Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Copyright and St. James Infirmary - a personal rant

Who owns a song?
Or anything else?
I recently exchanged some comments with a fellow photographer. She had found, quite by accident, that a painter had incorporated one of her images as a chief design feature in one of his paintings. That painting was on display (and for sale) in a gallery. She, Lorrie, commented:

    It was a surreal experience for me to see my work manipulated and presented as fine art for sale. I pondered whether to contact him, but I let the impulse go, as my reaction was not one of indignation but rather befuddled amusement. Yes, he had violated copyright by using my photo for commercial purposes, but I was swept up in philosophical thoughts about what constitutes original content.

It is that question of Lorrie's, "what constitutes original content?" that is at the heart of any copyright argument. Here is my response to her:

    It is an interesting discussion you are entering into, Lorrie. 
    Things related to "intellectual ownership" and "copyright" become complicated. Things related to "courtesy" do not. Informing a person of your use of their work (or even asking permission) is common courtesy.
    Copyright use, the question of who owns these sorts of images, is related to courtesy, but is entangled with bureaucratic tape. So, here are my few words on that.
    Copyright was originally - and we're talking 18th and 19th century in the U.S. - intended as a way of limiting a person's ability to profit from something he or she created. It was recognized that everything - from a painting to a spinning wheel - was based on something that preceded it, that nothing is original, and so ultimately belongs to our commonality. In other words, copyright ensured that the item returned, within a reasonable amount of time, into the public stream; in this way others (the public in general) could benefit from it and incorporate it into their own explorations, without fear of repercussions. And thereby to help us all progress.
    The notion of copyright changed as corporations became more influential in legal processes, and it segued into a means of preventing commodities or ideas from becoming public property - they would probably refer to it as protection of investment. So, in effect, the notion of copyright did an about-face. And that might be why something about current copyright law has a peculiar, and not attractive, smell.
    One thing it does, this contemporary interpretation of ownership, is undermine common courtesy. We are not, in this legal notion, participating in a mutual undertaking (that is, living life with concern for each other) but are instead isolated from each other in a kind of pecuniary or egoistic selfishness.


The history of "St. James Infirmary" is intimately entangled with copyright law. In the case of SJI, copyright removed it from the public domain. This is a peculiar thing, and it is a disturbing thing. Were it not for the fact that SJI is so obviously not an original composition, it would still be restricted by copyright protection. But, you see, that returns us to Lorrie's question of "what constitutes original content." Even the most cursory thinking on this matter should reveal to us that we are not the originators of anything - we modify what went before. And it is this incremental increase in knowledge and creativity that moves civilization forward. The intention of copyright law was to encourage people to innovate, to develop new ideas and contraptions, by offering a period of exclusive remuneration. That period was limited in order to ensure that society as a whole benefited. Everything arises from the common ground, and the common ground needs to remain fertile.

If you doubt this, the following quote - cited in Lewis Hyde's "Common As Air: Revolution, Art, And Ownership" (2010) - is from a 1988 review of copyright law from the U.S. House of Representatives:
    Under the U.S. Constitution, the primary objective of copyright law is not to reward the author, but rather to secure for the public the benefits derived from the author's labors. By giving authors an incentive to create, the public benefits in two ways: when the original expression is created and . . . when the limited term . . . expires and the creation is added to the public domain.

Now, having said all this, I have to admit that if I was the author of a song, or a book, or a spinning wheel that was returning significant profits, I might want the copyright extended for as long as possible. (Thus the stance of Walt Disney Corp, Paul McCartney, and so on.) Well, at least part of me would. Another part, I hope my primary part, would recognize the place from which I received inspiration and would prefer to, as at least a gesture of gratitude, return my creation to that place, to the human race.

This is only reasonable.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo?

Sheet music cover for a 1924 Irving Mills song
From Porter Grainger's World War One song, discussed in the previous post, we move to another song rooted in the Great War.

 "Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo" (also known as "Whatever Happened to the Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo?") was published by Jack Mills Music in 1924, six years after the end of the "Great War." It is based on a very popular WWI song, "Mademoiselles from Armentieres" that was sung by British soldiers as they marched towards battle. "Mademoiselles" was itself based on a song popular with troops during the Boer War in the 1880s. These songs were in the public domain.

While "Mademoiselles from Armentieres" had its popularizers, the marching song was far too blue for public performance back home. The troops would improvise verses while on the march; sex and the dark humor of war dominated the lyrics.

