I. Disclosure of Potential Bias in Favor of One James Charles Rodgers, aka Jimmie Rodgers, aka The Father of Country Music aka The Singing Brakeman
If you’re wondering why this sophisticated, educated, cosmopolitan woman gets her rocks off to the sound of a man yodeling, sorry, I can’t help you. It doesn’t make sense to me either.
Yodeling (also jodeling) is a form of singing which involves repeated and rapid changes of pitch between the low-pitch chest register (or “chest voice”) and the high-pitch head register or falsetto . . . This vocal technique is used in many cultures worldwide. Most experts agree that yodeling was used in the Central Alps by herders calling their stock or to communicate between Alpine villages. The multi-pitched “yelling” later became part of the region’s traditional lore and musical expression. The earliest record of a yodel is in 1545, where it is described as “the call of a cowherd from Appenzell”. Music historian Timothy Wise writes: “From its earliest entry into European music of whatever type, the yodel tended to be associated with nature, instinct, wilderness, pre-industrial and pastoral civilization, or similar ideas. It continues to be associated with rural and folk musics or to connote those in other contexts. Because of this original folk connection, yodeling remained associated with the outdoors, with rustic rather than sophisticated personae, and with particular emotional or psychological states or semantic fields. (Wikipedia)
My origins are neither Swiss, Austrian nor Southern German. I loathe cold and snow. I’ve never herded a sheep or any other form of animal. I avoid nature as much as possible. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a rustic setting.
As for the origin or influence of “particular emotional or psychological states,” neither mother nor father ever yodeled me to sleep. I grew up in San Francisco and I’m pretty sure I never met a yodeler there, even with all the hills. I didn’t run into a lot of yodelers when I started exploring the BDSM scene either. Apparently whips, chains, leather harnesses and nipple clamps qualify as kinky but yodeling . . . well, now, that’s pretty far out there.
Sir Walter Scott referred to yodeling as “a variation upon the tones of a jackass.” I think Sir Walter Scott is the jackass. I love yodeling and will defend yodeling to my grave, though I have no idea why.
Jimmie Rodgers was the first yodeler I ever heard, back when I was a little girl and his voice came over the stereo in the living room. I remember feeling this strange sense of wonder and excitement. Later I discovered other country singers who integrated yodeling into their schtick: Hank Williams, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry. I learned that Bill Haley was a yodeler before he became one of the first rock stars, a factoid that gives me great comfort and offers me a defense against people who think I’m some kind of depraved pervert because I have a yodeling fetish.
Let me be clear: my yodeling fetish appears to be asexual. There are no yodels on my fuck playlists and I’ve never masturbated to Jimmie Rodgers. I say “appears to be asexual” because I’ve never fucked a yodeler and have no idea how I might react if a guy broke into a yodel while penetrating my sweet spot.
I’ve made these disclosures because in most of the songs on The Essential Jimmie Rodgers, the yodel is essentially the substitute for the lead guitar solo common in rock and modern country, a feature that might lead me to view some songs more favorably than they deserve. I will therefore attempt to temper my enthusiasm for the yodel solos as best I can.
One final note: We yodel fetishists (you can call them “yodelites”) are the unsung outcasts of modern society, shunned by many when they discover our secret fascination with the yodeling taboo. The next time you encounter a yodelite, be kind and emotionally supportive by cupping your hands around your mouth, tilting your head towards the heavens and giving them a brief “Yo-dee-lay-ee-ooh!” This will go a long way toward relieving the yodelite of the pervasive sense of shame inflicted on them by our rigid, insensitive society.
Thank you for your understanding and compassion.
II. The Review, Or the Moment When this Loony Broad Finally Gets to the Point
Although I’m wary of halls of fame in any field of endeavor, it says something that you’ll find Jimmie Rodgers in darned near every musical hall of fame of note: rock, country, blues, songwriting. The biographical summary written by Ted Ownby, Ph.D. for the Mississippi Historical Society (ironically titled “Jimmie Rodgers: The Father of Country Music”) seeks to explain his unusually broad playing field and near-universal appeal:
As a Mississippi native and as someone willing to play almost any form of music, Rodgers did not fit the mold of early country music. He did not idealize farm life, and rarely sang about mountains. Rather, through his music he portrayed himself as more of a man of the world. While most of his records were marketed as country or hillbilly music, he learned a great deal from the styles of Tin Pan Alley songs, the blues, and jazz. He performed a few songs with fellow country stars the Carter Family from Virginia, but he also made a recording with Louisiana jazz legend Louis Armstrong. In fact, jazz tubas and clarinets occasionally added surprising twists to Rodgers’s songs. A Hawaiian-themed song included ukuleles, and some Rodgers songs sounded more like fast-moving vaudeville tunes than conventional country songs.
Nearly every biographical piece on Jimmie Rodgers describes two motivating passions: the desire to explore the world and the desire to perform music. Those traits were already in place at the age of thirteen when he organized two traveling shows only to have his father put the kibosh on his musical ambition. Dad compensated for the loss by using his position as railroad foreman to get Jimmie a job as a water boy, delivering buckets of water to the thirsty workers who maintained the nation’s lifeline. The detour proved to be fortuitous, for working on the railroads gave him the chance to travel and bond with the workers and hobos who spent their leisure time picking, strumming and singing popular and traditional songs from all over the USA. Jimmie would have also connected with the class of workers known as “gandy dancers,” a term for the minorities and immigrants assigned to low-paying, hard-labor jobs. As Jimmie spent a good deal of his railroad career in the South, the gandy dancers were primarily African-Americans who kept a tradition of singing “work songs” as a way of organizing the work through rhythm and lifting the spirit. Work songs were a precursor to the blues; many work songs featured the use of AABA rhyme schemes and what we now recognize as blues scales.
That Jimmie Rodgers was able to synthesize multiple forms of core American music is a pretty remarkable achievement in itself; that he was able to realize his dream and become one of the most popular performers of his day despite being diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four qualifies as astonishing. By that time he had risen to the position of brakeman, but the T. B. cost him his job. Everything you need to know about Jimmie Rodgers can be summarized in his response to the simultaneous traumas of job loss and a likely death sentence: he saw it as an opportunity to resume his musical career.
Although I belong to no organized religion, I do believe in the existence of the human soul or spirit. I don’t know how anyone can read Jimmie Rodgers’ story or hear his voice and conclude that we are nothing more than a mix of molecules and water. There is no way Jimmie Rodgers could have achieved what he achieved without his strength of spirit.
The Essential Jimmie Rodgers is a pretty good starting point if you’re interested in exploring this incredibly influential musician. There are some glaring omissions, including the above-referenced “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standing on the Corner”) with Louis Armstrong, but the collection succeeds in capturing the essence of the man. 21st-century listeners should be warned that these recordings are the product of the Victor Talking Machine Company (what a delightful name!) and lack the “polish” (some would say “ridiculous overproduction”) of contemporary releases. Personally, I consider the clarity and simplicity of the recordings a huge plus, as the lack of hoo-hah allows the listener to focus on the singer and the song, resulting in a strangely soothing and spirit-reviving listening experience.
