Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Monday, August 31, 2015

Have you seen this? Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase dance SJI

Televised in 1958, on the first of Astaire's NBC variety shows ("An Evening With Fred Astaire"). Jonah Jones supplied trumpet and vocals.

Astaire would have been 59 when this was televised. Barrie Chase was 24.

(Double-click on the video to see the full frame.)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A new album to celebrate Groanbox's tenth anniversary!

The roots / world music band, Groanbox, has long been a friend of this blog. If you search through these pages you will find them playing “St. James Infirmary” with flair and authority. You will find (from when they were a duo called “The Goanbox Boys”) a song called “Darling Lou,” which has SJI as its base. You will find Groanbox accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman performing SJI with a gypsy band in Bucharest, and with an experimental classical chamber group in Chicago. And now, Groanbox – grown into a quartet – are celebrating their tenth anniversary with the release of a self-titled CD.

This might be the strangest, the most ambitious of their six releases – and also their most accessible. Two years in the making, it started in 2013 in the forests of Northern Ontario where they found inspiration in the percussive possibilities of fallen trees. “Deep tree diving, oh.” In the echoes of deep bat-rich caves. “Adios Plato.” In the sounds and the quiet of the wild spaces, where a chipmunk took them far from the noise of the Demon Trucks that carry away the harvest of the forest. “Ohhh don’t press your luck, run run away from the demon truck.” In an encounter with a boulder split by the slow-growing root of a tree. “The prisoner of war will break free of the stocks/The root will one day split the rock.” Time spent in an abandoned cabin, said to have once been a hideout for Al Capone. “We’re all dressed in our best luck ... In the older days this room would be filled with smoke ... Ah, I just need a blanket for these bloody finches in my head.” And then into New Orleans earlier this year with its famous ninth ward that is still recovering from catastrophic flooding a decade ago. “Barefoot in the ninth....” With its continuing echoes of Katrina. “Katrina, I wish you’d come and listen to the music coming up through the floor.” That song features guest musician, New Orleans trumpeter Kenneth Terry (written about previously on this blog). Velvet-voiced Venezuelan singer Yulene Velasquez adds vocal flourishes that shape the “The Face That You Deserve” into a sweet exotic charmer. “Each and every drop never stops, till it’s found it’s way/Every single beam finds its meaning in another’s eye.”

There are four instrumental pieces on this album of eleven songs. With titles like “Orchestrated Entropy” and “Graveyard of Pines,” they bristle with original ideas, unusual transitions, atypical harmonies. And with an instrumental arsenal that includes banjo, guitar, assorted hand percussion, accordion, trombone, bells, fife, throat-singing, thumb piano, bird calls, fiddle, piano, and the famous Freedom Boot, these multi-instrumentalists have created a sound that rewards close listening. This is stellar musicianship in which one can hear touches of Eric Satie, gypsy music, African and Middle Eastern rhythms and melodies, blues, New Orleans roustabouts, avant-garde experimentation ... and  much more.

Groanbox took a big risk here. Most of this album was recorded extemporaneously, and the band has rewoven the fabric of their music.

(You can investigate further at the Groanbox site.)

Below, I have been given permission to post an as yet unreleased video about the making of this album. Double-click in order to view it full-frame, or go to YouTube.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

And here is Hairy Holler (from Oshawa, Ontario)

To tell you the truth, I have never thought of Oshawa as a hotbed of musical inspiration. Located about 60 kilometers east of Toronto it has a population of 150,000 - including the eight musicians in Hairy Holler.

They have a rip-roaring version of "St. James Infirmary," which I encourage you to watch. It's a treat. A short and informative article about them, along with the video stream, can be found by clicking here. (excerpt: "Fusing folk, punk, blues, jazz, Roma and swing sounds into their unique music, the new video is an equally celebratory affair.")

It sounds like SJI will be part of their second CD release, later this year. Their first album is sold on the Bandcamp site. You can get a sense of their range by listening to, say, the samples for "Bourbon Blues" followed by "Love Is A Dog From Hell." The video below shows off their enthusiasm and musicianship. (Videos embedded on this site are usually truncated, losing some of the right-side edge. So, you might want to watch it on YouTube or at the Canadian music magazine site, exclaim . . . or, double-click on the video feed below.)

This is exciting. And, you know, they might not be out of place in New Orleans.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Merry Prankster riffs off St. James Infirmary

In this video Ken Babbs (Merry Prankster who was engineer and chief conspirator on that "psychedelic bus" called Further that rolled across America in the 1960s spreading a message that there are many many ways in which we can view our world) riffs off "St. James Infirmary." His lyric recalls his good friend and fellow Prankster Ken Kesey. Kesey died in 2001 at the age of 66. Babbs is still a force to be reckoned with at 76.

