The Jimmie Rodgers' Music: America at work and at play
March 28, 2001
Nolan Porterfield's biography of Jimmie Rodgers, The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler, returns me to the world of my parents' southland. An old crank up Victrola. Bluebird, Okeh and Victor records. Songs that tell a tale. Blame Jimmie Rodgers. It began with his musical yarns of Ben Dewberry and Hobo Bill.
It is not easy for me to explain to my musically literate friends my affinity for country music. I am among the tone deaf. Can't carry a tune in a bucket or wheelbarrow. Can't hold pitch or tempo. I am a walking musical disaster zone.
My children and grandchildren slide toward the other end of the pew when a hymn is announced. One of my sons uses the George Carlin line about my misspending the money given me for singing lessons. But these behaviors are no barrier to my attempting to sing In the Jail House Now. That's how folk music often sounds.
Actually I knew of Jimmie Rodgers long before I ever heard of Meridian, Mississippi or "country music." While still in high school I learned the basics of five card stud from a citrus farmer who had spent some of his prewar years in the Pacific as a sailor. Jimmie Rodgers had been his link to home.
While cards were being dealt, we would get brief life lessons. And in that time to learn, somehow Jimmie Rodgers was a frequent source of inspiration. That's right, we took example from a guy who sang about rambling and gambling. Roving and swigging. "Lowdown" conduct as a model. Character education.
As you might suspect this exposure was contrary to my association with the Cokesbury Hymnal and the family acquaintance with the Blackwoods. My step-mother's Dad, Alvin Carter, did gospel recordings in the 1930s.
So why would one be surprised my five card stud buddies and I also enjoyed all-night gospel sings?
Somehow we were learning that music is not the exclusive domain of particular "groups." Across the years I've been skeptical of labeling or categorizing musical groups as "country" or "pop" or "classical" or "gospel" or "urban." Most music reflects multiple influences.
The music of Jimmie Rodgers is an example of multiple ripples. And that's true of the music he recorded and the continuing circle of performers his work reaches. This year's Rodgers Festival lineup represents some of those multiple influences.
As Todd Adkins of the JRMF observed, the Jimmie Rodgers' tradition "crosses over several lines blues, rock and country and we want to showcase them all." And he could have added gospel as well.
Some of this diversity may not win applause from all festival supporters. I have known one or two country music "fans" who wanted to limit the scope of "their" music. That is sadly inconsistent with Jimmie Rodgers' openness to multiple influences. While the Blue Yodeler did have a huge "hillbilly" following, his musical appeal was not limited to us sons of Appalachia.
Jimmie Rodgers recorded with both Sara and Mother Maybelle Carter and with Louis and Lillian Armstrong. Blues? How about the T.B. Blues or Those Gambler's Blues or the Mississippi River Blues or Train Whistle Blues? There are at least a dozen blues tunes not counting the 13 blue yodels. I sort of like the Long Tall Mama Blues.
One of our Atlanta friends hangs with a club musician named Hal Beaver. Hal's "thing" is a blend of African-American blues and Appalachian folk music which he tags "Blackgrass." A gravelly voiced guitar picker from a family of mountain fiddlers, Hal merges the sounds of the Delta and the hills.
John Lee Hooker in conversation with Jimmie Rodgers. Leadbelly and Hank, Sr. in dialogue. Different? You bet, but familiar at the same time. I'm not entirely at home with the label "Blackgrass," but I do like the idea of recognizing multiple musical influences.
I also like the JRMF approach of using different performance venues. Gospel Night is in the Temple Theater on Thursday, May 3. The Friday and Saturday night shows, May 5 and May 6, will be housed in the Temple Ballroom. I'm among those who enjoys entertainment in more informal, club-like settings.
As the producer of the Friday and Saturday night shows, Art Matthews has chosen to showcase the diverse influences of Jimmie Rodgers. This year's approach is different. Both in venue and content. Sounds like an opportunity to relax and enjoy the continuing musical ripples made by "The Singing Brakeman."
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.