Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Stack O' Lee Blues" - the first sheet music (and more)

I have recently had some very interesting email exchanges with Max Morath, who I urge you to look into. I encountered him while ordering some sheet music that Mills Publishing produced back in 1924.

Irving Mills was, of course, Joe Primrose, pseudonymous and imaginary composer of "St. James Infirmary." Irving, along with his brother Jack, was also the proprietor of Mills Music, which early established itself as a purchaser and publisher of "blues" music. As I wrote in the book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, "Once it became clear to Irving and Jack Mills that there was money to be made from song copyrights, they were buying songs from black writers and reaping the profits from this newly popular musical form. . . . Musicians hoping to sell songs tramped the byways of Tin Pan Alley. They knew that if no one else would buy their songs, there was a good chance Irving Mills would."

As we know, Irving made a bundle off "St. James Infirmary" even though nobody in particular wrote it.

So I was intrigued when I saw this sheet music. This was the first time "Stack O' Lee" (or Stagger Lee, Stagolee, etc.) had been published, and I wondered if the Mills brothers were, back in 1924, attempting the same obfuscation they later performed with "St. James Infirmary." I mean, here was this old blues song, one that had arisen from the streets with no discernible original composer, being offered for sale as written by Ray Lopez and Lew Colwell. In fact, in a kind of synchronistic fashion, I had also been reading the recent book by Cecil Brown titled Stagolee Shot Billy (Harvard University Press, 2003) - an account of the history of the Stagolee song. Colwell wrote that, "In 1924 songwriters Ray Lopez and Lew Colwell published a sheet-music version called 'Stack O' Lee Blues.' This fact alone attests to the popularity of the song." (p 135).

I was surprised to find that this original publication of the "Stack O' Lee" song had almost nothing to do with its title. It is a silly dance tune which only mentions its supposed protagonist in the chorus: "Stack O' Lee Blues I don't know what it means. Come on honey let's be stepping, 'cause my feet won't keep still, I've just got to dance until I've had my fill. Stack O' Lee Blues. Play it over for me, I go crazy when I hear it, anywhere I may be, I long to hear them play that Stack O' Lee."

Here are some other lyrics: "Eeny, meeny, miney mo, they'll play some more, now let us catch a nigger by the toe, one more encore. We've got to left foot, right foot, hop and skip, Oh Lordy! hear that tune, ain't that a pipp . . ."

Oh dear me.

So, while this sheet music for Stack O' Lee wasn't an out-and-out ripoff, at least one of the authors had a history of entanglement in copyright issues. As recounted by one of the best music sites on the Web, www.redhotjazz.com, Ray Lopez had tried to copyright what is generally recognized as the first jazz record, "Livery Stable Blues," later known as "Barnyard Blues." The Original Dixieland Jass Band had neglected to copyright their smash hit, and Lopez scrambled to profit from it - although testimony showed that the Dixieland Jass Band had based their song on one of Lopez's earlier compositions.

Songwriting was like gold and prospectors everywhere were hoping to profit from it.

Here is the score for "Stack O' Lee Blues" as published in 1924. The pages should enlarge if you click on them.





Wednesday, December 14, 2011

MP3 Monologue 2 - The "Let Her Go" Verse

Well - as you can see from the comments section of the previous entry, the response to my question, "Is anyone interested in hearing more?" is a resounding "YES!" In fact 100% of respondents voted this way.

So, dear listeners, here is part two of this blog's SJI audio monologue series. In this episode, continuing where we left off, we consider some - and I emphasize "some" - of the history of the "Let Her Go" verse in SJI. It's about three minutes long. To listen, click on the following: "Let Her Go" MP3.

Next time, we'll take a break from these aural discussions and look at something else entirely.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

MP3 Monologue - Carl Sandburg and "Those Gambler's Blues" (aka "St. James Infirmary")

I am trying an experiment here. A little over two years ago a writer/broadcaster/music-historian asked me to record some monologues about "St. James Infirmary" for a possible radio show. I wound up recording sixteen entries, ranging in length from five minutes to one minute. Topics covered such areas as a history of the "Let Her Go" verse, Fess Williams, Don Redman & Louis Armstrong, The Hokum Boys, Irving Mills, and, of course, the significance of SJI.

The show, to my knowledge, was never produced, and having heard nothing lately I doubt it ever will be. So I have decided to post one, a few, or all of my entries on this blog.

First, though, I want to see if there is interest in this endeavor. I am including the first of those recordings: musings on Carl Sandburg's 1927 book of traditional songs, The American Songbag, which featured the first publication of "Those Gambler's Blues" (and which, as you know, would later become "St. James Infirmary"). This is, at five minutes, by far the longest of the entries. Is anyone interested in hearing more?

To listen, don your headphones and click on: "Monologue on Carl Sandburg and Those Gambler's Blues" MP3

Monday, December 5, 2011

MP3 problems??

I have recently discovered that, because of reorganization at the site I store the MP3 files for this blog, none of the music links were working. I have recently renewed those links and think I managed to find and fix them all. If you know of any MP3 files that still don't work, please let me know.