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The Boston Phoenix Folk Hero

Rediscovering Jimmie Rodgers

By Franklin Soults

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  CLEVELAND -- In September 1897, two Mississippians were born 17 days and a scant 150 miles apart who would play equally important roles in the development of 20th-century culture, yet who would only briefly earn equal recognition for their achievements. At first, neither the high-minded high-school dropout from Oxford, Bill Faulkner, nor the congenial semi-skilled laborer from Meridian, James Rodgers, seemed likely to amount to much, but then, in a period of extraordinary fecundity, they both produced bodies of art that won them honors and fame the world over. Sometime around the middle of the century, the distinguished Bill -- now respectfully called "William" -- won the Nobel Prize in literature for his hugely inventive and ambitious novels on the intractable problems of race, class, and history in the Deep South. Over in Nashville, the beloved James -- now affectionately renamed "Jimmie" -- was honored as "The Father of Country Music" in the very first induction into the brand new Country Music Hall of Fame, an honor he earned for the series of archetypal and immensely popular recordings he made from the late '20s up until his early death, in 1933.

You might think that a peddler of popular tunes hardly deserves comparison with a writer of Great Literature, but the contemporary response to Rodgers's 78s tells a different story, one that's every bit as modern as Faulkner's stream-of-consciousness experimentation. In their day, those recordings turned Rodgers into one of pop music's first folk heroes: a performer celebrated not only for his craft work, like most crooners from Jolson to Crosby, but also for his directness, ease, and simplicity -- in short, for his "realness." What's more, his music meshed with his biography to nourish that romantic notion of the Suffering Artist -- a notion that's blossomed in the rock-and-roll era of beautiful losers and angry young men (and now angry young women, too). The romance sprang from Rodgers's early days toiling on the railroad for Southern lines like the NO & NE -- among other things, he was celebrated as the "Singing Brakeman." But mostly it grew from the disease that took his life only five years after he started making records. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in his mid 20s, he struggled under the illness's death sentence with a cheery fatalism, a willful carelessness, that struck his audience as some kind of amazing grace and even now makes the hard-ass death wishes of gangsta rappers seem utterly bumbling.

Romance aside, Rodgers bequeathed the world a style of singing epitomized in his famous "Blue Yodels" -- a style perched somewhere among blues, pop, and country music, even though at the time country didn't yet know its name. (In Rodgers's lifetime, Appalachian folk songs were first called old-timy and later hillbilly music -- hillbilly a derisive term reclaimed by the artists in the same way as "jazz," "punk," and "Impressionism" have been.) It's not for nothing that his multidimensional, unclassifiable style and rambling attitude have often been likened to the art of that other seminal "white Negro," Elvis Presley. Listening to his most successful numbers -- "T for Texas," "Waiting for a Train," "Mule Skinner Blues," "Blue Yodel Number 9" (the latter recorded with Louis Armstrong ) -- you can believe that he was called the "Father of Country" only because it was a little too early to be called the "King of Rock and Roll."

Yet today, while William Faulkner remains a towering literary figure (especially to high-school juniors assigned As I Lay Dying), Jimmie Rodgers has been reduced to a quaint historical artifact remembered mostly by critics, academics, and hardcore country purists. For everyone else, the name of the father of country music is apt to draw a blank stare -- not just from ordinary music lovers, but from record-store clerks and music-industry publicists. In the 1972 World Book Encyclopedia, Rodgers gets no entry at all; in the 1997 on-line Compton's Living Encyclopedia, he's granted one measly sentence. Broadway musical composer Richard Rodgers has an entry several paragraphs long in each.