One other caution: those who have never heard Jimmie Rodgers will likely be shocked—shocked!—to learn that Jimmie Rodgers is considered one of the most influential guitar players in history. “Shee-it,” you say after the first two songs, “I coulda done that after three months on my Rogue Starter Acoustic Guitar.” And I’d respond, “And you wouldn’t have known that was even possible if Jimmie Rodgers hadn’t popularized flatpicking.” In the fascinating article, “The (Surprisingly Long) History of the Guitar Pick” by Emile Menasché on Premier Guitar, you will learn that the guitar pick we use today wasn’t even invented until 1922. The Greek lyrists used a plectrum consisting of a “handle and a short, pointed blade of ivory, bone, or wood.” By the 19th century, guitarists used either feather quills (!) or tortoiseshell to give their fingers a break. Tortoiseshell presented the guitarist with three intractable problems: one, they were all handmade and damned expensive; two, they chipped easily; and three, they wiped out a lot of poor little turtles who never harmed anyone. “Fortunately, an alternative was found a half-century before tortoiseshell was banned. The modern guitar pick traces its roots to the D’Andrea company, which introduced picks made from celluloid—an early thermoplastic—in early 1922. At the time, the guitar was not yet the musical and cultural icon we know today—both banjo and mandolin were more popular. It’s impossible to know if the guitar would have jumped to the top of the pops without Luigi D’Andrea—the man many regard as the Henry Ford of pick manufacturing—but there’s no disputing that his picks ended up in the hands of countless guitar innovators.” Jimmie Rodgers was part of a new wave of guitarists who made the switch to flatpicking, allowing the guitar to overtake the banjo and mandolin as instruments of choice for traveling bands. Barry Mazor nicely encapsulates Jimmie’s instrumental influence in the bio Meeting Jimmie Rodgers:
Nobody puts Jimmie Rodgers’ guitar playing, his instrumental focus once he turned to recording, in the class of the instrumental innovation of Hendrix or Parker. He did, however, introduce surprisingly bold flat-picking chords and runs in both his occasional longer breaks—see the original recording of “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues),” for instance—and, most characteristically, between lines, verses, and phrases, inserted and used for emphasis, much like his yodels. Doc Watson, one of the most subtle and most envied of acoustic flat-picking guitar players, responds today to such critiques of Jimmie’s sense of time: “Jim played the best he could, because he hadn’t studied music and timing . . . but I’ll put it this way: some of the first guitar licks I learned were what he was doing. I may have added a few more notes in the runs, but I loved what he was doing with the guitar. He wasn’t a Chet [Atkins], or somebody like that, but he played what he played and he played it well. His funny way of putting a bunch of chords in, in certain songs, even between the lines sometimes, which he’d then get back on, to sing and pick—I kind of liked that. He was one of the fellahs who laid down some groundwork in guitar playing; most people never realize that—those basic runs and things, and also some of the things he did later in his career—because he got better, you know, on the guitar.”
Mazor, Barry. Meeting Jimmie Rodgers (pp. 19-20). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
So shut up about the guitar and just let Jimmie Rodgers’ spirit infuse you with good cheer.
“Away Out on the Mountain,” (Kelly Harrell), Recorded November 30, 1927: Jimmie Rodgers was the first to record country singer Kelly Harrell’s composition, and it’s highly instructive to compare his version to the 1994 recording made by Tim & Mollie O’Brien. The O’Briens made the song the title track, delivering a knock-your-socks-off performance featuring beautiful harmonies and the classic sundry sounds of a highly skilled bluegrass band. The “trick” in the song is the combination of verse lines consisting of four measures and a truncated one-measure chorus involving a quick chord change. The O’Briens execute that simple change to perfection, and the result is a sparkling, upbeat delight that flows like a clear mountain spring at the start of the snowmelt. If we could resurrect Kelly Harrell for a few minutes, I’m sure that the O’Briens’ rendition would bring tears to his eyes—then he’d happily return to his coffin to spend the rest of his afterlife with a smile frozen into place.
Jimmie didn’t have a band (he lost them right before his first recording) and he didn’t have a woman with a beautiful voice like Mollie O’Brien hanging around the offices of the Victor Talking Machine Company. Jimmie just had himself and his guitar, and at this early stage he wasn’t quite as nimble with the instrument as he would become over the next year due to a demanding touring schedule (kinda like how The Beatles became a tight band because they worked themselves to death in Hamburg). While Jimmie generally manages to keep consistent time, he throws in or cuts measures here and there, seemingly whenever he feels like it. After a few spins, though, you realize that he also disconnects the phrasing from the tempo, hanging on to certain notes and clipping others. Technically, it’s a mess—but what comes through loud and clear is his sheer enjoyment of singing and playing a good song, most obvious in the lightness and authenticity you hear in his voice when he sings the line “Then I’ll make love to some turtle dove.” “Away on the Mountain” is a good primer on how to listen to Jimmie Rodgers: just sit back in your old easy chair with your feet near the fire and just listen to the man tell his stories. He’s a great storyteller.
And Jimmie does outperform the O’Briens in one category: he absolutely crushes the competition on the yodelin’.
“Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas),” (Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded November 30, 1927: Ignoring his wife’s passionate pleas, Jimmie refused to record this piece during his first recording session with Victor, believing that the song’s roughness would not make the best first impression on the record company or the listening audience. Instead, he recorded two safe songs (one appears later in the collection) that failed to make much of an impression at all.
Determined to make amends and a blessed with a healthy streak of true-blue American capitalism, Jimmie realized it was time to take the bull by the horns and risk it all on one last shot:
At those now-famed Bristol sessions, the once-again solo Jimmie recorded two songs with guitar for Peer on August 4, 1927. This recording of an old lullaby and a freshly concocted, vaguely antiwar song about a young woman’s loss of her soldier sweetheart did not have the instant life-changing effect Jimmie had hoped for. It did not even elicit the excited response from Victor that he had expected. So, in November, Jimmie took Carrie to New York City, checked into a fine hotel, went to the label’s offices, and announced that he was ready for his next big session. Peer was so impressed with the sheer boldness of the demand that he set up a session for just a few days later, down at Victor’s studios in Camden, New Jersey. It was there, on the last day of the month, that Jimmie Rodgers of Meridian, Mississippi, recorded the tough, suggestive, even murderous twelve-bar blues he had been saving up for this moment.
Mazor, Barry. Meeting Jimmie Rodgers (pp. 15-16). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
“Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” became Jimmie’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” reputedly selling a million copies and making Jimmie one of the first overnight sensations.
Jimmie called the song “T for Texas,” but Ralph Peer presciently adjusted the title to “Blue Yodel.” Eventually, Jimmie would record thirteen blue yodels: slice-of-life songs structured in 12-bar blues format integrating Jimmie’s yodel refrains (what he called “curlicues I can make with my throat”). Frequently Jimmie ignores the 12-bar requirement to highlight something in the story or just because it felt like the right thing to do in the context of storytelling. I don’t agree with Nolan Porterfield’s overly broad categorization of the blue yodels in Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler as songs with “a macho, slightly dangerous undertone,” but that description clearly applies to “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)”:
T for Texas, T for Tennessee
T for Texas, T for Tennessee
T for Thelma
That gal made a wreck out of me.
If you don’t want me mama you sure don’t have to stall (2)
‘Cause I can get more women than a passenger train can haul.
I’m gonna buy me a pistol Just as long as I’m tall (2)
I’m gonna shoot poor Thelma just to see her jump and fall . . .
I’m gonna buy me a shotgun with a great long shiny barrel (2)
I’m gonna shoot that rounder that stole away my gal.
Jimmie’s vocal sounds like the work of an old pro, integrating natural phrasing with palpable confidence. Mazor exaggerates when he refers to Jimmie’s guitar part as “propulsive” (he has a penchant for hyperbole that weakens the bio); I’d describe it as “somewhat awkward but played with genuine enthusiasm.” You’ll also hear what Doc Watson referred to as “his funny way of putting a bunch of chords in,” particularly in the last half of the song. No other song in his catalog demonstrates the genius of integrating black blues with white yodeling as effectively as “Blue Yodel No. 1,” helping to explain why musicians from Johnny Cash to Howlin’ Wolf identified Jimmie as a major influence.
Still, I find the violence in the song appalling and the “gun-as-solution” orientation sickening. This is not so much an expression of disappointment in Jimmie Rodgers but long-standing befuddlement concerning the American obsession with guns and tolerance for gun violence. Did the million or so people who bought the disc really think Thelma and her lover deserved to die? Did they reply, “That’s right, man, shoot that bitch’s ass” to the “jump and fall” line? Or were they living out their fantasies of doing wrong to do those who did them wrong? I used to consider songs by Jimmie, Robert Johnson and others that celebrated gun violence and wife-beating as relics of a more primitive society, but as America continued to de-evolve and mass shootings became a normal occurrence in American life, I came to realize that the violent streak is part of the country’s DNA. Mass shootings always result in people rushing to the gun shops to buy more guns, and it was eminently predictable that gun sales would go through the roof in response to a pandemic.
Good luck shooting a virus, assholes.
