Friday, March 24, 2006

"Charleston Cabin," A Fresh Mystery

There aren't a lot of opportunities to, you know, break news regarding "St. James Infirmary." But a recent email exchange with Fredrik Tersmeden of Lund, Sweden, has resulted in something that, within the very narrow context of this web site, is pretty interesting.

Mr. Tersmeden is a collector of 1920s jazz and dance 78s. A little while back he added to his collection a copy of Victor 19304. This features Whitey Kaufman's Original Pennsylvania Serenaders, and one side contains a song called "In A Charleston Cabin." Mr. Tersmeden wrote to me to say:

"When I first played this side I was immediately struck by the fact that the trumpet part played at the beginning of the record (with subdued accompaniment by the full band) is a note-for-note rendition of -- you guessed it -- 'St. James Infirmary.' And this on a record which was made on March 21st, 1924 -- three years before Fess Williams and four years before Armstrong!"

At first he figured that perhaps this trumpet player must have simply been quoting a folk melody as inspiration for his solo. "But soon after," he continued, "I found another contemporary version of the same song (on a CD-reissue: Americans In Britain 1920-1925), this one having been made in London in August 1924 by the Carolina Club Orchestra (led by a very young Hal Kemp). [Kemp is pictured above.] And not only does this version include the same 'quote' as a solo (this time on trombone), but it's also played by the full band! So obviously the 'St. James' passage must have been part of the melody as written. Both the Kaufman 78 rpm record and the CD reissue of Kemp's version give the composer of 'Charleston Cabin' as one Roy Reber."

I'm in no position to start collecting 78s. But luckily, thanks to the strange and never-ending miracle of the Internet, I don't have to. It turns out that the Whitey Kaufman's Original Pennsylvania Serenaders recording is simply hanging around online, as part of the amazing Red Hot Jazz Archive. And just as Mr. Tersmeden described, there's quite a similarity in the opening passage of this take to the melody associated with "St. James Infirmary." Go ahead, click through and listen for yourself.

Meanwhile, as quickly as was reasonably possible, I tracked down a copy of the Americans In Britain 1920-1925 CD, which arrived yesterday. Hopefully I won't run afoul of any copyright laws by offering up the song for a listen; about 45 seconds in, the key solo passage/break occurs:

"Charleston Cabin"

Then the song goes back to the main melody. But once again, to me, that passage (done both by the trombone player and the clarinetist) sounds an awful lot like the melody of "St. James Infirmary."

Further poking about on the Red Hot Jazz Archive indicates several other recordings of "Charleston Cabin" were made in the 1920s: by Saxi Holtsworth's Harmony Hounds, in New York, on July 6, 1924; by Ray Miller's Orchestra, in New York, on July 22, 1924; by The Varsity Eight, in New York, on July 29, 1924; and by Alex Hyde's Original New Yorker Jazz Band, in Berlin, in May 1925. The only one of these you can actually listen to is the Saxi Holtsworth's Harmony Hounds version, right here. And, once again, there's the "St. James" melody, about 30 or 40 seconds in, in the manner of the Carolina Club Orchestra's take.

All of this is fascinating -- and, frankly, a little annoying. What could explain it? Mr. Tersmeden offered the "wild theory" that this melody was from a folk song particularly connected to Charleston or South Carolina, and thus "deliberately incorporated to give a 'local flavor' (just like many songs about the South contain short snippets of 'Way down on the Swanee River')."

This is no wild theory at all, in my view. I don't know about the idea that there's a particular South Carolina or Charleston connection (I'm still holding out hope that if there has to be a geographic touchpoint in the United States, it will turn out to be New Orleans), but I'm a believer in the idea that this melody belongs more to folk tradition than any single human being that we'll ever be able to name. I figure that the song I'm so interested in must have been kicking around for a while before Carl Sandburg included it (as "Those Gambler's Blues") in his 1927 book American Songbag, and thus, of course, before Irving Mills (as Joe Primrose) was granted the writing credit (for "St. James Infirmary") in 1929. Anyway, what's news here to me is that it appears Roy Reber claimed at least the melody part of it before Mills did. Was Mills aware of "In A Charleston Cabin"? Was Reber intentionally quoting a specific folk tune? Was Reber aware of Primrose/Mills?

Clearly I'll have to return to this subject later. At the moment, I know practically nothing about Roy Reber; cursory Internet (cough) research suggests that he led a band in California in the 1920s, but for now that's about all I can say. I haven't seen the sheet music for "Charleston Cabin," but according to the web site of the University of New Hampshire, it's in the library there as part of the Alvah Sulloway Sheet Music and Theater Program Collection, and was copyrighted in 1924. Roy Reber is listed as the composer, and Edward B. Marks Music Co. as the publisher. Oddly, there's also a lyricist credit (Sidney Holden), although none of the versions I've heard so far have lyrics.

I'll also mention, quickly, that Whitey Kaufman (per Red Hot Jazz) was from Lebanon, Pennsylvania. His band recorded a number of sides in New York and New Jersey, and evidently toured around the country. Hal Kemp (per the AllMusic entry linked above) was born in 1905, in Alabama, and played clarinet and alto sax. As a 19-year old student at the University of North Carolina, he led the Carolina Club Orchestra. This outfit was booked on a cruise line, and that's how they ended up getting recorded on a London date. He later had a fair amount of success leading the Hal Kemp Orchestra, before dying in a car crash in 1940. Regarding that last detail, I suppose I should admit right now that I don't think Hal Kemp has any substantial role to play in the story of "St. James Infirmary," but I couldn't resist a quick recap of his life story here. If I'm not allowed to indulge in a little off-topic melodrama every now and again, then what's the point in writing about this stuff at all?

This just in (March 26): Our friend and fellow-"St. James" enthusiast/researcher Robert Harwood points out this link to a Duke University library site, which offers some additional clues regarding the lyrics to "Charleston Cabin." It gives the "first line" ("How I hate to waken...") and the "refrain" ("In a Charleston cabin happy I'll be..."). "So," Mr. Harwood suggests, "the lyric is probably pretty pedestrian." Agreed. But a great tip; our hat is off to Mr. Harwood again.