Excerpted from Chapter One, “Jimmie Rodgers Died for Your Sins” from Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America by © by Tom Piazza, published August 2011. Copyright © Harper Perennial 2011. Reprinted with permission of Harper Perennial. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
From 1997 until 2001, I was the Southern Music columnist for the Oxford American, which meant that in each issue I had absolute freedom to write about whatever I wanted. I also wrote a longer piece for each of the magazine’s annual music issues, where the following two pieces appeared.
The two subjects—Jimmie Rodgers, often referred to as the “Father of Country Music,” and Charley Patton, sometimes called the “King of the Delta Blues”—began their recording careers at a time (the second half of the 1920s) when the indigenous music of various parts of the American South was first becoming easily available to the rest of the country via recordings. It was also a time when the popular music of the rest of the country was making its way, via recordings and radio, into the farthest reaches of rural America. Rodgers and Patton, both of whom were born in the final decade of the nineteenth century and died in the deepest trough of the Great Depression (Rodgers in 1933 and Patton a year later), are emblematic figures of that cultural moment, for reasons that I hope the articles make clear.
Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America
(Harper Perennial; US: Aug 2011)
Jimmie Rodgers Died for Your Sins
He was not the boy next door. Or maybe he was. There is that high school graduation picture of him—the jacket, the bow tie, hair neatly combed, head slightly tilted, the eyes looking directly into the camera, a hint of baby fat still clinging to the cheeks. Hard to locate, in those eyes, the legendary railroad brakeman dying by degrees of tuberculosis, making his last recordings over a long five days in New York City, far from his family and friends, resting desperately on a cot between takes, dying of a massive hemorrhage two days after recording his last song in May 1933. Or maybe it was right there in those eyes all along, the mixture of curiosity and trust, shyness and self-assertion, an enigma to match the surge of adolescent self-confidence and insecurity that was America’s in the wake of World War One. We were a world power. But who were we?
In photos from the 1920s you get a sense of him casting repeatedly into the river of possibility for an identity. Even before he was famous, and he became famous on a scale unprecedented— unimagined, really—for a man with a guitar, he looks different in almost every picture. Here he wears round, Harold Lloyd horn-rim glasses, slicked-back hair, and a suit—an insurance man or a Wall Street broker, smiling and playing a Hawaiian guitar. Here he wears a grease monkey’s jumpsuit at a service station, surrounded by his buddies, just a good old boy. Here he’s squinting meanly and challengingly into the camera, his eyes insufficiently shaded by a straw boater, hands in pockets, a small-town slicker, on the make, thinking about Bigger Things.
Once he became famous, the chameleon-like quality only became more expertly managed; the photos were taken by professionals, the smile was more practiced, more genial. He looks like a man who has stepped out his front door into a spring morning of possibility. Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, dressed in full railroad brakeman’s outfit, giving the double thumbs-up. Jimmie Rodgers, America’s Blue Yodeler, in a nice striped suit, playing his guitar thoughtfully, the country gentleman. Jimmie Rodgers, the… well, we’ll figure it out later; first take the shots… dressed in full cowboy garb, complete with leather chaps and spurs, smiling and smoking a cigarette…
Ordinarily one would say Skip it; pay attention to the music. But the music seems to be a reflection of these shifts. Rodgers was both a one-man summation of the nineteenth century and an avatar of the Media Age, pointing, like all truly epochal figures, both backward and forward. He sang of rural nostalgia, cabins in the pines, Mother and Daddy waiting at home (or no longer waiting at home), freight trains, mean brakemen, rough barrooms, policemen, jail cells, long nights away from home, springtime again and work in the fields, courtship…
He assembled, in a sense, a personification of the growing nation itself, and he involved the individual listener in that drama of growing up: the tension between the lust for change and travel, adventure, mobility for its own sake, violence even, and at the same time a profound and occasionally corrosive sense of nostalgia for The Way Things Were Back Home—either back in the cabin, or Down South below the Mason-Dixon Line—somewhere back, back, before it all got industrialized and built up, before the innocence was lost. The endless American dynamic: Strain at the leash, transform yourself into something unrecognizable, burn off the old, claim every possibility for yourself— contain, as Whitman suggested, multitudes—then memorialize the past that you have killed to pay for all that possibility. The more resolutely you have murdered it, in fact, the more sentimental you will be about it.
Rodgers was born in 1897 in a railroad town, Meridian, Mississippi, to a railroad-man father. When he was barely in his teens he ran away a couple of times with traveling shows, before starting to work on the railroads in earnest at the age of fourteen. At some point in there he contracted the tuberculosis that would kill him. The 1920s were for him a mix of railroad work and various lunges at a show business career. He had a wife and child to support. In 1927 he left Meridian for Asheville, North Carolina, where he started hooking up with several groups of musicians, trying on different kinds of musical situations for size, everything from Tin Pan Alley to what was already being called “hillbilly” music.
Then the important thing happened: Ralph Peer came to Bristol, a town on the Virginia-Tennessee border. Peer, a key figure in the recording industry of the 1920s, arrived in the summer of 1927 and advertised open auditions in the hopes of finding rural performers worth recording for the Victor label. (The two-disc set The Bristol Sessions, put out by the Country Music Foundation, documents the extraordinary recordings made that summer.)
Along with dozens of others—old-time fiddlers, family musical groups (including the Carter Family, who made their first recordings that summer), blind singers, religious singers—Rodgers smelled something cooking and made the trek to Bristol. He went with a group of musicians, but before they got to the auditions they parted ways in a quarrel over billing. The band recorded separately, under the name the Tenneva Ramblers, and Rodgers cut two sides accompanied only by his own guitar. These two recordings sold well enough for him to be asked to follow up. The second pairing contained his first “Blue Yodel,” sometimes known as “T for Texas.” A loosely strung collection of outlaw lyrics sung in a jaunty, sly manner, interspersed with what was to become his trademark yodel, it made Rodgers a star.
Rodgers was really the first white performer to sing the blues convincingly on recordings; he got the essence of it. Blues is, among other things, an antidote to sentimentality, and in singing them Rodgers didn’t exaggerate or caricature or force anything. He found a part of himself there, obviously, and the exhilaration in his “Blue Yodels,” as well as things like “No Hard Times” and “The Brakeman’s Blues,” is unmistakable. Although Rodgers preceded them into the recording studio, a number of white performers (among them Darby and Tarlton, the Allen Brothers, Dick Justice, and Gene Autry) did sing the blues very well around the same time. Even Jimmie Davis, years before he wrote “You Are My Sunshine”—and decades before he became the gentleman segregationist governor of Louisiana—made a specialty of singing some very authentic-sounding blues. If you want a good demonstration of what the same material sounds like in the hands of a talented singer without the gift for blues, get Lefty Frizzell’s tribute album, Songs of Jimmie Rodgers. Frizzell was, of course, one of the very greatest country singers, but he wouldn’t have known the blues if it hit him over the head with a plate. Merle Haggard, on the other hand, knew exactly what to do with this kind of material, and his Rodgers tribute album, Same Train, A Different Time, is one of the best things he has ever recorded.