Bottom line: Jimmie Rodgers was born and raised in America, so he inherited that DNA. His validation of violence is the one part of the package I can do without.
“Daddy and Home,” (Elsie McWilliams and Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded June 12, 1928: You’ll see the name Elsie McWilliams pop up frequently in the songwriting credits; Elsie was Jimmie’s sister-in-law, a god-fearing church-going woman with a gift for song. Because Elsie was a pretty fair country pianist who knew how to read music, Jimmie frequently turned to her for songwriting assistance, resulting in an estimated number of forty compositions to which she could claim credit. Due to Jimmie’s poor health, she insisted that any royalties she’d earned go to Jimmie’s family. If she and I were Catholics, I’d nominate her for sainthood.
This is an autobiographical song with such strong universal appeal that even the venerable Leadbelly covered it. When Jimmie sings “You made my boyhood happy/But still I longed to roam,” he’s talking about his own childhood and his lifelong obsession with the riding the rails. Proving that you’ll never know when you’ll need a particular song, I didn’t think much of “Daddy and Home” until my father left for America a month ago, but now I think it’s kinda nice. I’m particularly touched by Jimmie’s reference to dear old dad as “the best friend that I ever had.” I would have loved to have been in the room when daddy put a stop to Jimmie’s traveling shows and landed him a job with the railroad. Jimmie obviously felt that dad had his best interests at heart when he validated his urge to roam by giving him a job on the railroads, and with a parent, getting one wish out of two ain’t bad.
“Dear Old Sunny South by the Sea,” (Jimmie Rodgers and E.T. Cozzens), Recorded February 14, 1928: Ellsworth Cozzens was a steel guitar player who supported Jimmie on a radio show as a member of “Jimmie Rodgers’ Southerners” and contributed to a few of Jimmie’s recordings. You can hear his steel guitar work in song’s intro, which heralds a high-speed hoot of a song tempered only by Jimmie’s melancholy longing for home. Jimmie thought so highly of Ellsworth’s pickin’ that he decided that he’d play the ukulele and let Ellsworth take the two mandolin solos, a feature that later inspired Bill Monroe and his band of brothers to cover the song. All this pickin’ is very nice, but it takes a back seat to Jimmie’s high-speed, high-pitched yodels. I could play this song all frigging day just for those gliding, rising, airy vocalizations.
The song expands the theme of “Daddy and Home” to include dear old mom in the manifestation of Jimmie’s homing instincts. His frequent validation of the sacred status of home helped balance the rougher stuff in the blue yodels and confirm his appeal to a larger audience, but also reveal something of a quandary. For a guy driven to spend as much time away from home as possible, Jimmie sure wrote a lot of home-sweet-home songs, and I don’t think it was all about playing to the audience. Whenever we get what we desperately want, something inside us makes us yearn for the opposite—the very thing we thought we didn’t want.
“In the Jailhouse Now” (Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded February 15, 1928: One norm that has certainly changed over the history of popular music is who “owns” the song. In folk and blues traditions, recycling and repurposing have always been the norm, a practice Carl Lindahl referred to as “floating lyrics.” Musicologist Robert Palmer stated, “It is the custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own.” B.B. King put it most succinctly: “I don’t think anybody steals anything; all of us borrow.” In the first half of the 20th century, the kind of “unconscious plagiarism” that forced George Harrison to fork over half a mil because “My Sweet Lord” followed a similar chord pattern to “He’s So Fine” would have been unthinkable. Between 1928 and 1948 a minor songwriter by the name of Ira B. Arnstein filed multiple civil lawsuits and criminal (!) charges for plagiarism against a variety of songwriters, including Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and lost every time.
There were multiple versions of “In the Jailhouse Now” floating in the ether long before Jimmie Rodgers took his songwriting bows, and Jimmie likely heard a few renditions of this vaudeville classic. Jimmie borrowed some lyrics from older versions and made up some of his own. Nobody gave a shit. Barry Mazor notes that Jimmie’s “plagiarism” was not only perfectly acceptable but expected: “. . . the whole point is to introduce your own best verses to the story.”
WARNING: Do not try this at home. Paul McCartney has spies everywhere.
Jimmie’s rendition demonstrates his special talents as story-spinner and storyteller. In the first two verses, he slips on the judge’s robe, reminding listeners that he warned Ramblin’ Bob “once or twice to quit playing cards and shooting dice,” and because Bob failed to take his advice to heart, “he’s in the jailhouse now.” The third verse presents the “judge that ye not be judged” lesson:
I went out last Tuesday
Met a girl named Susie
I told her I was the swellest man around
We started to spend my money
Then she started to call me honey
We took in every cabaret in town
We’re in the jailhouse now, we’re in the jailhouse now . . .
The many listeners who slept through History class may find themselves wondering why Jimmie and Susie wound up in the hoosegow after what seems to be a pretty normal night on the town, so I will gently remind those listeners about the 18th Amendment, wait through sixty seconds of blank stares and say the magic word: PROHIBITION. Though Jimmie Rodgers generally avoided socio-political commentary, the verses he chose for “In the Jailhouse Now” indicate he was hoping readers would see the fundamental difference between bad-guy Bob (“who used to steal, gamble and rob”) and a couple out for a night on the town. Though the recording has been lost, Jimmie regularly performed “Prohibition Has Done Me Wrong,” a song written by one Clayton McMichen back in the day (McMichen’s claim to fame rests on his work as a fiddler with Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, my nominee for Best Band Name Ever). The song appears on Jorma Kaukonen’s 2002 release Blue Country Heart, retitled “Prohibition Blues.” One verse in particular captures McMichen’s (and Jimmie’s) feelings about an America gone dry:
Well, prohibition has killed more folks
Than Sherman ever seen
If they don’t get whiskey
They’ll take to dope
Cocaine, and morphine
This ol’ country it sure ain’t dry
And dry will never be seen
Prohibition is just a scheme
A fine money makin’ machine
The music supporting the song is fairly pedestrian, with Ellsworth Cozzens playing virtually the same chord-driven banjo solo twice, though Ellsworth and anyone else who played with Jimmie should receive due credit for following Jimmie’s penchant for shortening and lengthening measures. What makes the song a classic is Jimmie’s remarkable vocal clarity, a trait that guarantees the listener won’t miss a single word in the story. “Jimmie Rodgers,” he said, “had the best diction of anyone I ever knew,” said onetime governor of Louisiana and hitmaker Jimmie Davis, famous for “You Are My Sunshine.”
“Memphis Yodel” (Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded February 15, 1928: Back to the practice of “floating lyrics,” you can find nearly every line of this song in one early blues number or another. This “I’m leavin’ my baby because she don’t want me” has little to recommend it beyond the yodeling, reminding one of the sorry absence of “Blue Yodel No. 9” in this collection.
“My Old Pal” (Elsie McWilliams and Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded June 12, 1928: One noticeable pattern in the songs co-written with Elsie McWilliams is that they lean strongly towards the nostalgic and sentimental. I’ll give her credit for her budding emotional intelligence, but the song has little going for it other than to serve as another counterweight to Jimmie’s rougher stuff. The stiff waltz provided by Jimmie’s guitar only adds to the corn factor. Whatever happened to “Blue Yodel No. 9?”
“Blue Yodel No. 2 (My Lovin’ Gal Lucille),” Recorded February 15, 1928: Unlike poor Thelma, Lucille survives this second blue yodel and has the added satisfaction of seeing Jimmie waste away in the Birmingham jail. We never learn what specific “lowdown ways” Lucille may be guilty of displaying, but Jimmie seems intent on blaming her for his legal troubles. It was true then, it’s still true today: when in doubt, blame the broad.
What makes this song special is Jimmie’s complete demolition of the notion that white guys can’t sing the blues. “No Caucasian singer before Jimmie Rodgers had so successfully digested the basic, inherent ethos of the blues, had inhabited the music so convincingly and, it seemed, effortlessly. From his very first hit, this was a central attraction of his act and style for audiences and performers, white and black alike.” Mazor is referring to “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas),” but I think “Blue Yodel No. 2” presents the best evidence in support of his hypothesis. Just listen to the way Jimmie sings the repeated line in each verse, the one where the singer climbs the scale to the flatted seventh: you can hear him tilt his head back, raise his voice a tad and belt out that sucker like Bessie Smith at her best. B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters all believed that when it came to singing the blues, skinny little white guy Jimmie Rodgers was one of the best.
