Jimmie Rodgers, the Blue Yodel, and a Young America
I recently read Nick Tosches’s Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Da Capo, 1984), and his great work inspired me to revisit the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers. I was intrigued with the mysteries I found buried in those old recordings. I know that I’m not saying anything new by heralding Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) as a seminal American musician. However, it wasn’t until this week that I realized the multiple American experiences that gather in his recordings.
Rodgers has been well documented as performing “blackened up” in minstrel shows at the beginning of his career. (Tosches discusses this further in Country). It was through traveling through the South as minstrel performer that he became exposed to blues music. For this reason, let it be known: Elvis was not the first white person to be influenced by black musicians. And also, I don’t believe the influence of black music on white music was a one way street, especially after the advent of the radio and The Grand Ol’ Opry, which exposed many African Americans to hillbilly music.
Rodgers serves as an example of the mutual exertion of black and white culture, that has been at the heart of the American musical tradition: from African American spirituals to early blues to country blues to John Lee Hooker’s electric boogies to Bob Dylan writing in his high school year book that his lifelong goal was to play piano for Little Richard’s band, and on and on the list goes. All of this music was born out of resistance and imitation. An urge to draw from tradition and create something unthinkable from the strange happenings of the present.
The blackening up aptly represents an external manifestation for what was occurring in Jimmie Rodgers’ internal sense of lyric and music. If you listen to “Blue Yodel #1 (T for Texas),” you don’t just hear a hillbilly song–its a blues song, drenched in the expression of the African American experience, and sung by a wandering and forlorn white-working class hobo. Its about a man whose ridden the rails, been betrayed by his lover, is contemplating the murder of both of them, and its all in the blues style of a repeated line followed by a rhyming line. That being said, I am not interested in pardoning or defending Rodgers’s performance in blackface. No doubt, such representations always carry the baggage of repression and stereotyping our country still suffers from today. However, I do wish to complicate Rodgers motivation for performing in blackface. Amidst the undoubted stereotypes his performances probably generated, his music also seems to betray a lifelong love of African American expression.
Perhaps, the most amazing part of Jimmie Rodgers is the yodel. The yodel, originating in Europe, made its debut on the minstrel stage, where Rodgers picked it up and co-opted it for his later more respectable career. It fell out of favor for sometime in country music, but was later re-popularized by Hank Williams. Only in the US can you find the yodel mixed with the blues style, yet layered with lyrics that point to a land that is so expansive and still young enough not to know what it is supposed to be yet. The lack of a long, inherited national identity or tradition is what allows something as inexplicable and uncanny as the yodel of Jimmie Rodgers to emerge. Rodgers’s blue yodeling allows him to explain his meaning and his sense of his country in ways that words could not.
Originally published on A Missing America: