Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Thing Itself

It has occurred to me, of course, that I ought to take a look at the thing itself: The physical record that contained the Louis Armstrong rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” from 1928. While the authorship of the song tends to be credited to Joe Primrose on modern-day Cds and anthologies like the one I own, that’s obviously not the same thing as seeing who got credit at the time. What never occurred to me, for whatever reason, was using eBay to locate this object. I guess I always thought finding it would be a matter some high-hassle activity like going to record fairs or tracking down collectors or something.

The eBay option did, however, occur to Robert Harwood (who out-did my “St. James Infirmary” essay in writing an impressive 80-page book called “A Rake’s Progress”). In November 2005 he dropped me a line about this: Somebody was selling the 78 rpm Armstrong version on eBay. Even better, the seller had posted an image of the label, so for my purposes it wasn’t even necessary to buy the thing. It served Mr. Harwood’s purposes, too: He had also wondered about who got writing credit on the original physical version. What it says on the record, just under the title of the song, is: “(Redman).”

In the most recent version of the “St. James Infirmary” essay, I have a one sentence about a “maddening” stray reference to Don Redman as the song’s composer. I’m not immediately certain where that reference was, but I’ll track it down again at some point. In any case, this was a great find by the estimable Mr. Harwood, and here are his further comments:

“Don Redman played clarinet in the Hot Five - I mean, the Savoy Ballroom Five. Or maybe it was alto sax. Depends upon who you read. I can hear a clarinet, can't identify a saxophone. Anyway, he played on St. James Infirmary - and in the song ‘Tight Like This,’ recorded the same day, his is the high-pitched voice that interjects ‘Oh, it's tight like that, Louis.’

“Before playing with Louis, Redman played and arranged songs for Fletcher Henderson. has a not bad biography of Redman, plus a list of songs he wrote, like "Save It, Pretty Mama." One of his great strengths, it appears, was as a song arranger. And as you know, in those days if you arranged a song, a "traditional song," you might take credit for its composition (unless your manager or band leader beat you to it). Hell, that remains a practice. Johnny Cash, or instance, took the writing credit for ‘Delia’ ten years ago after reworking the lyrics. Same melody.”

This is excellent information. It leaves open the questions that nag and tantalize me most, such as whether Armstrong knew the song back in New Orleans and that’s why he chose to record it; whether Redman (born in West Virginia, apparently) or somebody else was the one who suggested it; how Irving Mills (Joe Primrose) happened to hear it and end up getting writer credit, and so on. But still. Excellent information.

I would love to own that 78, but I didn’t bid on it. It ended up selling for $255, to someone in Japan.