Babbs and Kesey are probably best remembered through Tom Wolfe's account of their journeys, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And so they are both forever linked to the popularization of LSD in Amerika. I think they felt that the country and the world, everybody, was in very deep trouble and needed a quick wake-up. They did not hold any notion that this substance could be used for entertainment; rather they saw it as a way of helping us see the urgency of our situation, and the need for personal change.

"Where is the Revolution at?" Babbs asks in this video:

Mercy comes before justice
The carrot comes before the stick
And Love is the only compass

You can trust to guide you
Down the mean muddy mad streets
Of Mainstreet America.

(You can see this full-frame at YouTube by clicking here)

Friday, June 5, 2015

Neil McCormick's 100 Greatest Songs

Neil McCormick - musician and music critic for the Telegraph - recently listed, with comment, his 100 greatest popular songs of all time. "Any such list will always be personal rather than definitive," he wrote, "we all have songs that sing in our hearts."

Not only do we find the usual names from these sorts of lists - Bob Dylan, The Beatles, David Bowie, and so on - but also Vera Lynn, Chet Baker, Julie London, etc.

Way up there at the number 7 spot is a song from 1928: Louis Armstrong and "St. James Infirmary."

Ahhh, Neil, you are a man of taste.

Interested? Click HERE for the link.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ward-Bergeman and eighth blackbird at the Curtis Institute of Music

I know noble accents
And lucid inescapable rhythms:
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

That is the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens' Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

The chamber group, eighth blackbird (lower case is deliberate), are an adventurous sextet with three Grammy trophies who explore the edges of the modern repertoire, from Reich and Lerdahl to, well, "St. James Infirmary." Clarinet, flute, violin, viola, percussion, piano, cello . . . this is a virtuosic ensemble of great depth and feeling.

Recently they met with composer, singer, accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman at the Curtis Institute of Music in Chicago, for a rendition of a Ward-Bergeman arrangement of SJI. Readers of this blog know of Michael Ward-Bergeman as an accomplished composer of contemporary classical music, as well as a musician deeply committed to roots music, blues, Americana ...

The link below is via YouTube. You can also access this video through Ward-Bergeman's site at In fact, he has recently posted the score for this performance on his site. You can read it by clicking here. The performance is eight minutes of stellar musicianship and takes us to many places, including a lively gypsy campfire.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Porter Grainger on film?

Porter Grainger pops up frequently on this blog, partly as the composer of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," partly because so little is known about him, and I hold hope that someone will come forward with more information.

I am aware of only two photographs of Grainger - in one of them he is part of a large group of black composers in the 1930s, including Jelly Roll Morton and W.C. Handy. It is likely that he also appeared in a short film.

Yesterday I was reading an updated Wikipedia entry on Grainger which included these words: "He was also Mamie Smith's accompanist in the 1929 film short Jailhouse Blues." I found the video on YouTube, as an Italian upload. The pianist is briefly visible at the beginning of the film. So ... what do you think? Is this Porter Grainger?

The film lasts just over one minute. Smith was forty-six when this film was made. She was one of the pioneers of early blues recording; in her heyday she was immensely popular, appearing on stage in extravagant dresses while dancers and acrobats spun around her. Grainger was thirty-eight, and at the height of his career.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

More on Blair Thomas, puppeteer

Puppeteer Blair Thomas in front of his
stage. (Image captured from Vimeo.)
A year ago I wrote two posts about puppeteer Blair Thomas who, among many ambitious undertakings (such as an adaptation of Moby Dick), has developed a St. James Infirmary puppet show. You can find my original postings here, including one in which Thomas explains his approach to the SJI show.

Yesterday I stumbled upon a video on Vimeo. It is almost half-an-hour long, and documents an entire SJI performance.

Blair Thomas, in white-face, is in front of the stage playing multiple instruments (and, I think, creating sound loops that play on while he attends to the puppet characters), carrying a coffin on his back, flying the unfortunate woman up to heaven. And, of course, he is also behind the stage, pulling the strings that animate the characters in front of a rolling backdrop.

It is a complicated choreography, and a most engaging performance. It makes me aware of how much puppetry has changed since, as a small lad in Belfast, I watched "Punch and Judy" in the park. (Here, in this SJI performance, Thomas references early puppetry techniques. In other works his approach can be very different.)

