Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Looking for a new topic to research. Maybe Charley Case???

Since the publication of the second (and final) edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, I have been searching for another topic to write about. Perhaps Charley Case?

Case (1858-1916) was a blackface comedian I encountered while researching the history of SJI; he makes a brief appearance in the book.

Charley Case would stand alone on a stage and recount elaborate tales while twirling a bit of string between his fingers. His comedy was subtle; his audience often "got" the joke after Case had already launched into his next narrative, interrupting it with gales of laughter. Extremely popular in his time but forgotten now, he was, I think, the original American standup comic.

From a writer's perspective, the problem with Case is that very little is known about him. The most complete history is documented in twenty pages of the book Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919. This is not much to base an entire book upon.

So ... can anybody out there help? Case died tragically, unaware of his importance in the evolution of popular entertainment. Without Charley Case in the background, Richard Pryor (or Milton Berle) would have been an entirely different comedian. He was that significant.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Yo Yo Ma, Rhiannon Giddens, Michael Ward-Bergeman, The Silk Road Ensemble, and St. James Infirmary!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Readers of this blog might recall an entry, three years ago, about a gypsy variation of St. James Infirmary.  The New Orleans composer, accordionist (well, multi-instrumentalist), and performer Michael Ward-Bergeman wrote to me back then: "when I started doing 'St. James' I always felt there was a gypsy music connection both spirit and music-wise." As you can hear on his GIG 365 CD, "St. James Infirmary" sounds ready-made for gypsy musicians. As in much Roma music this SJI begins slow and melancholy, eventually opening into an exuberant, energizing celebration of life that will have you dancing in the streets (or in your living room) - reminiscent of New Orleans funeral music, although with different instrumentation.

Yo Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project commissioned Ward-Bergeman to arrange a version for them. With Yo Yo Ma on cello, Ward-Bergeman on accordion, the Silk Road Ensemble on an assortment of world instruments (for instance, the Roma cymbalom was replaced with a combination of marimba and yangqin, a Chinese hammered dulcimer), and Rhiannon Giddens on vocals, they collaborated on a penetrating version of SJI that transcends both time and place.

The musicians of Silk Road Ensemble are international and eclectic, presenting an amalgam of music that reflects our multicultural world. This new album from Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble will be available April 22. Called Sing Me Home, guest artists include many favourites of mine, including African Kora master Toumani Diabete, North Indian sitarist Shujaat Khan, U.S. banjoist Abigail Washburn, and many many other outstanding musicians from around the globe.

As a taste, here is a just-released video of Yo Yo Ma, Rhiannon Giddens, Michael Ward-Bergeman, and the Silk Road Ensemble performing St. James Infirmary. If this is any indication, the album will be outstanding!


(If you double-click on the video below, you can see it in its proper proportion.)