A typical, mild version of the lyric went like this:

Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez vous
Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez vous
Mademoiselle from Armentieres
She hasn't been kissed in forty years
Hinky dinky parlez vous

For the 1924 release, Irving Mills got together with Al Dubin (posthumously inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1970), Jimmie McHugh (also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1970, a year after he died), and Irwin Dash (not much is known about Dash, but under the name Fred Heatherton he later wrote "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts"). The sheet music cover boasted "With twenty new choruses!" From reading the lyric, one gets the impression that many ex-soldiers actually missed the war (or maybe the writers were being sarcastic?):

What has become of the Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo
What has become of all the happy times you knew
I'll bet there are lots of married men
Who wish they were back in the army again
Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo

The lyrics - devised for a popular audience - could be fodder for researchers into social attitudes of the time. For instance, both Uncle Tom and the devout and devoted Eliza (or Liza) were the central black characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin:

What has become of Uncle Tom and Liza too
Up in his cabin on the hill
I hear his daughter is running a still

"Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo" opens with the verse:

Do you ever think of the time
When all the boys went 'cross the sea
To the land of Wee Wee Wee,
Where they strolled with sweet Marie,
Then the boys came back with a song 'bout
"Hinky Dinky Parlay Voo"
If you don't recall the song at all
I'll sing it over for you (shout) Say!

I wonder how well this sheet music sold? You can read the "twenty new choruses" here (clicking should enlarge):



Friday, March 14, 2014

When Our Brown Skin' Soldier Boys Come Home From War

Sheet music cover for a 1919 Porter Grainger song
This is the oldest sheet music by Porter Grainger that I have found. Dated 1919, Grainger would have been about twenty-seven. It is a patriotic song of soldiers returning home after World War I.

Let's go down to the station, people,
Our boys come home today
With great honors won in a grand and noble fray.
Do join us,
There'll be great politicians waiting,
Taxis all in a row.
See Old Glory!
Waving as down the streets they go.

In an era that gave rise to such patriotic favourites as "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," "Over There," "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," and "When the Boys Come Home," there cannot have been many that celebrated the contributions of black soldiers to the WWI United States war effort. (The armed forces did not integrate until 1944, twenty-five years later.) And considering that this was still a year away from the first black blues recording, it is probably a wonder that the sheet music was published at all - that is, music companies were not yet convinced of the financial viability of marketing to an African-American population.

Kudos to Porter Grainger - one gets the feeling that he was not taking the easy route with this song.


(If you are interested in the sheet music, you can find it here)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

I Went Down To SJI - in New Orleans

Photograph by Michael Ward-Bergeman
Michael Ward-Bergeman recently sent me a photograph of "I Went Down To St. James Infirmary" situated proudly on a display table in the store "Forever New Orleans." This is the only store in New Orleans in which this book can be found. I think it looks at home.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Last of the orchestral sheet music: trombone, violin, and bass

A reader recently asked about the trombone parts for the 1929 orchestra score that appears elsewhere on this blog. I had obviously lost track of which sections I had already included, thinking I had posted them all. But, no, I had omitted the trombone, the violin, and the bass parts. So this should do it. Piano. Trumpet. Saxophone. Banjo. Drums. And now, trombone, violin, and bass.

Trombone
Violin
Bass

Friday, January 3, 2014

St. James Infirmary Soap???? Yessirree.



Michael Ward-Bergeman, a well-known musician living in New Orleans, surprised me with a bar of St. James Infirmary soap.  It arrived in the mail this morning. SJI soap? Really? "Yes," I was assured, "really." With reviews such as, "What a great soap!" and "Saved me from psoriasis," the soap is made in New Orleans. The owner of Sweet Olive Soap Works relates that she was born in "the aftermath of the great flood of '78 and was brought home in a canoe on the still-flooded streets of New Orleans." Her grandmother, Anna Mae, had been a soapmaker.

I am going to keep this bar on my bookshelf.

This is a sweet way to start 2014. Happy New Year! And thanks, Michael.

Minstrel advertisements - Hi-Brown Bobby Burns

Advertising blotter for Minstrel producer Hi-Brown Bobby Burns

I found myself recalling that there is evidence that Blackface Minstrels performed "St. James Infirmary" in the years before the song was first recorded in 1928. And then I remembered that I own a number of the advertising items pictured above. These are blotters, from the days when people wrote with fountain pens and needed to blot up the wet ink from time to time. I used to use blotters like these. Even when ball-point pens had become popular, teachers felt we had to learn how to write with "proper" pens. Because I am left-handed, my hand would smear the ink across the page as it followed my pen. Teachers did not like that. So, I would place a blotter over what I had just written, and rest my hand upon it. Blotters were very handy. It was a clever gimmick, handing them out as advertisements.

