Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Original Sheet Music for SJI???

This, to the left, is the generic cover of the 1929 sheet music for "St. James Infirmary." The cover was designed so that a performer's image could be inserted without breaking the flow, as in the next picture. In those days images had to be set physically - that is, with an editor's hands placing the components in place. And so it was important for the Mills organization - and everybody else - to create flexible background images.

This is the first music score ever released for "St. James Infirmary." In the same year Mills Music (aka Gotham Music Service) also released an orchestral arrangement for SJI (which you can find elsewhere on this blog - search "sheet music"). The Mills music machine was fully engaged. The song had been subsumed.

Ahhh. But while it's the first music score for "St. James Infirmary," the sheet music for "Gambler's Blues," an earlier title for the song, had been printed four years earlier. The composer credits were to, not Joe Primrose, but Phil Baxter and Carl Moore. I wrote a bit about it here: The Golden Grail - you'll find more in the book.

"St. James Infirmary" aka "Gambler's Blues" had been around for many years before being taken into a recording studio. There were a ton of variations. There were many verses. The song, chameleon-like, changed its colour for the environment it stumbled into. The sheet music below, the first of its kind, gives us a taste of the song. But the song was more than this. It assumed many shapes; there were many versions.

This was just one of them.





Thursday, August 3, 2017

SJI on Ukulele

While researching the book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, I collected quite a few sheet music scores for popular songs of the 1920s and 1930s. While all contained the piano score, most included the chords for ukulele accompaniment. None of this sheet music refers to guitar accompaniment.

The ukulele is a relatively recent creation, Hawaiian in origin, it probably developed in the late nineteenth century - although with precedents in the Portuguese machete, which is probably related to the European lute (dating back about 800 years), which is probably related to the Arabic oud (dating back thousands of years) ... and so on.

It's doubtlessly a truism, but it bears reiterating: everything - including musical instruments and musical composition - is related to something that came before.

Following concerts in the U.S. by some Hawaiian bands, the ukulele became intensely popular in the early years of the jazz era. So, whether the sheet music was for  Phil Baxter's "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas," or Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," or "St. James Infirmary," it was likely to have the ukulele chords included.

Now, what does SJI sound like as played on ukulele?

I recently exchanged some brief emails with Toronto ukulele player, Jennifer Schmitt. She had just posted a recording of the song on YouTube, and was curious about how to credit the composer ... "it was a favourite of my father's. He died ten years ago today, and I used some of my Lake Opinicon time to record this in his memory."

I like Schmitt's treatment of the song. Direct, expressive, and sweetly melodic.
(To view in its proper aspect ratio, double-click to watch it on the YouTube channel.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

3 Favourite Bob Dylan Songs


Bob Dylan was a central figure in the writing of my book I Went Down to St. James Infirmary; it was his "Blind Willie McTell" that set the ball rolling ("I'm standing in the doorway of the St. James Hotel ...").  Here are three of my favourite Dylan songs. What would you include?

1. When the Deal Goes Down. 2006. In this song I imagine the singer at the bedside of a dying spouse, lover, holding her/his hand, and maybe whispering closely. ("I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true, I'll be with you when the deal goes down.")

2. Red River Shore. 1997. In which the girl on the Red River Shore represents a youthful ideal - say, a struggle towards understanding, or a religious striving, a Gurdjieffien goal, perhaps. But this is now lost to the aged singer. ("The dream dried up a long time ago; don't know where it is anymore ...")

3. Stormy Weather. 2017 - well, it was written in 1933 by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. When Dylan sings, "I'm weary all the time," you can feel it in your bones.

Brilliant.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A New Orleans country band does SJI


The New Orleans country band Loose Cattle has just released a video of their version of "St. James Infirmary." If you follow this link you can read about this interpretation, and watch the video. The song starts off slowly, and quickly builds, develops a country twang. You will like what you hear.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Interview with Michael Enright on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) "The Sunday Edition"


Michael Enright is one of the most celebrated hosts on Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) radio. His The Sunday Edition - with its mixture of revelatory cultural and political content - has a large and dedicated audience.

Last year a friend in the tiny village of Val Marie, Saskatchewan - the writer and performer Madonna Hamel (you can read her latest musings here) - traveled east to take care of business. On the way she stopped off at her old haunt, the CBC studios in Toronto. She gave Michael Enright a copy of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. A few months after that I received a message from Chris Wodskou, a CBC producer affiliated with Enright's show. And not much later I was in the CBC Victoria studios, chatting with Michael about "St. James Infirmary."

The interview, complete with snippets of sundry versions of SJI, is fun. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Thanks Michael. Thanks Chris. Thanks Madonna. Thanks to all of you!!


(In celebration we are able to offer Canadian customers a limited time special price on the book.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Copyright entries for SJI, etc.

I have been searching Library of Congress copyright records for an article I am writing about the original Carter Family. I took some detours into "St. James Infirmary" territory; here are actual song copyright entries for some of these songs.

The full music sheets are
elsewhere on this blog

Gambler's blues ; w C. Moore, m P.
Baxter, of U. S. © Jan. 15, 1925
2 c. Jan. 15 ; E 605070 ; Phil Baxter
and Carl Moore, Little Rock, Ark.
1159

The first version of SJI to enter the copyright books was "Gambler's Blues," in 1925. While credited to Carl Moore and Phil Baxter, this (under the title "Those Gambler's Blues") was collected as a traditional song by the poet Carl Sandburg, in his 1927 book The American Songbag. Hmmmm.

Phil Baxter and Carl Moore


St. James' infirmary ; words and musicby Joe Primrose. © Mar. 4, 1929 ; 2 c. Mar. 26; E pub. 4595; Gotham
music service, inc., New York. 6527

This copyright, to the fictional Joe Primrose, was registered in March, 1929.
The recording, by Louis Armstrong & His Savoy Ballroom Five, was recorded in December, 1928 - three months earlier than the copyright. Something was afoot.

Irving Mills aka Joe Primrose

Porter Grainger

Dyin' crap shooter's blues ; words and
melody by P. Grainger. © 1 c. July
27, 1927; E 672418; Porter Grainger,
New York. 13674

"Dyin' Crap Shooter's Blues" was recorded three times in 1927, and then abruptly forgotten ... until resurrected by Blind Willie McTell in the 1940s. McTell was very convincing when describing how he wrote this song - but, obviously, he didn't. Bob Dylan's lyric for his song, "Blind Willie McTell" - "I'm standing in the doorway of the St. James Hotel" - was partly responsible for the writing of this book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Silk Road Ensemble, live from Vancouver


Michael Ward-Bergeman in the Purgatory Garden

It might get better than this, but one wonders how.

Friend Michael Ward-Bergeman composed this brilliant interpretation of St. James Infirmary and is also the accordionist in the video. From the Vancouver TED talks in February 2016, the Silk Road Ensemble cooks at a high heat and the vocalist, Rhiannon Giddens, grabs the song impeccably. Together they run through fields and marshes, howl through trees, bend with the wind, fly across oceans and deliver an interpretation of St. James Infirmary that is fit for the world wherever we are.