - perhaps by posting our own rendition of, say, a Beatles song - can leave us open to legal challenges and/or performance charges? Lucas Gonze is obviously a man very familiar with the Internet, and too familiar with the problems inherent in "this era of copyright extremism" which, he goes on to explain in a podcast on the Digital Media Insider site (also available, btw, at iTunes), "is just going to wipe out a lot of those inputs. I don't think that people are going to play Beatles songs. I think the Beatles are going to disappear from memory - because they're going to be locked away. You really can't get to the stuff. And instead the music that was available for free use, that was under a Creative Commons license, that was very clearly in the public domain, or that was made before the recording era, I think that's what people will be using. They will be doing the five trillionth cover of 'Home On The Range' instead of a much better song, like 'She Came In Through The Bathroom Window,' because that's what's in the culture, and passing back and forth references to the same material but used in different ways. That's what you're doing when you're making cultural artifacts. I think people will look back at these lost items and say, 'These were such great songs! What happened to them?'"

Soup Greens is devoted to music that is clearly in the public domain. But it goes deeper than that, directly addressing the issue of how music copyright affects us in everyday life. While looking at his site, make sure to visit the menu item "Just my music" - here's Lucas and his guitars, doing some fine renditions of songs that are firmly ensconsced in the public domain.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Emmett Miller - clarinet-voiced singer of Lovesick Blues

The first song Irving Mills was credited with writing was "Lovesick Blues." First recorded in 1922, Emmett Miller's 1928 version gave it the shape we recognize today - thanks, that is, to Hank Williams' 1949 rendition.

When Miller's record was released, though, it was the flip side, "I Ain't Got Nobody," that received most of the airplay. The poster below is advertising another record Miller released at about the same time, "A Thousand Frogs Sitting on a Log." You might think that's an odd song title, and you'd be right; this was a comedy skit based on the topic of elocution. According to Nick Tosches in his book about Miller, "Where Dead Voices Gather," the skit served as a running gag throughout his stage show. From a newspaper article quoted by Tosches: "Early in the evening the Interlocutor attempted to recite something about a 'thousand frogs on a log.' Instantly Emmett was growling in disgust, 'Can't get no thousand frogs on no log ...' Finally, the mention of 'a thousand frogs on a log' was sufficient almost to throw the audience into paroxysms of laughter."

Here, from a North Carolina Newspaper, is a 1928 advertisement for the thousand frogs. You can hear this performance via a download at the website "Western Swing on 78." That download will actually net 23 Miller recordings, about half his total output. The other half can be found here. Among these recordings, by the way, are both the 1925 and the 1928 versions of "Lovesick Blues." The earlier one, with piano accompaniment only, had long been assumed lost. This earlier version of the song sounds unformed to me - as if Miller had not yet imposed his own stamp on it.

Six of those MP3 files yield "The OKeh Medicine Show" - about eighteen minutes of a recorded recreation of medicine show skits and music, in which Miller is but one of the performers. Others included Fiddlin' John Carson, his daughter Moonshine Kate, and Frank Hutchison (a slide-guitar playing, blues singing ex-miner who recorded 32 song between 1929 and 1932). As you can see, Miller was the featured personality in an advertisement for the record.