JIMMIE RODGERS: “The Voice in the Wilderness of Your Head”
excerpt from Imogen Smith (http://chiseler.org):
American popular culture has had few better days than July 16, 1930, when Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, went to the Victor Studio in Hollywood and recorded “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ on the Corner),” backed by none other than Louis Armstrong. Actually, “backed” is the wrong word; the recording is a duet, and you can hear Armstrong respond with delight to Rodgers’s vocals, and Rodgers drink up the fire of Armstrong’s trumpet. Satchmo went uncredited on the record, however, and his presence was only suspected until Nolan Porterfield finally tracked down hard evidence while researching his 2007 biography of Rodgers.
Jimmie Rodgers fully deserves his title as the “father of country music,” but it fails to capture his real nature as a one-man melting pot for country, blues, jazz and pop. His music was both urban and rural, blissfully indifferent to categories imposed later. He was accompanied at different times by fiddles and banjos, growling clarinets, jug bands, tubas, blues pickers, Hawaiian steel guitars and ukuleles, as well as his own rudimentary but effective guitar riffs. On “Blue Yodel No. 9,” his twanging, clarion voice—sharp and resonant as a locomotive’s bell—weaves dazzlingly with Armstrong’s bright, hard, leaping trumpet.
Racially integrated recordings were not uncommon at the time, though black and white musicians couldn’t perform together publicly, and when the great guitarist Eddie Lang (an Italian-American, born Salvatore Massaro) recorded with black artists like Lonnie Johnson for the Okeh label (producer of “race records”), he was credited as “Blind Willie Dunn.” Fortunately, microphones were blind. Piedmont bluesman John Jackson recounted how he cried all night when he learned that Jimmie Rodgers was dead, and was shocked the next morning when he saw the obituary and realized his idol was white. Rodgers himself defined country music as “the white man’s blues.”
Some time in the late 1940’s, the Kipsigis tribe of Kenya first heard recorded music courtesy of a windup gramophone. They were particularly taken with the performer they called “Chemirocha,” and wrote their own songs in tribute, inviting him to come and dance with them. Such a recording can be heard online; it sounds too good to be true, but all evidence points to it being legit. Alas, Rodgers could not accept the invitation, since he had died of tuberculosis in 1933, aged 35, in the Taft Hotel in Manhattan. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 1924, and he told us exactly how it felt in his macabre, angry lament, “T.B. Blues”:
When it rained down sorrow, it rained all over me,
‘Cause my body rattles like a train on that old S.P.
According to the veddy British announcer who introduces the ethnographic recording, the Kipsigis women insisted that Chemirocha was “no ordinary creature” but in fact a faun, half-man, half-antelope. It’s a fitting image, somehow. Bob Dylan, who produced a tribute album, called Rodgers “the voice in the wilderness of your head.” He seems a kind of American Pan, a deathless goat-hoofed spirit of cultural fertility, a ghost capering across the fields of American music.