Inquiries into the early years of SJI

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.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sheet music for second trumpet

A reader let me know that, in posting the 1929 orchestral score for St. James Infirmary, I had neglected to include the part for second trumpet.

This score, probably the first published orchestration, included parts for piano, alto sax, bass, trumpet, drums, violin. trombone, banjo. You can find the other sheets scattered through this blog (search "sheet music").

Selling for 50 cents, the score was arranged by famed banjoist Fred Van Eps, and published by Gotham Music Service, an arm of Mills Music, Inc. Mills Music was co-owned by Jack and Irving Mills. Irving Mills was Joe Primrose, who didn't write the song.

Clicking on the image should enlarge it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Radio interview via Old Westbury Web Radio



Back in October of 2012 I published a review of a New York City radio program called St. James Infirmary. I had accidentally bumped into the program while pursuing on-line research. I concluded that 2012 article this way:

But, hey, the dj - a dentist by the name of Michael J. Mand - talks over Toussaint's piano at the beginning of the broadcasts, in fact chats with his audience (in an informal, meandering - appealing - way) before moving into the subsequent playlist, which really is a fascinating cornucopia of popular music past and present. Check out the site, listen for a while; I am sure you will discover something you like.

And it is a very fine program. Michael carefully crafts each weekly show around a theme, and is not afraid to air three successive versions of the same song if it fits the momentum. He can easily move from the 1920s to contemporary recordings, although his favourite timeline seems to be the late '50s to the present day. If you are among those who miss Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, tuning in here might be the salve you have been looking for.

This month Michael interviewed me about the theme song for his program, St. James Infirmary. If you look for the December 2, 2016 show here you can catch the action, and get a taste of an internet radio show/podcast worth following. (The interview itself starts at about 32 minutes in.)

Friday, September 2, 2016

Read the Introduction to "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary"

Some of the characters who appear in
I Went Down to St. James Infirmary.
(Painting and collage by the author,
with apologies to Albert Gleizes.)
We're excited about this book. But many people who read this blog might not know how I Went Down to St. James Infirmary approaches its subject. It occurred to me that a good way to address this would be to post the Introduction to this new, revised edition. (Click the "Read more" button, below.)


You can buy the book from our website via Paypal, using major credit cards; or you can buy it from amazon.com - although, of necessity, at a higher price. Or write to the author.


Thanks to all!
We hope to see you down at St. James Infirmary.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Simon Prager performs "St. James Infirmary Blues" at the Ye Olde Rose & Crown pub

Image of Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre Pub copied from Google Maps
Ye Olde Rose & Crown, one of London's finest olde pubs, stands at 53 Hoe Street. The Walthamstow Folk Club operates out of the pub's back room/theatre on Sunday evenings. On one of those evenings the London roots musician Simon Prager (who finds inspiration in the music of the Rev. Gary Davis) took the stage. A song from that night was - you guessed it - a stirring rendition of "St. James Infirmary."

(You might have to double-click on the image to view in its intended perspective.)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

"This Land is Your Land" - and copyright

Woody Guthrie's song, "This Land is Your Land," has been making the news lately. A class action lawsuit is hoping to bring the song into the public domain.

Guthrie published the song in 1945 (although he wrote it five years earlier). At that time copyright extended for 28 years beyond the date of publication, after which it could be re-registered for a further 28 years. Guthrie did not renew the copyright, and so it should have entered the public domain in 1973. A publishing company, though, registered the song as a new creation in 1956 (eleven years after Guthrie published the song) and renewed it in 1984 - by which time the length of copyright had been extended considerably. Clearly (as with Irving Mills and "St. James Infirmary"), they had no right to ownership of the song.

Guthrie based his melody on earlier songs.

An old turn of the 20th century Baptist hymn called "Oh My Loving Brother":

Which The Carter Family used for their song "Little Darling Pal of Mine," recorded in 1928:
And again for "When the World's on Fire," recorded in 1930:


In this context it is interesting that - as I discuss in "I Went Down to St. James Infirmary" - song publisher Ralph Peer asked the Carters to modify the traditional songs they heard in their native Appalachia in such a way as to allow the songs to move from the public domain into copyrightable material.  Peer then assumed the copyright for his publishing company, and kept the Carters loyal to him by assigning them a
portion of the royalties (which was a better deal than most publishers were offering at the time).

Some writers, such as Barry Mazor in his important (if hagiographic) 2015 biography "Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music," (Chicago Review Press - with a co-copyright credit to Peer's publishing company Southern Music) assert that this is just good business. The reasoning goes that it is the business of song publishing, and the profits that flow from it, that allow these songs to survive and enter public consciousness. In this way capitalism is good for our commonality and for cultural well-being.

More idealistic assertions suggest that song ownership should always reside with the writer, that simply because you have more money does not give you the right to profit excessively from somebody else's work; publishing revenue should be enough. Simply because there is a common practice does not make it a right practice.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

In Celebration - Another Look Out Mama

I am looking back this evening. Reminiscing.

