Thursday, April 13, 2006

"A Rake's Progress," Part Four: Q&A with Robert W. Harwood

Here is the final installment in a four-post series drawn from an interview with A Rake’s Progress author Robert W. Harwood. (Here are Parts One, Two, and Three.)

The way we first connected, as I recall, is that you helped me out with an open question I'd had in early versions of the "St. James Infirmary" essay, about who on earth "Moore-Baxter" (credited as the writer on Fess Williams' 1927 recording of "Gambler’s Blues") might be. As you write in A Rake's Progress, Moore-Baxter refers to Carl "Squeakin' Deacon" Moore and Phil Baxter. Moore, a drummer, and Baxter, a band-leader best known for writing novelties.

I was curious about this Moore-Baxter credit for the Fess Williams song, of course, but was unable to find very much. But one day I got lucky while searching the web. Just happened to put in the right request. I came across a remarkable site devoted to old hillbilly music ( which, even now, is the only one I've found with any information about Moore. It also made mention of Baxter -- and he was a bit easier to research, although he's something of a forgotten jazz man. They both have interesting stories. I really left it at that for a year or so, until my curiosity resurfaced. I mean, what if they did actually write the song? It seemed unlikely, but Baxter had penned some famous (at the time) tunes, that were performed by a wide range of artists -- Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Rudy Vallee, Benny Goodman, Bob Wills . . . But there's a big divide between "Gambler's Blues" and "Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas," or "Faded Summer Love." And, you know, "Gambler's Blues" just doesn't sound like a composed song. But, who knows? Much is made of Armstrong's 1928 "St. James Infirmary" and Ellington's and . . . but this was the first known recording of it, and it's been virtually ignored. Did Irving Mills actually steal the song from Moore and Baxter? I tried to find out.

My first step was to contact the webmaster, Dave Sichak, of that hillbilly site. It's amazing how helpful people can be. He sent me scans of some articles about Carl Moore and, in a later email, asked if I was aware of a recent book called Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop -- A History, in which Baxter is mentioned (very briefly) as the author of “G.B.” I ordered the book, tracked down one of the authors, Chuck Haddix, who -- again remarkably helpful -- mailed me some old news clippings about Phil Baxter and directed me to a Kansas City librarian, Mary Beveridge. So now I had information that Baxter claimed he had privately published "Gambler's Blues" in Texas, possibly in 1926, and that he was in some litigation with a New York publisher over the copyright.

Following that I have exchanged emails with quite a few people, hoping to track down Baxter's original score. Some of these people are authorities on the music of the time -- who did, more often than not, refer me to other experts. One of these, Bruce Nemerov, informed me that "privately published" could well mean little more than paying a publishing house to print out a handful of copies for personal distribution. So it's been a real needle-in-a-haystack search. And not very fruitful. But I still have a few inquiries out there.

One afternoon it occurred to me that, perhaps, I was looking in the wrong place.

A kind of serendipity led me to a law librarian at the New York City Appellate Court. He was, again, more helpful than I had any right to expect. Now I have copies of court rulings from the early 30s that, although they don't much illuminate the Moore-Baxter question, do cast some light on "St. James Infirmary" as an owned song. I don't want to reveal more than that, as the pieces are still coming together. But it has spurred me on to rewriting A Rake's Progress -- the title might have to change, though, as “SJI” has emerged as the real core of the book.

And then, Rob, you reminded me of Carl Sandburg's American Songbag which, while published in 1927, was completed by 1926. The Songbag features three versions of "Those Gambler's Blues." Since Sandburg was collecting traditional folk songs for this book, it is indeed unlikely that anyone as recent as Carl Moore and Phil Baxter could have created it. Your postings of those 1924 "Charleston Cabin" recordings reinforces that. There is so little known of “SJI” prior to its first recordings. As you wrote about "SJI" in Letters From New Orleans, "It's startling to look back less than 100 years in search of answers, only to confront the unknowable."

(By the way, you can't find any CDs today with Moore's music, although a few old recordings do exist. Baxter can be found on CDs like Jazz The World Forgot or Hottest Stuff You Never Heard. Neither recorded "Gambler's Blues.")

And finally: What do you do when you're not researching the "St. James Infirmary" and “Gambler’s Blues” and related matters?

What do I do? After writing the book, I started to teach myself how to play guitar, and now can manage (easily arguable, this) a reasonable facsimile of "Gambler's Blues" -- my approach to the song keeps changing. For the past half-dozen years I've worked in an outpatient rehabilitation clinic specializing in geriatrics; the best staff I've ever worked with, and the clientele are a delight (a goodly number remember “SJI,” but are more likely to have been familiar with Cab Calloway. That is, even though many are in their 80s, “St. James Infirmary” was a bit before their time, and so the 1940s music of Cab Calloway and his contemporaries (Benny Goodman, et al) was something they were more likely to have paid attention to). I take many, many photographs (and have actually sold a handful). I live with my 19-year-old son and my wife (we will be celebrating our first anniversary in May) in southern Ontario.

My sincere thanks to Robert Harwood for his thoughtful answers to my barrage of questions. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the revised and expanded version of his book A Rake’s Progress (perhaps under a new title), which he aims to complete in the fall, or thereabouts. To be notified when it is done and available for purchase at a very reasonable price, contact him at I recommend this.