Robert W. Harwood – I Went Down To St. James Infirmary | Book Review

Robert W. HarwoodI Went Down To St. James Infirmary

Genius Music Books

258 pages Softcover edition

Originally published in 2008, and now in its third edition, this book delves into the origins of a truly classic blues song. One might think that several hundred pages on one song amounts to a fair degree of overkill, but author Robert Harwood’s research uncovered more than a few surprising twists and turns in the song’s genesis.

Harwood admits that his first effort at chronicling the song’s history, A Rake’s Progress in 2004, was a fool’s errand as much of the information he used was proven to be inaccurate by subsequent research. Determined to get it right, he has continued his voyage of discovery, and has updated his work as new additional significant information was discovered.

The story line seems to be taken from a Hollywood script. Within a few pages in the “Introduction,” he manages to set off on his quest with references to jazz trombone great Jack Teagarden, singer Lou Rawls, Bob Dylan, and Blind Willie McTell, who claimed to have written the song, “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues,” which Harwood offers was actually written by Porter Grainger. A piano player who once backed up Bessie Smith, Grainger was a prolific songwriter, with hundreds of tunes to his name. His tune is one of several the author feels had an influence on “St. James Infirmary,” including the traditional English folk song “The Unfortunate Rake” and the “Streets of Laredo.”

As promising as those threads may be, Harwood ultimately finds what might be the holy grail in Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag, published in 1927 with music and lyrics for 290 songs, including two versions of “Those Gambler Blues,” neither of which mention St. James Infirmary. However, lyrically, both bore a strong resemblance to the song that ultimately has captured the attention of music fans for decades. It all started in New York City in 1927 when Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra recorded the song for the first time.

From there, the tale moves on to Carl “Deacon” Moore, a singing drummer and impressive showman, who worked with composer Phil Baxter and his band. The duo claimed to have authored a number of songs, including the title song. Moore indulged in plenty of hillbilly humor based on his upbringing in Arkansas. That leads Harwood into a review of lost art of minstrelsy, certainly an influence on Moore, and the issues of black face and Jim Crow laws emerging through song & dance routines.

As the story continues, another variation of the song was recorded by a banjo-picking Baptist minister by the name of Buell Kazee from the rural Kentucky mountains. His version came after the one by Williams, but months before the notable version by the legendary Louis Armstrong hit the market, which adds more mystery to the saga as noted arranger Don Redman is the credited songwriter. The success of Armstrong’s record caused a flurry of activity as various songwriters filed copyrights under different titles.

One man moved to the top of the heap. Irving Mills worked for Mills Music, Inc, a company founded by his older brother. Irving was responsible for seeking out great songs and talented artists to play them. He started copyrighting songs, often using the name Joe Primrose, as he did with “St. James Infirmary.” That takes Harwood deep into the fascinating world of music publishing, including a detour through the tangled web around the song “Lovesick Blues,” first recorded by the black-faced minstrel Emmitt Miller, then later a huge hit for Hank Williams. Equally interesting are the references to a cast of characters including Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and heavy weight champion Jack Johnson.

The final chapter reviews a 1931 court case involving Mills Music and a rival publisher over the use of the St. James title. Some witnesses testified as to hearing the song much earlier, including one who claimed to have heard it in Florida in 1916 while working with the Silas Green traveling black minstrel show. The value of the copyright is borne out in the fact that the Armstrong record sold over 300,000 copies in just the first year after it’s release. In the end, Harwood manages to pull all of the pieces together to make sense of complicated story with many interesting plot twists.

The book also includes several appendixes with the authors comments on a number of early recordings of the song in it’s various variations, additional history on Porter Grainger and Carl Moore, and a section on the different versions, with 23 separate listings for 1927-1930. Included throughout the book are B&W photos, press releases, musical scores, and advertising fliers that give added details to the story.

“St. James Infirmary” is an undisputed classic, with covers by artists ranging from Bobby “Blue” Bland to Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Kudos to Harwood for continuing to update his work as new, meaningful information is uncovered. His research has allowed him to illuminate a compelling story for readers, one that will certainly add new layers to their appreciation for the song.

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