The final edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary was printed in November, 2015, six months ago. A month later Pam and I moved from our acre of land in the village of Val Marie, Saskatchewan, to a three-storey walk-up in the metropolis of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

Once before - at the New Year of 2013 - I ventured away from the principal theme of this blog to post a song by Look out Mama, the trio I belonged to in Val Marie. We held a very occasional gig at the Val Marie Hotel, attended by tens of people (actually, not a bad audience in a village of a hundred souls).

So, in celebration of the second and final edition of I Went Down to St. James Infirmary, and of (approximately) the eighth anniversary of this blog, I am posting another Look Out Mama performance. James Page on lead guitar, Colleen Watson on rhythm guitar, myself on percussion and lead vocal.

As with the song "Look Out Mama" (not to be confused with the name of our trio, Look Out Mama), I wrote this ditty. The lyric is based upon the initial meetings between the philosophers G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky in 1914 Moscow. In earlier years Ouspensky (Dan) had experimented with drugs like ether (in the lyric, Esther) and hashish (Mary Jane) - but soon abandoned them. Lots of poetic license here, and apologies to the real world for that.

This was our first performance of the song (it became more nuanced in later versions). Many thanks to Pam Woodland for the video, recorded live at the Val Marie Hotel in 2013. (Double-click on the video the get the full image.)



Dan & Van

Dan had been traveling with Esther and Mary Jane
But one day they left him standing out in the rain
Bells were sounding across the river
Through the mists he could see
That all of this time they'd been moving through the same country
               
Where do you want to go, where are you going to stay           
You know it's all the same 
Place you are in, place with a different name

Van once trained tigers in Turkestan
Herded horses in Montana and Saskatchewan
He'd worked on the trains, drove camels across the plains
Picked grapes from the vines
Dug for coal and gold down in the mines

Where do you want to go, where are you going to stay           
You know it's all the same 
Place you are in, place with a different name

Dan met Van in an ice palace in Rome
Dan said to Van I've been searching for my home
Van told Dan, better sit down here
You've no place left to go
Keep your eyes open for the next hundred years or so
Try to your eyes open for the next hundred years or so
Try to keep your eyes open, you've nowhere left  to go

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Book Review from Malcolm Shaw

I Went Down to St. James Infirmary just received the following review from the magazine VJM, otherwise known as Vintage Jazz Mart. The reviewer, Malcolm Shaw, has long been intensely involved with jazz history; among many other accomplishments he was editor of Brian Rust's legendary compendium Jazz and Ragtime Records (1897-1942). (Incidentally, I used those Rust volumes extensively during my research into the "St. James Infirmary" song - and so it was incredibly rewarding for me to read Shaw's review.)

I was touched by some of Malcolm's comments:  "Bob Harwood is a rara avis. That this Irish-Canadian finds within him the inspired doggedness to try and unravel this massive ball of tangled yarn not just once, but now for the third time in a decade and a half ... is an enigma in itself. He does it in amazing detail ... This work is unique, so if you don’t have it, get it."

Here is that review:

BOOK: I WENT DOWN TO ST. JAMES INFIRMARY (2nd edition)
By Robert W. Harwood
Harland Press, 1426 Newport Avenue, #306, Victoria, BC V8S 5E9, Canada
Softbound, 255pp., illustrated, US$29.50 incl. shipping