This is really interesting!  You can watch the video here: Vimeo - Blair Thomas and St. James Infirmary.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cory Seznec: Beauty In The Dirt

The roots-music group, Groanbox, has been a friend of this blog for some time now. You can find them on YouTube performing versions of "St. James Infirmary," or their own variation, "DarlingLou." Each member of the trio are accomplished musicians (accordionist and multi-instrumentalist Michael Ward-Bergeman, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Paul Clifford, and guitarist/banjoist and multi-instrumentalist Cory Seznec) who branch out into multiple projects of their own, some of them of a most esoteric nature. Earlier this year Seznec released his first solo album, Beauty In The Dirt.

Two of the songs on this album are covers - "East. St. Louis Blues" was written by Blind Willie McTell, and recorded by him in 1933. "East Virginia" is a traditional song with very long roots, recorded by- among many others- banjoist Buell Kazee in 1927 and guitarist David Bromberg in 2007. Seznec credits the influence of string duo The Alabama Sheiks' "Travelin' Railroad Blues"  on his song "(21st Century) Traveling Man." Well, the Alabama Sheiks were in the studio in 1931 for that one. (The Alabama Sheiks recorded a total of four songs - you don't get much more obscure than that.)

I mention this because while Seznec did not include "St. James Infirmary" on this disc, the blog you are reading covers not only the song itself, but the period in which it found popularity. And this, from the blues to Appalachia, is the musical period that resonates throughout Beauty In The Dirt

The CD opens with a brief instrumental, "Southern Bound 1" which, in variations, appears three more times as a kind of unifying theme. And then . . . "Dragon Tree." As with many of these songs you might find  yourself scratching your head and searching your memory: it sounds familiar, like a traditional song from the early days of American settlement. But it is an original composition. And so it goes, song after song.

For instance, "Sisyphus" opens with a traditional sort of lyric/melody:

You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
You know I feel the spirit and I'm so glad
The world can't do me no harm

And then:

The stolen throne of Sisyphus hath crumbled beneath his feet
Condemned to push a giant boulder borne of his own greed and deceit

Even with a lyric like this, the song feels as if it had been written in a bygone time.

There is also a significant African influence here, both in the strength of his melodies and in the restrained use of percussion. Seznec - who spends much of his time in Africa - plays ngoni, a sort of gourd-lute, on some of these songs.

This might be the best album I have heard this year, with superlative musicianship throughout. A chorus from Seznec's "Dragon Tree" gives a hint of how we might approach these songs:

Hey children let's go down
Down to the creek get mud on our feet
Hey children let's go down
And leave the future behind us

To put a bit more of an SJI spin on this, two of the early musicians mentioned earlier, Buell Kazee and Blind Willie McTell, recorded their own versions of "St. James Infirmary." Buell Kazee was - in 1928 - the second person to record the song, which he titled "Gambling Blues." Blind Willie McTell recorded SJI for record shop owner Ed Rhodes in 1956. That recording has never been released.

Friday, September 12, 2014

MP3 - The Kenneth Terry Jazz Band updates SJI

Michael Ward-Bergeman, friend of this blog, sent me a copy of a local - that is, New Orleans - rendition of "St. James Infirmary." Now, this is a real treat, because the performer, Kenneth Terry, has given permission to post the performance on this site. A great talent, his recorded output as a feature artist is woefully inadequate. As soon as you tune in to the music below, I have no doubt you will agree. Talent and renown are not necessarily related.

At about nine minutes, Terry's rendition flows through a history of jazz, flawlessly connecting the past to the present, and includes an unabashed nod to Louis Armstrong's 1928 recording. There is not a wasted second.

Kenneth Terry is one of the premiere trumpet players in New Orleans, as a performer, as a band leader, and as a teacher. The members of the band on this recording are:

kenneth terry - vocals, trumpet
julius mcgee - tuba
keith anderson - trombone
elliott callier - saxaphone
dwane scott - drums
john michael bradford - trumpet
bruce brackman - clarinet

You can buy the CD from Kenneth if you happen upon a performance of his in New Orleans.

I feel honoured to offer this to you. At over nine minutes, here is: "Kenneth Terry Jazz Band - St. James Infirmary."

Many thanks to Michael Ward-Bergeman for alerting me to this and sending the file. Thanks to Kenneth Terry for giving permission to post the recording here.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Friend and fellow SJI enthusiast, Rob Walker, recently sent me a link to the "tease" for the finale of HBO's Boardwalk Empire. The theme music is, of course (otherwise why would I be writing this?) "St. James Infirmary."

Thanks, Rob!!
ps For those who might not remember, Rob Walker ran the first blog that was primarily concerned with "St. James Infirmary" - check it out here.

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):