"A Rake's Progress," Part Three: Q&A with Robert W. Harwood
Q: One of the most interesting passages in your book, to me, concerns Jimmie Rodgers. His "Gambler's Blues" version is one of my favorites, but I have only passing knowledge of him, so I was quite interested to learn that at one point he "toured with various minstrel groups, performing comedy routines and singing in blackface." And that Louis Armstrong plays on "Blue Yodel #9"! There may not be more to say about any of this, but just out of curiosity, did you come across more regarding any relationship/interaction between Rodgers and Armstrong? And is there more to be said -- even in the form of reckless speculation -- about where Rodgers might have come upon "Gambler's Blues"?
A: This is what I know of the Armstrong/Rodgers collaboration, and it isn't much: In 1930, Louis came to L.A., to work at the New Sebastian Cotton Club -- and his first film appearance in the drama Ex-Flame. (The film was released in 1931, but no copies survive -- I suspect Louis made a cameo appearance, probably as a club performer.) His first recording session after his arrival in L.A. was with Jimmie Rodgers, on "Blue Yodel No. 9," but as far as I'm aware nobody knows how this pairing happened. I have the impression that he was brought in as a session musician. However, Rodgers’ producer, Ralph Peers, was once a talent scout for OKeh records, and as Nolan Porterfield points out in his biography, Jimmie Rodgers, Peers knew Armstrong from that time (and in later years boasted that he'd "invented Louis Armstrong") -- so perhaps it was simply Peers’ relationship with both men that brought them together in a happy coincidence of time and place.
(As I explain in the book, Peers met Rodgers while acting as a talent scout for Victor when, in 1927, he set up auditions in an empty warehouse in Bristol, Tennessee. Victor had decided to test the sales potential of country music This time, Rodgers passed the test, and so began his recording career. Previously, in 1925, on the top floor of the Vanderbilt Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina, OKeh records (with Peers as the talent scout) set up a studio for recordings and auditions. There is some dispute as to whether Rodgers was there, but a blackface singer named Emmett Miller was. One can be pretty sure that Rodgers developed his famous yodel through listening to Miller -- and Miller's version of "Lovesick Blues" (co-written, by the way, by Irving Mills) was later adapted by Hank Williams, and is the song that propelled Williams to stardom.)
Anyway, back to the question. It seems that Armstrong's contribution to the recording went unacknowledged until 1949, when Louis identified his playing while listening to the record with Max Jones and other collectors. A photograph of this 1949 event appears in Max Jones' and John Chilton's 1971 biography Louis. Armstrong could recall making the record, but not the circumstances that led up to it. The pianist on the record has been identified as Lil Armstrong, Louis' ex-wife.
About how Rodgers encountered "Gambler's Blues" -- your guess is as good as mine. As you know, his initial version of the song was recorded in 1930, and then he co-wrote a variation, "Gambling Barroom Blues," that he recorded two years later. So, this was very close to the genesis of the "Gambler's Blues"/"St. James Infirmary" songs in popular recordings. We just don't know how familiar people were with this song before Williams and then Armstrong submitted the first recordings, or how many variations were floating around. For instance, The Hokum Boys recorded two wonderful -- musically similar but lyrically very different -- variations of the song during the last half of 1929, but where did they come from? Did they modify the lyrics themselves, or did the songs already exist in that form?
This, I think, leads us towards the notion that "Gambler's Blues" germinated within black America. Certainly Rodgers was one of the first, if not the first, white artist to record this song. White performers had been making records for decades, but nothing like "Gambler's Blues" had been pressed into wax until black musicians started making recordings as featured artists.
Tomorrow: Part Four, Fess Williams, legal complications, and some hints at the latest developments in Mr. Harwood’s research. He is working on a revised and expanded version of his book A Rake’s Progress, 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 email@example.com. I recommend this.