“Sleep Baby Sleep” (Public Domain), Recorded August 4, 1927: The apparent value of this piece lies largely in the fact that it was one of two songs recorded at his first session with Ralph Peer at Victor. It certainly has its flaws: Jimmie’s voice is awfully loud and brassy for a lullaby, and though his tendency to vary the melody slightly as he moves through a song is present, the performance still feels more than a bit stiff—until you get to the yodels. The verses follow a pattern of (G-C-G-A7-D7); when he gets to the yodel, he dispenses with the C chord on the first go-round (G-A7-D7), following that with a longer yodel to the chord pattern. What gives me the chills is the smoothness of the melody he attaches to the A7-D7 transition, one that requires a micro-shift into dissonance when he hits the C# in the A7 chord. The average singer will find themselves fighting the urge to stick to the notes in the song’s key, resulting in a weak commitment to the non-conforming note. Jimmie shows no such hesitation, and the effect is absolutely stunning. This is called “nailing it.” I find the song more than a bit on the dull side, but that yodel is downright heavenly (says the atheist).
“The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away)” (Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded February 14, 1928: Jimmie embraced the moniker of “The Singing Brakeman,” occasionally performing in a brakeman’s outfit and appearing in a short film with that title. Thanks to the introduction of air brakes in 1888, Jimmie didn’t have to dash across the tops of cars on a moving train to apply the brakes but primarily helped with the coupling and decoupling of train cars. Though he was in less danger of losing some fingers or his life, the job wasn’t the best choice for a man with incipient tuberculosis. He clung to the identity, however, because brakemen were considered the “tough guys” of the time, brave men who traveled all over the known world (i. e., the USA), risking their lives and raising hell. Despite his tender side, Jimmie wanted to project an image of being a man’s man—and he needed that veneer of toughness to aid his fight against an intractable disease.
“The Brakeman’s Blues” isn’t so much about the occupation as it is about that image. The brakeman in this song defines himself as a man of the world in the first line, claiming that “Portland, Maine is just the same as sunny Tennessee.” That’s nonsense, of course, but it sends the message, “Yeah, I’ve seen it all” to listeners who could only dream of visiting such exotic places. Mack Gordon may have been influenced by the song, transforming “Get my breakfast here (Memphis), get my dinner in New Orleans” to “You leave the Pennsylvania station ’bout a quarter to four/Read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore/Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer/Than to have your ham ‘n’ eggs in Carolina” in “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Unfortunately, the brakeman has a little problem with the wife, whom he last saw “standin’ in my front door, wishin’ I was dead.” He responds with equally tender sentiments:
If your house catch on fire, there ain’t no one around
If your house catch on fire, there ain’t no one around
Just put my son out the window, let the house burn down
Meanwhile, he has no problem filling his empty bed with another woman, even if that woman is already spoken for:
If that’s your momma, you’d better tie her to your side
If that’s your momma, you’d better tie her to your side
‘Cause if she flash my train, I’m sure gonna let her ride
Given his boorish orientation, I have to believe that the lure of train travel is what appealed to listeners’ fancies. Trains were about the coolest thing in America for almost a century until after WWII when Americans dumped them for smog-belching automobiles and flying tubes serving food I wouldn’t feed to my pet rat.
You can tell Jimmie is gaining some confidence from stardom—his guitar playing is cleaner and more commanding, and he peppers this song with more than its fair share of asides.
“The Sailor’s Plea” (Elsie McWilliams and Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded February 14, 1928: Elsie’s back and so is the waltzy-schmaltzy sentimentality. Jimmie plays his part to perfection, clearly projecting the anxiety of an earnest and lonely sailor worried that his fianceé has been mugging it up in the parlor with another guy and he’ll come home to find nothing but a popped cherry. His yodeling is exquisite; there was something about Elsie’s contributions that inspired him to achieve beauty. I’m not sure who was playing lead guitar (such as it was), but its sweet and steely timbre leads me to believe it was Ellsworth.
“My Little Old Home Down in New Orleans” (Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded June 12, 1928: This is a catchy tune that Jimmie sings exceptionally well, but his reasons for yearning to return to his little old home down in New Orleans fall into the category of WTF?
In the sunny south where the black oil flows
That’s where I long to be
The Dixie land where the white cotton grows
Is calling now to me
And soon I’ll be in the land of my dreams
It’s my little old home down in New Orleans
I can somewhat forgive his environmental ignorance, given this song was written 90-odd years before the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, and sort of overlook the cliché reference to the cotton fields that broke the backs of many an African-American, but Jimmie, this is New Orleans you’re talking about! The place with “Creole babies with flashin’ eyes softly whisper with tender sighs,” Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras! You say “it’s the grandest place on earth” but all you got is ugly, stinky oil and cotton? Dude, you’ve made your New Orleans fling sound like a business trip to Hartford, Connecticut! Sheesh!
Freddy Cannon! Freddy Cannon! Is there a Freddy Cannon in the house?
“Never No Mo’ Blues” (Elsie McWilliams and Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded June 12, 1928: This is a fascinating piece with what I’ll call an anti-chorus: the last line of each verse devolves into a sort of pathetic mumble “no-mo, no-mo, no-mo.” The turn downward defies the expectation that the chorus should be clearer than any other part of the song, but by dialing it down, Jimmie actually winds up increasing its impact.
I’m just as blue as I can be
Since Susie said goodbye to me
My life is a failure, I see
And she won’t be my gal
No mo’, no mo’, no mo’, no mo’ – no mo’
Elsie’s sentimental leanings are limited to a single verse where the guy regrets leaving his mama and sister Nell, but the next verse must have come from Jimmie, “But they need not ask me stay/For I’ll never change my mind/No mo’, no mo.'” The failure to win his sweetheart burned deep into his soul. We don’t know if Susie was Florence Nightingale incarnate or had one hell of a rack, but she must have been something for a guy to label his entire life a failure.
“Blue Yodel No. 4 (California Blues)” (Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded October 20, 1928: Jimmie stretches his wings on this one, opening the song with a yodel and singing his verses over the sounds of a New Orleans-style small jazz combo. Jimmie sounds absolutely fabulous—as if he’s been waiting all his life for that kind of jazz backing—and he settles into the song like he’s savoring a jar of his favorite hooch. The overlay of classic early blues instrumentation serves to validate Jimmie’s credentials as a real blues singer capable of delivering songs in both Delta and New Orleans styles (not sure how he would have handled Chicago, but Muddy Waters probably thought he could pull it off).
One quibble: Jimmie is guilty of perpetuating a common California myth when he sings, “I’m goin’ to California where they sleep out every night.” The Okie migration took place just a few years after this song was released, so Jimmie’s idealistic weather forecast may have condemned those Okies to many a knee-rattling night. Fact: Unless there’s a heatwave, California summer nights are frigging cold. If he wanted warm summer nights, he should have caught a train back to Mississippi or popped up to Minnesota. If you can take the bugs and survive the daylight, summer nights east of the Rockies are definitely the way to go.
“I’m Lonely and Blue” (Elsie McWilliams and Jimmie Rodgers), Re-recorded October 22, 1928: Elsie received top billing for the writing credits on this one, a clue that we’re about to get something sentimental, sad and sexless. This is the only Jimmie Rodgers song in this collection that drags. The picture that comes to mind when I hear this song is grandpa snoring up a storm on the front porch swing while calico-covered grandma knits away and eventually hums herself to sleep. The best I can say about it is that it gives the listener just enough time to take a piss and grab a favorite beverage before the next two songs arrive—two of Jimmie’s greatest works.
“Waiting for Train” (Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded October 22, 1928: One critical component of Jimmie Rodgers’ appeal was his empathy for the common folk, the sense that he was “one of us.” From Meeting Jimmie Rodgers:
His songs and his relationship to his often down and suffering fans were both essentially rooted in empathy and understanding, in conveying his connection to their lives as he entertained them. “The underest dog is just as good as I am, and I’m just as good as the toppest dog,” his wife would quote Jimmie as saying frequently. The sentiment was reflected in everything he sang and did—and thousands upon thousands of fans responded to it. In their eyes, Jimmie Rodgers would stand as their unelected representative; he offered a vision of what people from his world might have it in them to be.