Postcard for Hi-Brown Bobby Burns
Those blotters are probably from the 1920s, when minstrelsy was being absorbed into and supplanted by vaudeville. They measure about 3.5" by 6". Here, Burns shows his "real" face, and his clown face (our modern-day clowns are really just minstrels in whiteface). "Hi-Brown" Bobby Burns was a minor producer of minstrel shows, and occasionally his name shows up on minstrel or circus advertising even into the 1940s. Judging from the evidence, it seems that Burns, like Emmett Miller, was very late in leaving the profession.
Business card "The Last of the Red Hot Minstrels"

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Thoughts while reading Teachout's new biography of Duke Ellington

At the recommendation of a friend I recently purchased a new biography of Duke Ellington. Written by Terry Teachout, the book was released a couple of months ago. I was surprised to find, while perusing the "Select Bibliography," my own book, I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, listed. In all humility I have to mention that this was one of close to two hundred books that Teachout listed. But he did write this: "No biography of (Irving) Mills has been written. The best short treatment of his life and work is in Harwood (I Went Down to St. James Infirmary)." Irving Mills, of course, was central to the early career of Duke Ellington, as he was for Cab Calloway and other black musicians of the era.

It is a shame that there is no detailed biography of Mills. Information about him comes in dribs and drabs; what is unearthed often requires considerable effort. And, of course, the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to write accurately or honestly about the man. A surprising amount of what we do find takes the form of critical opinion, rather than biographical fact, and that opinion is often scathing.

Let me try to explain. Irving Mills was intimately involved in the popularization of what the world thinks of as "American music" - music that arose out of the black culture of the 1920s and 1930s (as well as popular standards from the pens of white tunesmiths). He was foremost a businessman, though, and one who saw opportunity where others - because of the intense prejudices of the time - saw nothing. With the black artists he represented, Mills would take up to 50% of their earnings, rather than the 10% or 15% common between managers and white artists. But in return Mills worked hard. He made Ellington (for instance) into a star, and that could never have happened without a white manager; it might be surprising that it could have happened at all. In other words, Mills charged a lot for his services, but he did not take the money and run, and every indication suggests that he treated his clients with respect. Much of the criticism leveled at Mills is based upon contemporary notions of fairness and racial equality. From the perspective of nearly a century ago, things take on a different sheen.

If you're interested in Duke Ellington, this is a good book to read. Teachout takes an even-handed approach with Mills, and that is refreshing.

A side-light here: none of the three Ellington biographies I have read make any mention of "St. James Infirmary." This even though his band recorded it twice in 1930 - as The Ten Blackberries (with Mills assuming lead vocals under the pseudonym Sunny Smith), and again as The Harlem Hot Chocolates. But, really, it's not surprising. SJI is little more than a small footnote in the history of a man responsible for such standards as "Sophisticated Lady," "Black and Tan Fantasy," "Mood Indigo" and seemingly countless other significant compositions.

Friday, December 6, 2013

From the hand of the puppeteer: Blair Thomas on St. James Infirmary

Photo from a recent performance of Blair Thomas' puppet show "Moby Dick."
Contrast the style of these puppets with the ones shown in the previous post.
In the previous post I wrote about master puppeteer Blair Thomas, and his show based upon "St. James Infirmary." I wrote to Mr. Thomas, asking "what was it about the song that attracted you sufficiently to create a puppet show around it?" He was kind enough to respond:

"I'm a puppeteer. I make solo shows such as this one, as well as larger shows where I act as the designer/director. I've known the song "St. James Infirmary" for about 20 years. I worked on developing a puppet show based on the song for a long time, and produced this version in 2009. "St. James Infirmary" has a great untold story lurking in between its few short verses. My interpretation of the song uses the visual medium of the single rolling paper scroll and a few puppets. The scroll is motorized so I can run around and do other things. I use a digital loop station to record the music live - usually while the scroll rolls and then it can loop while I use the marionettes and sing the song. I really enjoy playing the music on this - the scroll works well over the music.
"For this show I use wooden rod marionettes - a style of puppetry that is more folk in its origin than the customary string marionette. In a rod marionette the puppet is held up with a single rod to the hand-control, and then just a few strings to move its arms and legs. The result is a more primitive performance style - a rawness that goes well with the song. There is an intimate relationship between puppetry and death, and I see this song as a form of mourning or grief at the loss of a loved one.
"Denial has famously been called a stage in the grieving process. What happens with carnal desire when the body of the one you so desired is now rotting in the ground? Repulsion probably, but I would also imagine emotional incomprehension; where has it gone? A practice for Buddhist monks seeking to free themselves from carnal desire was to meditate in the charnel grounds, where bodies of the dead were decomposing. I am also playing off the New Orleans tradition of the brass band funeral march, mixed in with a heavy dose of sadness and grief."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

SJI as a puppet show!


Imagine attending a concert in which a "master puppeteer" presents three shows in an evening. One, based upon a script by Federico Garcia Lorca, one based upon a poem by Wallace Stevens, and one based upon the song "St. James Infirmary." The latter featuring string-marionettes, a hand-painted scrolling backdrop, and a puppeteer who manipulates his characters while belting out the song as a one-man band.

