Inquiries into the early years of SJI

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."