Mazor, Barry. Meeting Jimmie Rodgers (p. 39). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Though he wasn’t nearly as political as Woody Guthrie, Jimmie stood up for those who weren’t getting a fair shake in a capitalist system that prioritized profit over humanity. In “Waiting for a Train,” the system is ironically represented by the brakeman, demonstrating how wage slavery has the tendency to pit members of the lower strata against each other in a classic divide-and-conquer strategy:
All around the water tank waiting for a train
A thousand miles away from home sleeping in the rain
I walked up to a brakeman gave him a line of talk
He said if you’ve got money boy I’ll see that you don’t walk
I haven’t got a nickel not a penny can I show
Get off, get off you railroad bum and he slammed the boxcar door
The brakeman probably had a family to care for, and understandably didn’t want to lose his job for doing the right thing and helping out a fellow creature in need. That leaves Jimmie to fend for himself, but his first instinct as an eternal optimist is to find something positive about his situation before considering its bleak reality:
He put me off in Texas a state I dearly love
The wide-open spaces all around me the moon and stars up above
Nobody seems to want me or to lend me a helping hand
I’m on my way from Frisco, I’m going back to Dixie Land
Though my pocketbook is empty and my heart is full of pain
I’m a thousand miles away from home just a-waiting for a train
The song opens with Jimmie’s true-to-life imitation of a train whistle, cueing the jazz combo to launch the brief musical intro that mirrors the “sad sack” kind of music that accompanied the films of Chaplin and Keaton. The guitar backing for the verses combine slide and picked guitars that echo Jimmie’s mournful vocal, while the trumpet-led instrumental break sounds like it could accompany a New Orleans funeral. “Waiting for the Train” is my favorite track in the collection, combining vivid and meaningful lyrics with a well-thought-out arrangement.
“Frankie and Johnny” (Multiple songwriters), Recorded August 10, 1929: “Frankie and Johnny” is another one of Jimmie’s “floating lyrics” compositions, one that demonstrated his willingness to push the envelope. From Mazor:
Asked once to sing before a Bible study group in Florida, Jimmie offered even that assemblage not a hymn, but one of the songs he performed most regularly, the then often-censored, disreputable, cold-blooded murder ballad “Frankie and Johnny.” Jimmie’s lasting version of the storied “gutter song,” as the genre was known, concluded with the comment “this story has no moral; this story has no end,” borrowed from the recording by vaudevillian Frank Crumit, but all the more provocative in such a context. It was daring to be singing the thing in front of polite mixed company down South at all, let alone before that audience.
Only recently, Mae West had tried to resurrect the old song up North on Broadway in her musical show Diamond Lil and been arrested multiple times for performing it. Ms. West’s regular portrayals and personifications of the retro-sexy Gay Nineties and Jimmie’s regular use of musical allusions to that same era were not, finally, such different strategies. The nostalgic package was supposed to make the daring less threatening—and, at least sometimes, it did.
“Frankie and Johnny,” sung by Jimmie Rodgers throughout the South, was also being employed as a provocation on the more experimental end of the New York stage, as adapted by celebrated writer-critic Edmund Wilson in a surreal, freak show of an avant-garde musical, Him. The show’s book was by poet e. e. cummings, and the song was functioning for its more-or-less bohemian audience as an example of unleashed and, unsurprisingly, specifically African-American passion—interrupted and shut down on cue every night by representatives of the Society for the Contraception of Vice.
Mazor, Barry. Meeting Jimmie Rodgers (pp. 26-27). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Oh, how I love a naughty boy.
The song had been around for a few decades before Jimmie added his name to the long list of covering artists. The best evidence available tells us that the story was based on an actual murder perpetrated by a woman named Frankie who shot a guy named Allen who had been just come back from slow-dancing with a girl named Nelly Bly. In the song, Allen becomes Johnny and Frankie heads for the electric chair (the real Frankie was acquitted and wound up in a mental institution). Other than a nifty little Rodgers guitar solo, Jimmie’s take is free from musical embellishment and carries a tone of journalistic authority. Jimmie tells us how Frankie blew Johnny away for sinning with Nellie Bly in a detached manner, not unlike how a BBC newsreader might have reported the story. The tale is propelled by the inevitable logic of karmic justice: he was her man, he was doing her wrong and “rooty-toot-toot three times she shot right through that hardwood door.” Mazor was partially right in suggesting that the key line of the song is in the closing verse, but the important message comes after the line quoted above:
This story has no moral this story has no end
This story just goes to show that there ain’t no good in men
That’s an intriguing line and the obvious question is, “Why would a guy known as a man’s man tell us that men are frigging hopeless?” Self-confession of his own wayward sins? A Jimmy Carter-like confession that he had lusted in his heart? Cosmic-level self-awareness? There isn’t much buzz in the bios about Jimmie being a lecher, only the usual innuendos attached to a musician on the road. Perhaps he was disgusted by the lecherous ways of some of his musical colleagues.
We’ll never know the real truth, but I do know that Jimmie’s stab at “Frankie and Johnny” is a great piece of work.
“Pistol Packin’ Papa” (Jimmie Rodgers and Waldo O’Neal), July 1, 1930: I’ve tried and tried to spin these lyrics as Jimmie using the narrator to ridicule the American macho fetish with guns, but I’ve had to face the fact that Jimmie Rodgers considered guns sacred symbols of masculine virility, and that if he were alive today, he’d be a major supporter of the Second Amendment and open carry across the nation. The whole song is pretty sickening, but these verses are especially offensive in arguing that gun ownership is a core component of American freedom and that not only do real men own and shoot guns but their women love them for it. In the last verse, Jimmie proudly informs us that his guns are as untouchable as Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes:
When you hear my pistol puffin’ you better hide yourself someplace
‘Cause I ain’t made for stoppin’ and I come for a shootin’ race
My sweetheart understands me, she says I’m her big shot
I’m her pistol-packin’ daddy and I know I’ve got the drop
You can have my new sport roadster, you can take my hard-boiled hat
But you can never take from me my silver-mounted gat
I’m a pistol-packin’ papa and I’m going to have my fun
Just follow me and you will hear the barking of my gun
“Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” (Jimmie Rodgers), Recorded July 11, 1930: I was so relieved to learn in my research that mule skinners do not actually skin mules. A mule skinner makes sure the mules go where they’re supposed to go. I only hope that the mules have a say in the matter.
Featuring a spirited set of yodels and a lengthy Jimmie Rodgers guitar solo (passable by today’s standards; way ahead of its time in terms of offbeat phrasing), the song opens with a dialogue between the boss (Captain) and an African-American (Shine) applying for a job working the mules. Note that it’s not Jimmie using that derogatory term, but just recording what the white boss would have said. Beyond that, there’s nothing much to recommend the song, and I have no idea why it was a hit or why it has been covered by an impressive group of luminaries, including Bob Dylan, Don McLean, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Dolly Parton (who took it to #3 on the charts). I’ll give Dolly credit for making the most of it and turning the song into an early feminist anthem.
“T. B. Blues April 24, 1931” (Jimmie Rodgers and Raymond E. Hall), Recorded January 31, 1931: A sad song reflecting the sad ending of a too-short life. By this time, the tuberculosis that had racked his body for almost ten years was winning the battle, but Jimmie still had enough spirit to soldier on through a final recording session, frequently resting on a cot in the studio between takes. Personal disclosures in popular music were quite unusual at the time, but Jimmie had developed a deep relationship with his audience, many of whom considered Jimmie a friend they’d known for years.