To those who know of Jimmie Rodgers's influence on succeeding generations of popular musicians, this may all seem beside the point, or perhaps even a dour-spirited denial of what really matters. When Rodgers biographer Nolan Porterfield opened a Jimmie Rodgers conference and concert series in Cleveland last month, this esteemed Southern gentleman stressed that such a serious and large-scale commemorative would have been unimaginable 20 or even 10 years ago. What's more, the centennial of the singer's birth has been marked by a couple of noteworthy albums. Expensive multi-volume compilations of Rodgers's work have long been available (many on Rounder), but now RCA has released a new single-disc retrospective on its moderately-priced "Essential" series, The Essential Jimmie Rodgers. And on his new Columbia-associated label, Egyptian, diehard Rodgers fan Bob Dylan has released an album of Rodgers's songs covered by an interesting array of rock, country, and folk singers: The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers -- A Tribute.

Some Rodgers fans might enjoy these products at face value, but for those of us who think history shouldn't be a secret, the real value of both the fleeting conference/concert series and the albums is that they help explain Rodgers's place in the not-so-ordered march of time. And, in different ways, that helps lessen his obscurity.

Jointly sponsored by the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University, the day-long Jimmie Rodgers conference at Case Western last month featured some of the most respected authorities on country music in any field, from prolific historian Charles Wolfe to fervent journalist Nick Tosches. The presentations also covered a wide range of subjects, from a sketch of minstrelsy in Jacksonian America to a discussion of the development of standardized recording contracts in the early music industry. Most of which tied in with Rodgers and the origins of modern, folk-based popular music.

Yet the conference enjoyed only moderate attendance, which kept some of the Q&A periods from taking off. It's hard to say whether the turnout was limited by the conference's subject or its location. Rumor has it that the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame is now having problems with attendance because of its Cleveland locale. Given its poorly designed exhibit space and overbearing corporate mentality, this might seem like just deserts. But if the Rock Hall goes under, Cleveland (and the world) would lose the one thing that makes the institution indisputably worthwhile: the series of educational programs that present devotees of popular music with a unique and unprecedented opportunity for cross-disciplinary study and discussion.

If that's a worthy service to a national community of scholars and critics, then the concerts that accompany the conference are a worthy service to the music-loving community of northeast Ohio. To start things off, there was a small session of post-conference interviews and performances featuring Alejandro Escovedo, Gillian Welch, and Meridian native Steve Forbert. That was followed later in the evening by a concert at a club in the Flats (sort of the Kenmore Square of Cleveland). The big show, though, was the following evening at Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. The line-up there featured John Prine, Steve Earle, Iris DeMent, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ricky Skaggs, Guy Clark, Junior Brown, and Levon Helm, to name a few. It was a night of beaming talent, warmth, and variety. And a tad too much folksiness.

The tipoff was the way almost every performer first apologized for not being able to yodel like Rodgers and then went on to prove that he or she wasn't just being modest. An album like The Essential Jimmie Rodgers is so basic -- most of the time, Rodgers merely sings and accompanies himself with rudimentary, stiffly played guitar -- it's easy to forget that for all his simplicity, this dapper entertainer was an accomplished professional with a vocal instrument as refined, in its way, as Bing Crosby's buttery croon. Rodgers was trying to be not an old-time country act but the latest craze on the hit parade -- something not one of the performers at Severance Hall is currently striving for.

Which is exactly why the line-up on The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers is so effective. Although the album features its share of questionable performers -- no matter what she sings, Mary Chapin Carpenter always sounds as if she were about to whip out her crochet hooks -- almost every one is loosened up by material that was written first and foremost to entertain, and they're all braced by the performers who lend that entertainment an edge: Steve Earle's tight and funny rewrite of "Jailhouse Now"; Jerry Garcia's suitably raw reading of "Blue Yodel #9" (it sounds as if it had been recorded from his deathbed -- or grave); Van Morrison's hard jump blues on "Mule Skinner Blues" (sure to shock fans of the classic bluegrass version); John Mellencamp's doomy "Gambling Bar Room Blues"; even Bono's stylized and restrained hamming on "Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes." They demonstrate that when Rodgers helped invent the 20th century, he was giving us the apparatus of modernity necessary to leave both him and it behind.

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