A One-Man Syrup Mill
The flip side of Rodgers’s way with the blues is his body of recordings in which Mother and home, dear old Daddy, and the little cabin, are all extolled with a dewy-eyed sentimentality that has remained part of country music:
There’s a little red house on top of a hill
Not very far from an old syrup mill…
(“Down the Old Road to Home”)
On sides like these, Rodgers was nothing if not a one-man syrup mill. Still, there’s no overwrought, throbbing, grabbing of the listener’s heart strings; Rodgers could deliver such lines and then turn around and shout, “Hey, sweet Mama!” the way he does in, say, “Jimmie’s Texas Blues.”
In any case, Rodgers didn’t represent the expression of a unique personality so much as he did the fluidity of identity. He didn’t have a single easily defined image that took its place in a larger drama, the way Gene Autry did, or Johnny Cash, or Waylon Jennings, or Bob Wills. He was not a fixed personality who used the guitar and the songs as a vehicle. Rather than just being a man with a guitar, Rodgers became Man With A Guitar, an archetype. Singers of the most diametrically opposite types have always found plenty to work with in his songs. On the disc The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute, put together by Bob Dylan, singers as different as Willie Nelson, Van Morrison, Aaron Neville, Iris Dement, Dwight Yoakam, and Dylan himself perform songs either written by or associated with Rodgers, and the results are startlingly fresh and individualistic.
I doubt whether any other popular performer of his time recorded in as many widely spread-out places. Rodgers made records not just in Bristol, but in Dallas, Atlanta, New York City, New Orleans, Louisville, San Antonio, Los Angeles, and Camden, New Jersey. He recorded by himself, but he also recorded with country fiddlers, with slick studio jazz bands, with Hawaiian guitarists, pianists, banjo players, jug bands, and blues guitarists. Few white musicians in the jazz genre, where racial integration was not uncommon—let alone musicians who performed anything resembling “country” music—recorded as often with black musicians in the 1920s as Rodgers. Not least among these recording companions was Louis Armstrong, the closest thing Rodgers had to an opposite number in the jazz field (they teamed up for Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel #9” in Los Angeles in 1930). But he also recorded with the excellent guitarist Clifford Gibson and with the Louisville Jug Band. In 1929 he even made what might be considered the first music video, entitled The Singing Brakeman, in which he sat in his brakeman’s outfit on a stage set and sang three songs to two women, accompanied only by his own guitar.
Unlike just about every other major rural performer, though, black or white, Rodgers recorded almost no sacred material. To be precise, he recorded exactly one track: a duet with Sara Carter on “The Wonderful City.” That is one song out of the 150 or so tracks included on the six-CD Bear Family box Jimmie Rodgers: The Singing Brakeman, which contains everything he did. Even blues musicians renowned for the most salacious kinds of material, including Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, and Blind Boy Fuller, recorded gospel numbers here and there, although they customarily used pseudonyms to do so. Rare indeed were the white performers who ignored sacred material.
In some way Jimmie Rodgers seemed to represent a kind of mystery cult of his own. In his persona, as in his music, he united disparate elements in one being. People have the kind of reverence and affection for him that the devout reserve for saints. Bob Dylan, who has a way with an image, says that Rodgers’s sound was like the smell of flowers. His voice, Dylan added (in the notes for the Rodgers tribute disc), “gives hope to the vanquished and humility to the mighty.” Even though we’re a thousand miles away from home, waiting for a train, that train will come, don’t you see, and we’ll be forgiven our rough and rowdy ways and shake hands with Mother and Father again.
Yet Rodgers delivered not just an echo of the redemption of the New Testament but the earthiness of primitive religion and fertility rites. According to blues authority Paul Oliver, as quoted in both major biographies of Rodgers, a tribe in East Africa called the Kipsigi, who were introduced to gramophone recordings sometime during the 1950s, developed an entire cult around the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, whom they transformed into a deity they called Chemirocha. To them he seemed to be “a formidable player on their local chepkong lyre, and Kipsigi girls have come to believe that Jimmie Rodgers is a kind of centaur, half man, half antelope.”
And, of course, there was always a strong element of the sacrificial in Rodgers’s life. His time was not long, as he sang in one song, and he knew it. His entire six years of recording was carried out under what was at the time the almost certain death sentence of tuberculosis, which of course eats away at the very bellows that push the songs out—the seat of the spirit, the lungs. Repeatedly ordered by doctors to stay in bed, he never did. In the last three weeks of his life, he traveled by train, in the company of a private nurse, from San Antonio to Galveston, and then by boat to New York City for an epic series of recording sessions, so that his wife and daughter would have a backlog of material to help out financially after he was gone. He stayed at the Hotel Taft, and he took the time to look at a few songs by a couple of young songwriters, whom he received while in bed, propped up on pillows.
At the Victor recording studio on East Twenty-fourth Street, a cot was set up where Rodgers could lie down and regain his strength between takes. The first day, May 17, 1933, he recorded four tracks, an amazing effort under the circumstances; they included “I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now,” a composition by one of the young songwriters who visited him at his hotel. The next day he recorded three tracks, including the beautiful “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes,” and a track released as “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel,” sometimes known as “The Women Make a Fool out of Me.” Rodgers skipped a day and went back in on May 20, but he was able to record only two songs before quitting.
He rested for three days. On May 24 the Victor people had set up a session with two other guitarists, and Rodgers, hanging on by a thread, recorded three songs with them. Then, solo, he recorded his last song, “Fifteen Years Ago Today,” sometimes issued as “Years Ago.”
The next day his nurse took him for a tour of Coney Island. He suffered a terrible attack of coughing and spasms and had to be brought back to the hotel, and in the deep morning hours of May 26 he died. Listening to the last recordings, if you know the story, is almost unbearably poignant. If you don’t know the story, they are merely great records. You would never guess the circumstances.
After Rodgers died, a number of the best known country singers, including Gene Autry, Bradley Kincaid, W. Lee O’Daniel, and Ernest Tubb, recorded tribute songs. Most, if not all, of them are assembled on Bear Family’s disc Memories of Jimmie Rodgers. Decades later, the list of major country performers who either recorded Rodgers’s songs or did whole albums in tribute is not just long but nearly endless.
There is an inner poetry in Jimmie Rodgers’s work that doesn’t force itself on you, that reveals itself in its own time. It is very precious. It is tempting to say that they don’t make them like that anymore, but maybe they do and we just don’t know about them.
From the Oxford American’s Fourth Annual Music Issue, Summer 2000