The weakened Jimmie doesn’t do much yodeling in the song; the only hint of a yodel appears in the song’s one-line refrain: “I’ve got the T. B. Blues.” His guitar playing gives no indication of declining skills, but his voice, while clear as ever, lacks the depth that characterized it during his peak. After telling us of his wife’s misplaced optimism and describing how the disease is steadily weakening his body, Jimmie begins to face the inevitability of death, and shares his oh-so-human dread of the ultimate loneliness with his faithful listeners:
I’ve been fightin’ like a lion
Looks like I’m going to lose
I’m fightin’ like a lion
Looks like I’m going to lose
‘Cause there ain’t nobody
Ever whipped the T.B. blues
I’ve got the T.B. blues
Gee but the graveyard
Is a lonesome place
Lord that graveyard
Is a lonesome place
They put you on your back
Throw that mud down in your face
I’ve got the T.B. blues
Jimmie Rodgers died four months later at the age of thirty-five.
I think I’ve said all I want to say about The Essential Jimmie Rodgers, so I’ll just end this piece with a suggestion: head on over to YouTube and watch The Singing Brakeman, a less-than-ten minute film that shows Jimmie singing three of his most popular songs, a short that appeared in theatres all over the USA. The licensing for the video makes it a no-no for me to embed it here, but all you have to do is click here for a slice of Jimmie Rodgers heaven.
The story of how an entirely obscure, itinerant black musician who in a recording career spanning eight months produced one minor regional hit, who died in 1938 at the age of twenty-seven and who languished in almost complete obscurity for twenty-three years before becoming one of most influential musicians of the 1960’s is a tale that can be viewed through many different lenses. Some may see it as a series of lucky accidents; others as support for the belief that the work of the true artist will eventually penetrate the collective consciousness when the time is right, as it did for William Blake and Emily Dickinson.
While there are many theories of history, the two that dominate modern consciousness are the largely Western view that history is a linear narrative of human progress, and the Eastern view that history is a series of cyclical patterns: what goes around comes around. In the narrative view, history is shaped to make sense, and as more facts become available through research, the more sense we can make of it . . . or so it is believed.
Neither theory is very helpful in understanding Robert Johnson’s rise to fame. Cyclical theory is a classic example of human beings trying to simplify chaos by attaching structure to happenstance. The narrative theory falls short because Robert Johnson’s narrative remains full of holes and contradictory evidence. The man himself appears to have been a walking contradiction, making it even more challenging to define his essence.
The truth is that we shape history through our perceptions, just like we shape our understanding of everything else. The brilliant musicologist Elijah Wald said it best in How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: “There are no definitive histories because the past keeps looking different as the present changes.”
We do know that Robert Johnson had virtually no influence on the development of black music. As Wald wrote in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of Blues, “As far as the evolution of black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades following his death would have been affected if he had never played a note.” Son House met him when he was still learning how to play (and once after Johnson had allegedly made his legendary pact with the devil); Muddy Waters may have heard him play around Clarksville. The absence of Robert Johnson covers in the 1940’s and 1950’s speak volumes about his lack of influence.
Everything changed when in 1961 Columbia released King of the Delta Blues Singers, the first compilation of Robert Johnson’s meager recording output. That release coincided with two emerging movements: the folk revival in the United States and the nascent interest in American blues in the U. K. John Hammond gave a new kid on the Columbia block named Bob Dylan an advance copy of King of the Delta Blues Singers and Dylan was stunned by the sheer intensity of the music. Eric Clapton would come to recognize Robert Johnson as “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”
Musical influence is also subject to human perceptual biases and limitations, and many “influential” musicians and recordings often prove to be disappointing listening experiences—things we’re “supposed to like” because some expert said it was “influential.” I’ve listened to many “influential” albums that register a zero on my aesthetic pleasure meter, and after getting over the “what the hell is wrong with me” phase, I’m more pissed off than anything else—pissed off because I distrusted my own instincts and submitted to the power of the expert.
What separates Robert Johnson from the rest of the influential pack is his unusual ability to grab and hold the listener with just his guitar, his voice and his poetry. Robert Johnson is one of the few artists I can never play in the background, because he insists on leaping into the foreground. When I hear one of his guitar intros or the sound of his voice, I stop everything I’m doing and just listen.
Every year, usually in the darker winter months, I go into a blues jag, an annual ritual that helps me reconnect with both my real self and the things in life that really matter. I immerse myself in blues and listen to nothing but blues for a couple of weeks. When I sense the time has come, I turn off all phones, computers and lights, lock myself in my room and listen to The Complete Recordings straight through until the end. I immerse myself in Robert Johnson, shutting off the analytical side of the brain to experience the music on an emotional-intuitive level. I let go of the need to control the moment and, for two hours, I let his music fill my soul—music that consists only of a voice and a guitar, sparsely recorded with unimaginably primitive technology, but some of the most deeply engaging music I have ever heard.
The remainder of the jag is filled with the music of other great blues artists, from Memphis Minnie to Muddy Waters. When I feel my soul has been cleansed from the particles of bullshit I accumulate by living a life in a largely unreal, impersonal world, I end the jag in the same way I started it: The Complete Recordings.
There are two competing “complete collections.” The one I chose to review is Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, released in 1990. A more recent collection, The Complete Recordings (Centennial Collection), came out in 2011. The latter has been praised for its improved sound quality, most noticeable in the clarity of voice and guitar. Unfortunately, manipulating the frequencies to get that clarity sacrificed the lower frequencies, and I prefer music with a strong bottom. The content of the two collections is virtually the same right down to the alternate takes, so you may want to sample both to determine which is more compatible with your ears, headphones and speakers.
I should disclose one bias before I begin the review. Although his personal history remains sketchy, it is amply clear that Robert Johnson loved fucking, smoking and drinking. As readers of this blog know, I too love fucking, smoking and drinking. I will do my best to avoid allowing our sensual compatibility to interfere with my judgment.
“Kindhearted Woman Blues” was a fine selection for the opening track, as it demonstrates Robert Johnson’s willingness and ability to deviate from blues norms and structures in ways that enhance the drama of the tale he aims to tell. 6/4 time is the dominant time signature (though he varies that as well), and there are different but complementary melodies on the first and second verses. In the bridge—oh my fucking god the bridge—he changes not only the chord pattern but the timbre of his voice to reflect competing and contradictory emotions. In the opening lines, he sounds like a man attempting to remain emotionally distant, underscored by the narrative shift to third-person:
Ain’t but one thing
Makes Mr Johnson drink
It’s worried bout how you treat me baby
I begin to think
Then he breaks, emotionally and aurally, by shifting to falsetto, the cry of a humiliated, beaten man:
Oh my babe, my life don’t feel the same
You breaks my heart,
When you call me Mr So and So’s name
What follows the bridge is Robert Johnson’s only extended guitar solo, where he demonstrates the balanced attention to rhythm and melody that made Keith Richards think there were two guys playing instead of one. Even more impressive to me is how he’ll be singing a verse and for a line or two and then break the bass rhythm to accompany his singing with a harmonic counterpoint on the guitar. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that these recordings were single-track recordings with no overdubs.
“I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” will likely be one of the most accessible numbers for rockers due to its classic boogie rhythm and the triplet attack that forms the main riff; others may be familiar with Elmore James’ fiery “Dust My Broom.” Robert Johnson gives a stand-up performance, but like others, I’m even more fascinated by the geographical references at the end of the song. To any black person living in the Delta during the 30’s, China, Ethiopia and The Philippines were as distant as Pluto, and just as mysterious.
Colorful and confusing geographical references also dominate “Sweet Home Chicago,” a Johnson adaptation of a song about Kokomo that has been covered by a slew of blues and rock artists. The confusion about the lyrics is found in the chorus:
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
To my sweet home Chicago
I guarantee you that you won’t find anything like Chicago anywhere in the Golden State, so what was Robert Johnson thinking? Were the syllables of Chicago are a touch more mellifluous than those of Kokomo? As with everything having to do with Robert Johnson, there are several competing theories. One argues that Johnson may have been referring to Port Chicago, California, a town that ceased to exist in the late 1960’s and was famous for the massive explosion at the Naval Munitions Depot in July 1944 that killed over 300 people (many of them African-Americans) and the subsequent Port Chicago Mutiny. I can’t buy that theory because everything in Robert Johnson’s life indicated that he liked to be where the action was, and Port Chicago was buttfucksville in the middle of nowhere, far from the sin-infested environs of San Francisco. I’m more partial to the theory that the words are the deliberate expression of a man who loved to ramble, a rattling-off of places on his bucket list. As for the music . . . that “ohhhhh” that opens the early renditions of the chorus comes through loud and clear as a passionate longing for the open road, and the steady driving guitar mirrors his constitutional impatience to keep moving, moving, moving. And lo and behold, the next song is “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” where he feels the need to hightail it because “I got mean things on my mind,” a line he repeats several times and forms most of the last verse. The cause of those “mean things” is mistreatment by a woman, a common occurrence in Johnson’s songs, something I’ve always interpreted as psychological justification to dump a broad who no longer holds his interest.
