Justin Townes Earle once said that Woody Guthrie was the pioneer who fused the idea of being a singer and a songwriter into a single entity. There can be little doubting the impact that Guthrie had upon the evolution of the singer songwriter into becoming the all conquering force that it became during the folk revival of the 1950’s and 60’s. However there remains one man – whom in my humble opinion – is all too often overlooked when it comes to assessing the true pioneers of American folk music.
Jimmie Rodgers was a native of Meridian, Mississippi – although historians often argue that he was perhaps born in Alabama – and his impact upon the city is still felt to this very day. The Memorial Museum in Rodgers’ name as well as the fact that he was first inductee into the Mississippi Hall of Fame – ahead of the likes of Elvis Presley and Tennessee Williams – are true expressions of the underlying influence that Jimmie Rodgers had upon his home town, and state.
However, despite the obvious appreciation that Rodgers has managed to maintain within his home state – do Justin Townes Earle’s comments express a degree of negligence across modern folk and country music to this musical pioneer?
Rodgers began his working life as a railway brakeman – something that has gone on to become a token lyrical symbol within various generations of folk music – at the age of 14. So when in 1928 he sang, and yodelled, of the Brakeman’s Blues he was singing from true experience. ‘Portland, Maine is just the same as sunny Tennessee. Any old place I hang my hat is home sweet home to me’ is a lyric that speaks volumes of the loneliness that can come through travelling significant stretches of as vast a landscape as the United States – a sort of loneliness that can only truly be conveyed by a man and his guitar.
The simplicity of Rodgers’ music is quite possibly the most startling aspect of this fascinating character. Perhaps it was the fact he was taught how to casually strum a guitar by fellow rail workers and hobos that his uncomplicated approach to song-writing came to the fore – however it is quite possibly the most important aspect of his legacy. Justin Townes Earle commented on his debut release, ‘Yuma’, that he maintained a stripped back approach – through only utilising his voice and acoustic guitar prowess – because ‘the best way to get about [songwriting] is to start at the beginning’. Perhaps unwittingly Earle has managed to describe just why Jimmie Rodgers deserves to be placed upon the highest of pedestals – because he started at the beginning, literally.
Rodgers placed a great deal of emphasis upon creating songs that had a strong meaning, whether in an emotional or observational sense. During the latter part of his life – Rodgers tragically passed at the age of 35 – he suffered with a case of tuberculosis which would eventually result in his death. However an unquenchable thirst for music saw Rodgers continue to create and play music even when he was so weak that it was necessary for a cot to be placed within his recording studio so he could rest between takes. His songs regarding his illness are some of the most harrowing tales put to record as he sang ‘Lord but that graveyard is a lonesome place. They put you on your back throw that mud down in your face. I’ve got the TB blues’ during the – oft-covered – TB Blues. You can hear the fear, sense the emotion and the feel pain of a man stricken by disease.
Inscribed onto a statue of Jimmie Rodgers in Meridian are the words ‘His was an America of glistening rails, thundering boxcars, and rain-swept night, of lonesome prairies, great mountains and a high blue sky. He sang of the bayous and the cornfields, the wheated plains, of the little towns, the cities, and of the winding rivers of America’. These two sentences sum up the content of Rodgers’ material far more aptly than I ever could, however it is this observational song-writing, during a time where the United States remained rooted in its infancy as a global power, which shows Rodgers’ power with words. During Waiting for a Train – a track that even appears during a rare on screen appearance – a sense of sombre wonderment regarding the scale of his homeland accompanied by the loneliness of missing home swell to heartbreaking levels ‘My pocket book is empty, my heart is full of pain. I’m a thousand miles away from home, waiting for a train.’
You need only listen as far as Johnny Cash to notice the overwhelming influence that Jimmie Rodgers managed to exert upon his peers – despite his tragically early death. Rodgers’ reimagining of the vaudeville blues track In the Jailhouse Now was again transformed by Cash who maintained the guitar work of the original while significantly altering the lyrical content of the song. While Cash also recorded, what is possibly, Rodgers’ most iconic track, the seemingly timeless, T for Texas. However despite the perception of Cash covering Rodgers’ songs, you can hear distinct similarities in the manner in which both artists wrote material. The guitar work – which one could say is reminiscent of the sound of a train – the perceptive, observational content of wider America and the underlying grip of loneliness are clear expressions of the influence of Jimmie Rodgers upon Cash’s prolific career.
However while Justin Townes Earle reels off a significant list of prominent – even legendary – musicians it would be impossible to picture the musical landscape they created without the foundations built by Rodgers. You need only take a look at the artists who have covered Blue Yodel #8 – or as it is more widely known the Mule Skinner Blues – as it reads as a ‘who’s who’ of music during the 30 years following Rodgers’ death. From, bluegrass pioneer, Bill Monroe to Woody Guthrie himself and from, the voice of the Civil Rights Movement, Odetta to Dolly Parton – it’s a scale of influence that few could attest to.
However – as tends to be the way – the influence that Rodgers exerted during the first half of last century was perhaps knowingly accepted by the artists of the time. However the latter half of the 20th century saw the following generations influenced by Bob Dylan, not Woody Guthrie, and BB King, instead of Lead Belly. It’s a completely natural cycle and one that will continue to occur well beyond our lifetime – however one hopes that the founders and pioneers of the music we love today will not become lost entirely during this process.
While Rodgers is often regarded as being the ‘Father of Country Music’, his influence can not merely be directed down the path of one particular genre. His impact upon the likes of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams Sr are undeniable, however equally would the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger have found such prominence without the blueprint for song-writing instilled by Jimmie Rodgers? The influence of the man is seemingly endless, despite the fact that so few will truly understand that it was through Jimmie Rodgers that the idea of singer songwriters truly came to the fore.