The creative process, that apparently aleatory, yet in hindsight demonstrably logical path by which works of art and entertainment evolve into new and different forms, is in itself as fascinating as the study of the works themselves.
Bob Harwood uses St. James Infirmary as a case study in musical genealogy. Works of art, he says, don’t come into being as unique flashes of inspiration. They are influenced by what went before, and this particular song blends elements from several antecedents. Forms of artistic expression, he says, (in this case tunes and lyrics) bump into each other across genres and cultural boundaries and lead to fresh, rather than new, creations. In opening the book, Bob quotes Jack Teagarden’s 1941 performance of the tune with the Armstrong All-Stars, where Tea calls it “the oldest blues song I know.” His reaction, to quote part of the book’s subtitle, is: “where did this dang song come from, anyway?” And thus begins the journey.
The book is about a musical enigma, but it could equally well be about any work of art in human history. Every creation is inspired by or bases itself on earlier works, says Harwood. The tune comes from … somewhere, but just where? It pops up in several differing forms, a series of tunes and airs in different eras and venues that bump into one another over time, culminating in one particular rendering’s emergence as an immense hit at the end of the 1920s. The song’s supposed antecedents go back before the turn of the century and in some cases, over the ocean; a cluster of concurrent hand-me-downs; selectively contorted and adapted to a greater or lesser extent by whomever was the performer, sometimes under similar and sometimes totally different titles. There are the supposed ancestors and congeners: The Unfortunate Rake; Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues; Gambler’s Blues; some with musical “branches” that reach out even to the western states where I now live, like Streets of Laredo. Which raises the question: did Billy the Kid know and hum some forebear of St. James Infirmary a hundred and twenty years ago, a few miles from where I sit? Go on, tell me I’m weird.
Although clearly “traditional” and part of the public domain, the version of the song we all know is then legally registered, claimed and defended as the creation of one Irving Mills, under the name of Joe Primrose. Even at the time of the claim, it was obvious that Mills’ claim to have written the tune was as valid as Ferd Morton’s to have created jazz. It was well known in the music world of the day that there were other, earlier versions even within that decade, several of them on record, some attributed to different authors or different sources; some with similar words, others with similar melodies; each version, it seems, spawning the next. Harwood meticulously follows each thread of supposed origin; supports some of them and debunks others.
A handful of names we all know pop up as principal players in the story: Don Redman, Blind Willie McTell, Fess Williams. There are many others, less familiar to jazz and blues enthusiasts, whose fingerprints are also all over the story. Incongruously, even Bob Dylan enters the story late in Act V. It’s a fascinating tale.
Bob Harwood is a rara avis. That this Irish-Canadian finds within him the inspired doggedness to try and unravel this massive ball of tangled yarn not just once, but now for the third time in a decade and a half (the first was Harwood’s A Rake’s Progress, in 2002; then this book’s first edition, six years later) is an enigma in itself. He does it in amazing detail, following each trail to a conclusion or… in some cases, to none. I won’t tread on Mark’s very fine review of the 1st Edition in 2008’s Winter issue, because the substance of the work is the same; but rather point out what the changes and differences are between editions. First, this one is longer, because it has new stuff about some of the actors in the drama. And there is an index, where previously there wasn’t. There is closer documentation of the origins of the different lyrical strains in the song, especially the “Let her go, let her go…” verse. The text of each chapter has been entirely rewritten, end-to-end, for clarity (did I say Harwood was dogged?) And in particular, the relationship of the song to The Unfortunate Rake, stated by some to be the indisputable root source of the ditty, is reevaluated and found to be no more solid in that category than anyone else’s theory of the song’s origin.
There is also a discussion in depth about Mills’ assertion and defence of his claim to copyright on the work, or whether the material he claimed to be his was even copyrightable, since it came from the public domain. Then there’s the question of copyright in general and its societal value. As one who has seen my own work and that of colleagues similarly snaffled and locked up for an eon or two, I also have a dog in that particular fight. As clearly occlusive and reprehensible as it may seem, the “grab it and go” practice became common with musical compositions, as Tin Pan Alley grew and the music business became immensely lucrative. Certainly, Consolidated Music Publishing, the owner/operator of Chicago’s OKeh brand, routinely paid black composer-performers including Louis Armstrong $25 per selection for both the recorded performance and the publishing rights to the song. Louis spent the fee in a week, but the royalties went on for decades, and they didn’t go to him. Harwood makes a cogent argument that, since all artistic creation builds on the precedent body of work, the copyright process stops the creative and innovative process cold. As it was for Mills then, or for whomsoever today, it’s not about ethics or truth; it’s a question of who gets to the copyright office first.
The book is one of a kind. Bob Harwood states that this is the end of the story, as far as he has it in him to tell it. This work is unique, so if you don’t have it, get it.
     Malcolm Shaw, Vintage Jazz Mart Review, Summer 2016

Friday, April 29, 2016

SJI as inspiration for a major 21st century play


"Exhilirating ...  ingenious, impossible to resist!" (San Francisco Chronicle)

"A high energy hallucination ... one of the best musical productions I've ever seen at American Conservatory Theater!" (SF Weekly)


These are just two of many enthusiastic reviews of the musical drama, The Unfortunates. A surrealistic tale of gambling, war, inner (and outer) conflict, disease (inner and outer), the play emerges as a startling metaphor for the strangeness of 21st century life, and the historical flow of events that led us here.

The play's title is derived from the old British song, "The Unfortunate Rake," which - according to popular myth - traveled the ocean and eventually transformed into "St. James Infirmary." I am convinced that the connection between the two songs is more tenuous than has been generally assumed, and that SJI was more firmly rooted in American bedrock. But songs do travel strange paths. They influence each other. They immigrate and emigrate and evolve, the song of today standing squarely on the shoulders of its predecessors. And so SJI serves as a suitable metaphor. Big Joe ("In the corner stood Big Joe McKinney...") is the main character, although it is a strong ensemble production.

You can find a comprehensive overview here (as a pdf): "Insight into the play, the playwrights, and the production" of The Unfortunates.

Below, you can watch four of the five creators of The Unfortunates discuss their play, including its intimate connection to the historical movement of song, and the centrality of "St. James Infirmary" to the genesis and shape of the production.



(Double-click on these videos to see them in their proper dimensions.)

"Bold and bizarre ... diverse and electrifying!" (StarkInsider.com)
"Richly imagined, slightly surreal ... a high octane mashup of music and modern-day myth." (San Francisco Examiner)
"Red-hot! Gospel, hip-hop and blues light this funky steampunk fantasy ... electrifies from start to finish." (Bay Area News Group)

Here is a trailer for an early version of the play, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (like Bob Dylan, they change things as they go along):




"A wonderfully demented antiwar parable steeped in Louis Armstrong's classic 'St. James Infirmary,' this is a surreal 90-minute frolic from the cabaret to the gallows and back. ... The healing power of music is a blessing for us as well as The Unfortunates." (The Mercury News)


"St. James Infirmary" continues to inspire, over a century later.