While Robert Johnson was very likely the oats-sowing rogue, there was another side to his personality capable of empathy for the plight of women in a world dominated by cruel, heartless men like him. Johnson was a man of extremes, a man who beat women and loved them, a man who saw the opposite sex as potential enemies and possible friends. The contradiction is played out in the opening verses of “When You Got a Good Friend.”
When you got a good friend that will stay right by your side (2)
Give her all of your spare time
Love and treat her right
I mistreated my baby and I can’t see no reason why (2)
Every time I think about it
I just wring my hands and cry
Johnson sings this song with even more intensity than usual, and his expression of guilt comes across as deeply sincere.
The two takes of “Come On in My Kitchen” couldn’t be more different, and I have a strong preference for the original because the slower tempo allows the listener to savor both the performance and the poetry. The metaphors of winter and the howling wind reflect the cold, indifferent world of human affairs, and Johnson fully understood that the storms fall hardest on women:
When a woman gets in trouble
Everybody throws her down
Lookin’ for her good friend
None can be found
His performance of that verse seems suspended in time, an effect enhanced by the chord change on the third line. The use of monosyllables in the final line enhances the bleak finality of the fallen woman’s condition in society, and Johnson intensifies the effect by singing those words in a quiet, almost apologetic tone, the kind of tone you use to deliver bad news to a dear friend. While many listeners consider the song a seduction song—and sex was never far from Robert Johnson’s mind—the impact the song had on listeners, as described by traveling companion Johnny Shines in Jas Obrecht’s Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music, confirms the more empathetic interpretation:
One time in St, Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come On In My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we had quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying—both women and men.
The chorus is an invitation for the woman to come into his kitchen, a role-swapping offer that would have been practically unimaginable in an era where the woman’s place was in the kitchen. Here Johnson takes on the nurturing role usually assigned to the mother, an unusually empathetic and courageous shift for a man to take:
Winter time’s comin’
It’s gonna be slow
You can’t make the winter babe
That’s dry long so
You’d better come on in my kitchen
Babe it going to be rainin’ outdoors
The brief aside where he whispers, “Can’t you hear the wind howl?” then replicates the sound of the wind on his guitar is one of my most cherished moments in music. As on many of his songs, he is unafraid to depart from the standard 12-bar pattern when the moment requires it. “Come On in My Kitchen” is one of Robert Johnson’s essential works, a stunning display of artistry and human sensitivity.
“Terraplane Blues” was Robert Johnson’s biggest hit, an extremely modest hit at that. A Terraplane was a car built by Hudson in the 1930’s, and in penning this number, Robert Johnson added his name to the long list of American songsmiths who have used cars and driving as sexual metaphors. The story in the song is that Robert has come home after a long journey to find that his Terraplane (his squeeze) won’t start (get wet), a condition that can only mean that someone’s been driving his Terraplane (giving the babe the hard one) in his absence. He attempts to strut his stuff but he fails to get much of a reaction:
I even flash my lights mama
This horn won’t even blow
Got a short in this connection
Hoo-well, babe, its way down below
Refusing to concede defeat, Robert decides he’d better roll up his tongue, straighten his dick and get to work on the sweet spot just below the pubes:
I’m on get deep down in this connection
Hoo-well keep on tanglin with your wires
And when I mash down your little starter
Then your spark plug will give me a fire.
I would love to travel back in time and set up a face-off between Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie to see who could come up with the raunchiest song. That would be a hoot!
“Phonograph Blues” is a less obvious sex number, and with this piece, the alternate take is by far the more energetic and interesting. According to Songfacts, a gentleman named Alexander Baron discovered that Johnson used a “mysterious tuning” (E-B-E-A-C♯-E) that he also used on “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” The tuning makes it easier for him to play the triplets that drive the alternate take, but also demonstrates a drive to bend the guitar to his will.
“32-20 Blues” is modified from an earlier Skip James composition, and here Johnson goes to the same dark place that the moody Mr. James favored in much of his music. The lyrics express the “nobody fucks with me” attitude that characterizes many gun-loving American males, similar to Jimmie Rodgers’ threats against poor Thelma in “Blue Yodel T for Texas.”
And if she gets unruly
Thinks she don’t wan’ do
If she gets unruly
Thinks she don’t wan’ do
Take my 32-20 now and
Cut her half in two
While it’s hard for me not to be appalled by the casual acceptance of murder as a conflict resolution tool, I can try rationalize the violent instincts of both Johnson and Rodgers by chalking it up to the old excuse, “Well, they lived in a different era . . .” Unfortunately, the ethos of that era thrives in America today, as booming gun sales and NRA control of the political system demonstrate. Since I’ve given up believing that Americans will ever leave the Wild West, I have to recognize these songs for what they are: true folk songs in the American tradition, and leave it at that.
At this point in the record, I need a colossal mood shift and Robert Johnson delivers with “They’re Red Hot.” I’ve always found Robert Johnson’s impatience with traditional 12-bar blues an exciting aspect of his work, but here he abandons the blues altogether with a ragtime pattern that is an absolute delight. His vocal is an amazing combination of rough growl, spoken word and octave leaps, all delivered at a hundred miles an hour. There is no question that he’s having a great time, but what is most tantalizing about this song is to speculate on how he might have influenced the blues had he lived longer and achieved fame, given his willingness to challenge convention.
I don’t know too many men who will confess to situational impotence in a public forum, but Robert Johnson stands up—well, no, he doesn’t stand up, literally speaking—and confesses that his inability to put up a stiff one has cost him his girl. In “Dead Shrimp Blues,” Robert attributes the limp dick to stress (“I couldn’t do nothin, till I got myself unwound”), a relatively common cause for this debilitating condition and most likely the reason “Dead Shrimp Blues” hasn’t become the theme song for Viagra commercials. Since a droopy stick is something most males would be terrified to own up to, this is one courageous song . . . with absolutely no marketing potential whatsoever.
The iconic “Cross Road Blues” proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only person who can truly do Robert Johnson songs justice is Robert Johnson. Cream’s heavy rock version kills the spirit of the song; Elmore James transformed it into another lost-my-baby blues number. The experience of listening to “Cross Road Blues” is hearing a fellow human being crying out in deep distress about a choice he has to make—a significant life choice where none of the available options present a clear way out of his dilemma. More than anything else, the song communicates that distress—the existential anguish, the fear of making the wrong choice, the disaster scenarios imagined when facing the potential consequences of a bad decision. You hear it in Robert Johnson’s timbre, deeply colored by his anxiety; you hear it in the impossibly complex rhythm that responds more to his emotional state than to metrical requirements; you hear it in the inherent uncertainty communicated by a slide guitar; you hear it in the intensely picked chords and notes. “Cross Road Blues” is a stark portrait of the man facing existential crisis, knowing no one will lend him a helping hand:
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”
Ooh, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Ooh-ee, I tried to flag a ride
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by
Advice: next time you’re at the crossroads in your life, listen to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” It won’t provide you with answers, but it is always comforting to know that you’re not the only one who has felt exactly what you’re feeling.
Next the restless Mr. Johnson covers the Son House number, “Walking Blues,” throwing in a little Blind Lemon Jefferson into the lyrical mix. Of greater interest is “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” where Johnson borrows snatches from other Delta songs to tell the story of the convict lease system operating in the South at the turn of the century. The site EarlyBlues.com features a penetrating historical analysis of the song by Max Haymes. Johnson sings “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” from the perspective of the black convict forced to work for the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad, described by Haymes as a “horrific and barbarous” experience. Mr. Haymes’ most insightful contribution is to clarify the content of one key verse that is only rendered phonetically (and inaccurately) on the website for the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation.