You can find out more about Blair Thomas at his web site: http://www.blairthomas.org/ The photos I have included here to illustrate this post might be misleading - Thomas performs with puppets of many forms and sizes (some as large as the people animating them).

Look into it. This is fascinating!


Monday, November 18, 2013

A cappella SJI: performance video

A couple of months ago, I posted an article about, and a link to, sheet music for an a cappella version of SJI. The composer, Everett Howe, with the JUUL Tones, recently performed this at a church in San Diego. So, first we had the sheet music, now an actual performance (clicking here will take you directly to the video on YouTube; the embedded version below is unfortunately truncated). Enjoy!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Porter Grainger: Sheet Music

Some time back I posted both an MP3 and the lyrics to a 1927 Porter Grainger song called "Song From a Cotton Field." You can see those postings here. The MP3 features Grainger as both pianist and vocalist.

A couple of months ago the sheet music for a number of Grainger songs came up for sale. I could only afford to bid for one of them, and this is it.

There are a few things about the cover that catch my attention. First, of course, is the photograph of the performers. "The Record Boys" (good luck trying to find them in any music database today) are dressed in tuxedos, looking very sophisticated, in order to represent a song with lyrics like:

All my life I've been makin' it
All my life white folks takin' it
This old heart they jus' breakin' it
Ain't got a thing to show for what I've done done

(Of course, in those days publishers would design these covers with an empty frame where the photograph of a performer could be inserted before reprinting the music sheets. It could very well have been another performer of the song, Bessie Brown, who was pictured there. What I mean is, the photograph of The Record Boys was probably their standard publicity photo, and was not chosen with the theme of the particular song in mind. Even so, I still find the contrast jarring.)

The second is the subtitle. "A Southern Classic." There was nothing classic about this song. It was written by Porter Grainger not long before this sheet music was released. But its lyric hearkens back to the cotton fields, and I guess the publishers felt this was a good marketing ploy. I doubt Grainger would have objected; he wrote songs in order to make a living.

And then there is the publisher's stamp at the bottom of the page. None other than Gotham Music Service - the publishing arm of Mills Music, of which Irving Mills was vice-president; his brother Jack was president. (For those new to this subject, Irving Mills was Joe Primrose, the fictional - in more than one way - composer of "St. James Infirmary.")

So, back in 1927 Mills was actually publishing the music of Porter Grainger. This is the same Porter Grainger who, at about this time, wrote "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," which was long considered a Blind Willie McTell composition and a tribute of sorts to "St. James Infirmary," but which was not written by McTell and was recorded before "St. James Infirmary."

The images here should enlarge if you click on them. Pay attention to the small advertisements on the bottom of the pages - which are kind of like intrusive Internet ads. For instance one of them features songwriter Rube Bloom, who had a hit for Mills with "Soliloquy" and who was one of the many who recorded SJI under the Mills umbrella in 1930.




Saturday, September 21, 2013

American roots music in Belgium: The Golden Glows

The Golden Glows (image from their website)
A few months ago I was doing some research on the song "Willie The Weeper." In my most-recent-entry-but-one you can read how "Willie The Weeper" became "Minnie The Moocher" which retained the instrumentation of "St. James Infirmary" while becoming Cab Calloway's signature song at The Cotton Club, and how parts of "Minnie The Moocher" have sometimes become embedded into renditions of "St. James Infirmary." Anyway, while doing this research I stumbled upon a contemporary version of "Willie The Weeper" on YouTube by a Belgian trio called "The Golden Glows." Consisting of two female vocalists and a male vocalist/guitarist, the Golden Glows lean heavily on vocal harmony, and this has been their mainstay through successive CD releases. They do it well. One of their members, Bram Van Moorhem, recently suggested that if I listen to their three CDs in succession, I shall be able to detect an evolution in their musicianship and sound. I did so, and discovered a second connection between The Golden Glows and "St. James Infirmary."

"Willie The Weeper" is from their first CD, titled A Songbook From The 20s. Their most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, is a tribute to the prison songs collected by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm (aka Mississippi State Penitentiary) in Sugar Land, Texas in 1947. (The Golden Glows call these Lomax collections "the holiest of holies," and their treatment is both innovative and reverent.) It was 13 years earlier that Alan and his father, John, recorded James "Iron Head" Baker singing "St. James Hospital" - a song that Alan himself recorded and, through some reasoning that I would describe as weird, declared it to be the link between "The Unfortunate Rake" and "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary."

In a way, that's beside the point. I can only describe The Golden Glows most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, as a remarkable accomplishment. These songs, while sparsely orchestrated, emphasize - in fine European style - the melodic underpinnings of these songs while incorporating a strong percussive drive that represents the pounding of spades and hoes on the hard ground that the prisoners had to work, without respite, day after day, year after year. While I am fond of all their re-creations I think this, A Prison Songbook, is a wonderful achievement. You can see some videos of their work by clicking here.