“Love and Theft” The Veiled but Tangled Roots of Jimmie Rodgers and Tommy Johnson
Most people tend to view blues and country music as the province, by turns, of black and white cultures. Nothing wrong with that, really; with few exceptions, the greatest blues singers have been African-American, while the best honky-tonkers have been of European descent. And there’s no denying that each group claims and maintains a certain ownership over the idiom with which they’re identified.
The origins of these two traditions aren’t so black and white, however. As with virtually every form of the American musical vernacular, blues and country music were born of cultural miscegenation. Or, to invoke Bob Dylan, as well as the title of the study of blackface minstrelsy from which he doubtless lifted the phrase, of love and theft. Of black and white folk — and, for that matter, Latinos, American Indians, and whoever else happened to be listening — copping a lick or a trick they first heard an “other” sing or play.
This cross-fertilization was first writ large during the golden age of vaudeville, a period that ran from the beginnings of Reconstruction until the Great Depression. An era in which spirituals, field hollers, string band stomps, cowboy songs, songster ballads, Tin Pan Alley favorites, and nascent jazz and blues — all manner of popular music — could be heard from the stages of variety theaters and traveling tent shows.
The advent of recorded music in the 1920s, and of network radio shortly after that, further nurtured this hybridization. It also made tracing the lineages of these long-tangled strains of music, of attributing ownership of what to whom, trickier than ever.
One of the most conspicuous cases of these uncertain, even conflicted, origins came to light in Peter Guralnick’s interview with Howlin’ Wolf in Feel Like Going Home, in which the blues colossus claims that the yodeling of Jimmie Rodgers was the source of his hair-raising wail.
Wolf surely heard the Singing Brakeman during the late ’20s when, as a teenager, he lived and worked on the Dockery plantation in northwestern Mississippi. Yet Wolf’s trademark howl also owes a debt to Tommy Johnson, a tremendously influential, if today relatively unsung, blues singer whose lilting 1928 recording of “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” provided the blueprint for Wolf’s 1956 Chess single, “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”, right down to its lupine moan. Play Johnson’s blues alongside Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” (a.k.a. “T For Texas”), and the similarities between the two records, released just months apart, render arguments about Wolf’s “real” source so much academic hairsplitting.
Their shared twelve-bar, AAB format (swap out lines from one record and see if they don’t fit perfectly into the other) is obvious enough. So is the way the two Mississippians draw on the same storehouse of verses and lyric fragments that virtually all of their blues and songster contemporaries did.
Not only that, but in something of a reversal of roles, “Blue Yodel” finds Rodgers playing an outlaw akin to Stackalee, an anti-hero more popular with black than white audiences, while in “Cool Drink”, Johnson adopts the persona of a freight-hopping rounder much like the one who frequents many of Rodgers’ train songs. What’s truly uncanny, though, is the resemblance between Johnson’s crying, field holler-inspired falsetto and Rodgers’ blue yodel, singular devices that each man tacked onto the end of vocal lines to heighten their emotional impact.
Of course Rodgers’ more measured diction, something of a cross between the parlor singing of Vernon Dalhart and the blackface minstrelsy of Emmett Miller, evinces fewer of the hallmarks of African-derived singing — the coarse, dirty timbres, say — employed by Johnson. Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” also sounds jauntier than the blues man’s heavier, more percussive “Cool Drink”, although Johnson’s music is quite lyrical, even country-sounding, compared to the brooding, declamatory style of his Delta counterparts.
Indeed, as accompanied by Ishman Bracey and Charlie McCoy on mandolin and guitar, Johnson’s music fairly resembles that of black string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, who not only played hillbilly material at white dances, but recorded tunes based on those of the Singing Brakeman and other country and pop acts as well. In other words, despite their differences, “Blue Yodel” and “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” display an undeniable affinity, most notably between Rodgers’ and Johnson’s vocal contortions and melodicism — their manifest theatricality, too.
None of which should be surprising, given that Rodgers and Johnson grew up a few miles from one another in Central Mississippi, and were born just a year apart. Each almost certainly would have heard the other’s records, even if establishing direct influence at this point is impossible.
What we do know for sure is that, after 1928, the two singers’ careers diverged sharply. Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” sold more than a million copies, making him a celebrity and affording him the chance to leave behind a sizable body of work before his death from tuberculosis in 1934. Johnson, by contrast, worked just one more session, even though he was a star of the magnitude of his running buddies and fellow Delta heavy hitters Charley Patton and Son House. He continued to perform publicly for nearly three decades, until he died of complications related to chronic alcoholism in 1956.
Today, the legacies of Rodgers and Johnson are more discreet than ever, but oh for the chance to have tagged along with either of them, if only to learn what, if anything, they heard and stole from each other.