Meeting Jimmie Rodgers Unravels the DNA of American Music

Juli Thanki | July 8th, 2009

meeting-jimmie-rodgers-barry-mazorMeeting Jimmie Rodgers begins with a brief anecdote: in 1970, jazzman Louis Armstrong made an appearance on The Johnny Cash Show. You’ll recall that 40 years prior, Armstrong played trumpet on Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #9.” His country leanings don’t end there: shortly before appearing on Cash’s show, Satchmo released the presently out of print record Louis “Country & Western” Armstrong.

Armstrong sang a handful of songs on The Johnny Cash Show, but by far the highlight was when he teamed up with the show’s host to perform “Blue Yodel #9,” this time with Cash filling the role of Rodgers. The result is quite simply spellbinding: two iconic figures of American music singing and yodeling one of the finest works in the canon.

About this collaboration, Mazor concludes:

Armstrong and Cash had, together, summoned up the innovator who had injected his own wit, rhythm, sexuality, ego, aggression, and love of performing itself into the bloodstream of most every sort of popular American music that might be called ‘rooted.’ Whether that music would, over time, come to be labeled country, rock and roll, bluegrass, blues, western, jazz, or American pop, wherever there was space for music of the body and heart, not just of the spirit and head, Jimmie Rodgers would be there.

This is the focus of Meeting Jimmie Rodgers; it’s not a biography—though there is quite a bit of biographical information given throughout the work, some of it rather surprising: did you know The Singing Brakeman once owned an Orange Julius stand?—but rather the role Rodgers played in shaping the landscape of American music. From Ernest Tubb to The Cramps, it seems nearly every musical act since the Depression owes a little something to him, and author Barry Mazor analyzes most of them, unraveling the DNA of American music in an attempt to get at the essence of who he calls America’s “original roots music hero.” By doing so, Mazor reconstructs Rodgers not as a figure on a pedestal, but as a living presence, “whole and ready simply to be heard.”

Each chapter focuses on a different facet of Rodgers’ influence (Western music, rock and roll, the “Blue Yodelmania” craze, etc.) and ends with a playlist of songs by Rodgers and those he influenced. Those who aren’t big readers are encouraged to at least check out these playlists in order to get the gist of Mazor’s argument. Divided into categories such as “Key Rodgers or Rodgers-like blues verses and reference on record before Jimmie Rodgers recorded them” and “Jimmie Rodgers in Africa,” these lists aren’t only informative, they’re bursting at the seams with excellent music, a fair amount of which is in the public domain and thus available for your listening pleasure on the Internet.

Exhaustively researched, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers draws upon a number of sources, including never-before-published letters written by Jimmie to his wife Carrie shortly before his death. There are also a handful of interviews with now-deceased musicians Don Helms, Hank Thompson, Eddy Arnold, Odetta, and Charlie Walker, making their contributions to this text perhaps some of their final statements on the man who so strongly influenced their music.

Mazor’s writing style—straightforward yet informal, with the semifrequent sarcastic aside—has the potential to turn some off, depending on how serious and dry you like your nonfiction. Nevertheless, reading Meeting Jimmie Rodgers is a bit like talking to the smartest, wittiest person at the record store…if your local record store was frequented by one of country music’s most prolific journalists and historians.

Those new to Rodgers may want to begin with Nolan Porterfield’s biography Jimme Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler. But perhaps more important than Rodgers’ “life and times” is the incredible influence he’s had on American music for the past 80 years. And for that, there’s two invaluable sources: your record player, and Barry Mazor.

  1. Lazeras
    July 8, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    This is an interesting, informative blog about an icon that was practically one of the fathers of American music of the last century..but you forgot one thing. If you wanted response and comments, you needed to put some sort of sneering jab in at Taylor Swift and/or other modern country artists to tickle the regular readers here so they could jump on with their own oft-repeated putdowns and comparisons.

  2. Paul W Dennis
    July 8, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    I’ve read Mazor’s book – very interesting – well worth the time spent reading it

  3. nm
    July 13, 2009 at 11:12 am

    Lazeras seems to be right.

  4. Jon
    July 13, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Well, I haven’t finished the dang thing yet!

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