Meeting the Brakeman
by Adam Perry 8/17/09
Wall Street Journal writer Barry Mazor is a huge admirer and proponent of 1920’s and 30’s country blues sensation Jimmie Rodgers, who died of tuberculosis-related causes in 1933 at age 36. And that’s understandable: for many notable American music lovers – including the likes of Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Elvis, Dylan and the Dead – being a fan of the Missippi-born country-blues legend has meant adoring and drawing inspiration from Rodgers’ pioneering and still sincerely mind-blowing singing, songwriting and guitar playing, which is truly becoming more impressive as years go by. But for others, being a Jimmie Rodgers nut has meant cracking.
In 1962 Johnny Cash wanted to produce and star in a Hollywood movie about Rodgers’ life but instead (in a time of serious drug abuse) ended up dressing in Rodgers’ clothes (on loan from his widow) and performing a bizarre surprise concert of all Jimmie Rodgers songs at Carnegie Hall, in which he “played” Rodgers and lit the stage with only the late Rodgers’ brakeman’s lamp.
Cash, whose New York audience responded with silent horror that strange evening, earnestly described it in his fabulous autobiography Cash as a kind of bottoming out, but Mazor fairly regales Cash’s Carnegie Hall debacle in his new book Meeting Jimmie Rodgers as mostly a case of an audience just not getting a visionary, erudite artist’s sincere tribute. Throughout Mazor’s book, the writer goes overboard in his love for Rodgers, and that sometimes-sightless wonder makes it come off as more of a gushing fan tome than a captivating and intelligent journey through the exciting, interesting and tragic life of an American marvel.
Some of Rodgers’ most famous lines – like “T for Texas/T for Timbuktu” and “I can get more women than a passenger train can haul” – were actually taken from songs already in the American consciousness, and Rodgers was a student of American music, possessing a massive record collection and the experience of playing and singing music with other struggling, soulful men all over the country as a railroad worker…hence Rodgers’ nickname “The Singing Brakeman.” Plus, a large part of Rodgers’ initial (and durable) charm and appeal is that he’s “just like y’all.” Rodgers was acutely aware of that appeal, partly as a result of his Dylan-like scholarship in American music and partly because of his intense desire to be a star.
So no, Jimmie Rodgers didn’t exactly land on planet Earth with a 100% original form of music and performance that he was destined to bestow upon our culture as a gift from another planet. He was an intensely talented and knowledgeable songwriter and musician, but not by divine providence – he knew all about what came before and also had many collaborators, a point Mazor fails to really mention until page 119. To boot, Mazor who claims “we are dealing with a mystery” when it comes to the story of Jimmie Rodgers and his brilliance – which sincerely did shape a significant portion of popular (pop, rock, folk, country and blues) music as we now know it – takes 50 pages just to mention that earlier American greats like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith may have influenced Rodgers “to a degree.”
American institutions that we now take for granted – country music, rock n’ roll and a good portion of what’s now known as folk music – might not have been possible without the genius and worldwide mega-success of Jimmie Rodgers, our first truly popular (even Bonnie and Clyde were Jimmie Rodgers fans) and important solo “singer/songwriter.” As Mazor writes, Rodgers’ “union of pop crooning and cowboy content” made it possible for a person to become a household name and a cherished national icon by just sitting on a stool with a guitar and playing his or her heart out sans backing band. However, telling the story of Rodgers’ incredible life with doting, hyperbolic language in about 120 pages and then spending over 200 more listing every musician who has ever been influenced by Rodgers’ music (down to obscure psychobilly bands) doesn’t seem like a fitting tribute to a man who suffered so badly from T.B. that at times he was guzzling whiskey to be able to sing through the pain.
You can learn a lot about American music history – and indeed American history, as Rodgers’ death was “mourned like Lincoln’s” throughout the South, according to Mazor – by reading Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, but for something more inherently veritable and affecting, I suggest picking up a collection of our famous Blue Yodeler’s classics and meeting him through the music.