Meeting Jimmie Rodgers

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David Cantwell writes:

Long before Elvis departed us prematurely, and even before Hank Williams died at the peak of his powers and fame, there was Jimmie Rodgers…that gone-too-soon pop celebrity prototype who died of tuberculosis in 1933, a mere 35 years young. Known during his daylily-quick career as both America’s Blue Yodeler and the Singing Brakeman—thirty years later, he was additionally dubbed the Father of Country Music—Jimmie Rodgers was a Superstar before the term existed. He was also an International Multi-media Brand before the concept existed, and he was “America’s Original Roots Music Hero.”

That last comes from a great new book by my longtime colleague and dear friend Barry Mazor. One way to describe Barry’s Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Sounds of a Century is to say it is the biography of an image—or rather of several Rodgers-inspired images as they’ve come down to us through the years and how they’ve been used differently by fans in succeeding generations. In the phrasing of some of Barry’s chapter titles, Rodgers was “A Doomed Singer-songwriter with Guitar,” and he was a progenitor of Western music, “An Easterner in a Cowboy Hat.” He was a yodeler, too, of course, and he was considered a white blues singer, and a rough-and-rowdy antecedent for rock ‘n’ roll, and a hillbilly, and a vaudevillian. Rodgers canvassed all neighborhoods, town and country, and that’s a quality we now understand goes a long way toward putting the “super” in superstar.

Many of Rodgers’ images can appear contradictory at first blush. Barry explains, for instance, that Rodgers was well known to his fans as a one-time railroad employee. At the same time, this “Singing Brakeman” often sang from the point of view of the many hobos who just then were being tossed from trains on a fairly regular basis—and tossed by brakemen, no less, as in one of Jimmie’s most covered songs, “Waiting for a Train”:

I walked up to a brakeman to give him a line of talk
He says, “If you’ve got money, I’ll see that you don’t walk.”
I haven’t got a nickel, not a penny can I show
“Get off, get off, you railroad bum!” He slammed the boxcar door.

Put another way, Rodgers was a voice for many of the same kinds of middle-class desires memorably expressed by his good pal Gene Austin in that crooner’s “My Blue Heaven” and in the very existence of his own famous homestead, Yodeler’s Paradise. But he was also a musical spokesperson for the most down-on-the-ground sorts of Depression-era desperation. “I’m going to California,” he sang in 1928, “where they sleep out every night,” and as the early thirties dawned hard, his fans understood without being told why so many new Californians had no choice but to sleep under California stars. In 1931, Barry notes, he even teamed with Will Rogers for a relief tour in benefit of Arkansans who were at that time dying for lack of food.

Rodgers sang convincingly both of highway and of home, of “Waiting for a Train” and of “Miss[ing] the Mississippi and You.” Or, as two latter-day exemplars of the Rodgers ethos have put it, Jimmie could declare, a la Willie Nelson, that “I just can’t wait to get on the road again,” while also announcing, per John Denver, that “Hey, it’s good to be back home again.” Rounders and homebodies are usually deemed opposites, but they’re actually complimentary types. One will only “Miss the Mississippi and You” when river and lover are beyond sight and reach. No one longs for the horizon more than someone who feels his whole world squeezed into a few dirty blocks. No one nurtures roots like the uprooted.

I write “a few dirty blocks” rather than, say, “a few dusty acres” because like so many of the country stars to follow, Jimmie Rodgers was not actually from the country. Rodgers grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, the state’s biggest city at the time, with over 20,000 people. Of course, to a Chicagoan or a New Yorker, someone hailing from a metropolis of that comparatively humble population would’ve been considered, no doubt, country enough. People up north would later view Elvis Presley similarly, no matter that he grew up not on a farm but in the town of Tupelo and that he came of age in Memphis. Yankees have long been in the habit of using “country boy” as a too-loose, and usually condescending, synonym for “Southerner.” To citizens of the Magnolia state, though, as to Southerners generally, someone from Meridian wasn’t a country boy. He was a city slicker.

Barry shows that this distinction matters for at least a couple of reasons. First, by presenting Rodgers as a city kid, Mississippi division, he’s able to stress as well the necessarily show-biz (Read: commercial and deep-south urban) origins of the music he was to make. Rodgers was a vaudevillian, first off, with a vaudevillian’s pop repertoire and crowd-tested performance style. He played movie houses, sometimes between films, and in medicine shows, and photos of Jimmie show him as often in suit and tie and boater as he is in an engineer’s cap or a Stetson.