That cal (sic) ain’t been an’ seen,
Gal ain’t been an’ seen,
That gal ain’t been an’ seen, good Lord,
On that Gulfport Island Road.
Haymes writes, “A sense of anger appears in Johnson’s voice in this verse, as well it might. The words allude to undetected murders of black prisoners in the Southern penal system; a theme which keeps cropping up in the Blues.” The insistent rhythm Johnson uses to accompany his vocal expresses both urgency and outrage. Robert Johnson’s music is not often linked with social protest, giving “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” a special place in his catalog—and giving the listener greater appreciation of his reach.
The guitar work on “Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” is a tour de force. Played at a much quicker tempo, Johnson is all over that fretboard, bending notes with lightning speed, inserting contrasting riffs and intense strums that seem to come from nowhere but never cause him to break the rhythm. If there’s one song on the record that qualifies Robert Johnson as a guitar virtuoso, this is it . . . although the pizzicato on the next track, “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” is pretty damned impressive as well.
Several of the other songs in the collection reinforces Johnson’s major themes. “Stones in My Passway” is somewhat similar to “Cross Road Blues,” focusing more on the lack of clarity in the situation than personal anguish. “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man” curiously celebrates his sexual prowess while he’s stuck in a losing streak (“But I haven’t got no sweet woman . . . boys, to be rollin’ this way.”) “From Four Till Late,” most famously covered very badly by Cream, is almost a country song in terms of feel, featuring the use of the I-VI7-II7-V7 chord pattern to add some variation to the typical blues pattern.
“Hellhound on My Trail” takes the rambling theme and turns it upside-down. As Ted Gioia put it, “now the trip takes on darker tones, the traveler is pursued.” The song itself is a variation of several pre-existing works, but what makes Johnson’s version stand out is his performance. The tone in his voice is of a man consumed with fear who has lost his capability for rational thought—he repeats several phrases in each verse like a man neurotically muttering to himself about the dangers that surround him:
I got to keep movin’, I’ve got to keep movin’
Blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
Umm-mm-mm-mm, blues fallin’ down like hail, blues fallin’ down like hail
And the day keeps on worryin’ me, the day keeps worryin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail
In the final verse he uses his slide to express the deep sense of foreboding he finds mirrored in nature:
I can tell the wind is risin’
The leaves tremblin’ on the tree, tremblin’ on the tree
The mood Robert Johnson creates in “Hellhound on My Trail” is almost frightening in its intensity, for it calls up those experiences we would most like to forget: the times when life seems to be conspiring against us at every turn, when we can’t do anything right. Ironically, hearing someone go to the darkest reaches of the soul proves to be a liberating experience, as it teaches us how easily our perceptions can be distorted through fear.
Thankfully, the lighter “Little Queen of Spades” and “Malted Milk” follow, palpably lightening the mood, as hot women and booze often do. The downsides of malt liquor are explored in “Drunken-Hearted Man,” where we’re not sure if Robert is speaking for himself or playing a role. The narrator attributes his downfall to a combination of a tough childhood and “no-goods women,” concluding that sin was his downfall. That doesn’t sound like the Robert Johnson I know and love, so either he was in a very bad mood that day or he’s playing a part.
“Me and the Devil Blues” deals with the darkest regions of a man’s soul: the possessive, dominant, fearful side that often leads a man to believe that he has the inalienable right to beat the shit out of a woman:
Early this mornin’ when you knocked upon my door (2)
And I said, “Hello, Satan, I believe it’s time to go.”
Me and the Devil was walkin’ side by side
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman until I get satisfied
The narrator of the song has a “learned helplessness” common to batterers . . . it’s usually the woman who caused him to cross the line . . . or “I don’t know what came over me.” In the closing verse, Johnson captures the equally prevalent self-loathing that often follows abuse and connects it to the ever-present Johnsonian desire to keep moving, to escape both self and consequences:
You may bury my body down by the highway side
(Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone)
You may bury my body, ooh, down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride
Having served as a volunteer in domestic violence shelters for many years, I have deeply mixed feelings about this song. On one hand, the story is too sickeningly familiar, and calls up images of bruises, contusions and faces swollen beyond recognition. What I appreciate about the song is its brutal honesty and the depth of self-disclosure. We’ll never know for certain that Robert Johnson abused women, but the tough guy persona he displays in songs like “32-20 Blues” points in that direction.
“Stop Breaking Down Blues” is a bit more ambiguous on the subject, though the fact that the broad pulls a pistol on him reminds us it takes two to tango. Still, you can’t deny the confidence in his vocal as he shifts from a trash-talking rant to sotto voce undertones in a wink of an eye. As he belts out the blue notes, you can understand why so many artists have covered this song—it’s a song that you just gotta fucking sing!
“Traveling Riverside Blues” is a song title that would likely call up images of Huck and Jim on their doomed trip to Cairo, mais en contraire! This sucker is about all the poontang Mr. Johnson finds on his travels up and down river. But while he’s dickin’ ‘em in Vicksburg and bonkin’ ‘em in Tennessee, Robert has one hot babe in Friars Point who he says “hops all over me.” You go, girl! The hottest part of the song is the last verse, just as a climax should be:
Now you can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my…
(spoken) ’Til the juice run down my leg, baby, you know what I’m talkin’ about
You can squeeze my lemon ’til the juice run down my leg
(spoken) That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout, now
But I’m goin’ back to Friars Point, if I be rockin’ to my head
Having learned that our lady of Friars Point is the mistress of the hand job, our mind wanders back to the curious verse where he hints at her appearance:
I ain’t gon’ to state no color, but her front teeth crowned with gold
I ain’t gon’ to state no color, but her front teeth is crowned with gold
She got a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul
A black man sticking it to a white woman in the 1930’s South would have considered himself damned fortunate to live to the ripe old age of twenty-seven. It’s entirely possible that he was engaging in stud jive, but something tells me Robert Johnson was a guy who liked to test the limits.
He was also a man who jumped between extremes—in “Honeymoon Blues” he proposes marriage to a girl named Betty Mae. The tension of the opposites within Robert Johnson—begging the Lord for mercy one minute, making deals with the devil the next—is one of the things I find most appealing about him. He is Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the comedy and the tragedy, the brutal lout and the tender, compassionate lover.
But most of all, Robert Johnson was a musical artist of the highest order, a man who synthesized the work of the many great blues artists who preceded him and raised the genre to the highest level. “Love in Vain Blues” is one of his greatest accomplishments, a sad and beautiful song about the emptiness one feels when the power of the love we feel for another is not enough to move the other to respond in kind. With his voice and through his lyrics, Robert Johnson expresses the essence of the experience—not only the feeling of utter loss but also the heightened perception of symbolic meaning in the immediate environment common to those experiencing grief:
When the train rolled up to the station
I looked her in the eye (2)
Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome
And I could not help but cry
All my love’s in vain
When the train, it left the station
With two lights on behind (2)
Well, the blue light was my blues
And the red light was my mind
The only cover of a Robert Johnson song that I approve and adore is The Stones’ version of “Love in Vain.” Keith Richards’ decision to change the arrangement and give it a country feel avoided any direct comparisons to the original while respecting the essence of the song.
“Love in Vain” should have ended this collection—nothing can follow that song—but instead the compilers closed with two takes of “Milkcow Calf Blues.” No Robert Johnson performance is a waste of time, but after “Love in Vain” I’m spent and I don’t want to hear anything else.
We live in a world where music creation and performance is dominated by technological advances and electronic wizardry. Having given positive reviews to several technology-driven albums, I’m hardly a natural instrument purist. What I do believe is very few of the recordings made since Robert Johnson’s etched his voice and guitar onto wax compare with the sheer power of the music that came out of those two sections. The experience of listening to The Complete Recordings is intensely intimate, for a man is allowing you to peer into his heart and soul, the light and the darkness, the good and the evil. No other record I own can bring me in touch with my own essence, the light and darkness, the good and the evil . . . and for that I will be eternally grateful to the handsome man from Mississippi who died too young but whose music will live forever.