This has implications for how we understand the origins of what we today call country music, and for all of the other roots music styles in which Rodgers worked. Today we often equate rootsy with rural, but Barry makes an important distinction by arguing that Rodgers’ broad appeal was grounded not so much in the rural but in what he terms Jimmie’s “rootedness.” This concept of the rooted is, I think, one of the most useful insights offered in a book full of them, and it can help us see why, for instance, Elvis Presley and Hank Williams are correctly understood as roots performers while, say, Michael Jackson, another too-soon-gone pop star, is not. (Indeed, if we want to understand Jackson’s tragic fall, his obvious loss of rootedness is as good a place to start as any.)

Mazor outlines the concept like this:

To be rooted, a singer requires a “place-derived accent” and “lyrics tied to a personal history, a home region, and working class experiences.” He must “[speak] directly to the traditional, downhome, downscale segment of his audience even as he sought broad popular appeal” and he must remain connected to that original audience.  As Rodgers himself liked to say, “The underest dog is just as good as I am, and I’m just as good as the toppest dog.”

Finally, the rooted performer sings with an “emotional immediacy” between voice and the lyric at hand.  Specifically, Barry writes that Rodgers had “direct access to the thick, duality-encompassing sensibility behind black blues…the humor and joy in the blues mingled with the loss, grief and occasional anger, the ‘we’ of implied community balancing the ‘I’ of signifying, boasting and self-expression.” This double vision of Rodgers—Ralph Ellison termed the quality “tragicomic”—is one reason we can still really hear him today, I think, if we only put forth a bit of effort, particularly in the wordless wisdom of his signature blue yodel, and it’s also the very quality I find absent in so much contemporary pop music, particularly mainstream country music.  Every yodel Rodgers ever yodeled was filled with a measure of sadness and joie de vivre, an aural manifestation of a way of being in the world I fear we are in the process of losing.

There is so much more to recommend Barry’s book than what I’ve mentioned here. His opening chapter on Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong singing Jimmie Rodgers together in 1970 is a tour de force. His discussion of the Rodgers image as including elements of silent clowns Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd is an especially revealing comparison and one that reinforces the cultural context in which Rodgers worked. And his reminder that while Rodgers railroad ties may strike twenty-first century listeners as quaint and old-timey, they made the Singing Brakemen appear to his contemporaries as up-to-date, cutting edge, modern, a 1930s version of a pilot or even an astronaut. My friend’s writing is wonderfully conversational, and his descriptions wonderfully memorable. For example, he writes that Howlin’ Wolf (a big Rodgers fan) had a “steel-wool-and-blood voice” and that Elton Britt’s style was “suede pop.”

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers joins a crowded but welcome bookshelf of contemporary music history and criticism that’s self-consciously revisionist in the most necessary since of that term: Barry lets us see anew a musician/artist/entertainer/man who many perhaps thought we’d already seen more than enough of—and who many more have seen only in terms so caricatured that they may as well never have laid eyes (or ears) on him at all.  Like Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, Diane Pecknold’s The Selling Sound: The Rise of the Country Music Industry, and Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, among several other recent titles (including, if I may, Heartaches by the Number), Barry has complicated here, has given flesh to, a subject normally reduced to one or another not very complex abstraction. Among other tasks, then, Barry liberates Rodgers from dehumanizing single-vision tropes like “authenticity,” arguing instead for a worldview more bittersweet and fine, more like life.

Insert blue yodel here.

3 Responses to “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers”

  1. steven j messick Says:

    You bastard. You’re costing me money, now, because I feel compelled to buy this. I was gonna make an Amazon order tomorrow, anyway.
    Great review by you. Looking forward to your friend’s book.

  2. Jerry Withrow Says:

    As an advocate for Jimmie Rodgers’ preeminence, Barry Mazor proves himself without peer. Further, his meticulous analysis of country blues’ Past Master succeeds in illuminating American music here and now. It’s also a damn fine read.

  3. Johnny Hiland Says:

    Jimmy Rodger, what a classic artist, love listening to his music!

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