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.
Although I was unable to dissuade my father from flying back to the States to save what’s left of American democracy, I did manage to squeeze one concession from him: we agreed to text-only communication during his absence. I loathe speaking over a telephone. I never answer incoming calls directly, whether business or personal. I resent the intrusion. I’ve never understood why the actors in movies and TV shows always feel the overwhelming urge to answer the goddamned phone, especially when they’re in the middle of a conversation with a live person. That’s just rude.
In this case, texting was the more reliable option anyway because of the time zone difference. One morning I woke up thinking about dad and texted him: “What’s the situation over there?” I knew he wouldn’t answer immediately, but at least he’d wake up to a message from his beloved daughter and know that I was thinking of him.
Several hours later, he responded.
“I Am the Walrus.”
You may read that response and conclude that dad was starting to lose it, but what he was doing was initiating a game we used to play when I was growing up. We called it “Musical Charades” though there was no charading involved. The rules are simple: instead of answering a question with direct language, you had to answer a query with the title of a song or an album. You “won” if any of the other players successfully translated your message into common language.
When dad responded to “What’s the situation over there?” with “I Am the Walrus,” what he meant was “I am in the midst of a bizarre, nonsensical environment a la Alice in Wonderland.”
I texted back: “Coronavirus?”
He replied: “The Sound of Music.”
There were two ways to interpret that reply, but I thought I knew which version was on his mind.
I replied: “Bonzos?” They did the ultimate cover version of that horrid song, one that collapses into massive confusion and cacophony.
“Bloody Well Right!”
“Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.”
I was confused by this answer, as he left France committed to Elizabeth Warren and I thought for sure he’d go for Bernie after she called it quits.
“Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes?”
“The Gambler.” Ah. Acceptance. Know when to fold ’em. May you rest in peace, Kenny Rogers.
“So why ‘I Am the Walrus?'”
“You asked me about the situation. Ask me about the response to the situation.”
“Okay. I’m asking.”
“Late for the Sky.”
A translation of dad’s reference to Late for the Sky would go something like this: “Though people are trying to be hopeful and make the best out of a bad situation, the general mood is one of sadness for what has been lost—and instead of moving forward, people have either checked out or turned to the past for solace.” Joe Biden probably drove something close to the early model Chevrolet pictured on the cover when he was in his teens, which is certainly part of his appeal (along with the dark shades he sports in photo ops). I think what dad was saying underneath it all is that it was weird and walrusy for the Democrats to decide to make America great again by doing what the GOP did: evoking the myth of a nostalgized past.
I’ll give the Democrats credit for only going back eight years instead of a full century, but still . . .
Late for the Sky came out about a month after Nixon’s resignation, the act that allegedly ended the “long national nightmare” associated with Watergate. It didn’t. The world economy was in recession and would remain in recession for another year or so. The act that kick-started that recession was the Yom Kippur War, which led OPEC to launch an oil embargo, which created a gasoline shortage that in due time led to long lines and higher prices at the pump. Before he left office, Nixon signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which lowered the national maximum speed limit to 55. This sequence of events had to be shocking to Americans used to cheap and plentiful gasoline, and because the automobile was (and for many Americans, still is) a powerful symbol of freedom and mobility, this new reality seemed to threaten the very essence of American life.
If Jackson Browne had released an album of crappy songs with nothing to offer except that iconic cover featuring a ’54 Chevy 210 in a lighting scheme borrowed from Magritte, I still think the initial pressing would have sold like hotcakes. People longing for a James Dean past (conveniently forgetting that Dean died in a horrible car wreck) would have snapped up the album like they’re snapping up hand sanitizer right now. Those buyers would have missed the essential irony of the cover: a world in twilight, moving from light to darkness, from glorious past to uncertain future, a suburb-scape frozen in ambiguity.
Fortunately for posterity, Late for the Sky will be remembered for more than its cover. If I were to compile a list of the most effective mood albums, Late for the Sky would be at or near the top. Even the upbeat songs have a touch of melancholy. Under a tight time frame and limited funding imposed by David Geffen of Asylum Records, Jackson Browne created a set of compositions that come together to form themes as strong or stronger than most so-called concept albums. He employed his touring band for the recording, lowering the odds of miscommunication and conflict—and because that touring band included maxi-instrumentalist David Lindley, who would eventually earn a deserved reputation as one of the greatest musicians of our time, the listener is pretty much guaranteed a first-rate production. What amazes me about Lindley is not just his ability to master so many instruments that even he can’t even remember them all, but his ability to jump genres. That’s much harder than people realize because each musical genre has its own paradigms of varying rigidity, and all human beings have the tendency to stay in their comfort zones. On Late for the Sky, he reveals himself to be a top-tier rock guitarist, master of country slide guitar and first-class fiddler; he would later explore many forms of world music from Norway to Madagascar. But what I appreciate most about Lindley is that he’s a multi-level virtuoso who doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself and his skills; for Lindley, music = collaboration. Browne also brought in a few friends living in the vicinity primarily for vocal harmonies and employed composer David Campbell for the string arrangement on “The Late Show,” but for the most part, he kept the circle small, manageable and tight, resulting in exceptional unity on every track.
Though I’m not particularly sold on Browne’s apocalyptic predictions in “The Road and the Sky” and “Before the Deluge,” the sense of impending doom fits with the overall themes of loss, change and perpetual uncertainty. What makes Late for the Sky a special experience isn’t the philosophizing or the fortune-telling but the emotional impact of the songs. Though the emotional orientation of the album has caused at least one critic to complain that the album is “a bit mopey” (Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide), I’d attribute that opinion to the critic’s lack of emotional intelligence and the general discomfort people have regarding feelings. The songs on Late for the Sky are generally free of sentimentality, even when Browne indulges in nostalgic reminiscences. I would argue that Late for the Sky is an emotionally honest album that explores human emotion courageously and in depth . . . as the title track so poignantly demonstrates.
If you’ve seen the movie Yesterday, a story about a so-so singer-songwriter who winds up in an alternate reality where no one has ever heard of The Beatles, there is a scene on a beach where the guy’s pals ask him to play something on his guitar and he responds with a perfectly lovely version of “Yesterday” that brings tears to the eyes of the women in the group (no one in the alt-timeline had heard the song). “Late for the Sky” evokes that kind of reaction in me; I don’t think I’ve ever listened to the song without tearing up. Rather than dismissing my reaction as “a typical girl thing,” consider the possibility that Jackson Browne managed to describe and express the pain, confusion and unwelcome awareness of a failing relationship better than anyone before or since. Try to remember those circular conversations, those “you don’t understand” accusations coming from both sides and the dawning realization that neither party has fallen in love with the person they thought was the love of their life:
The words had all been spoken
And somehow the feeling still wasn’t right
And still we continued through the night
Tracing our steps from the beginning
Until they vanished into the air
Trying to understand how our lives had led us there
Looking hard into your eyes
There was nobody I’d ever known
Such an empty surprise
To feel so alone
The awful beauty of that verse is expressed through a beautifully flowing melody with its evocative power enhanced by the combination of clarity and anguish in Browne’s vocal. The instrumental support is appropriately restrained, with Browne gently accompanying himself on piano, David Lindley supplying toned-down counterpoints on guitar and Jai Winding in deep background on Hammond organ, adding a funereal tone to the proceedings. Larry Zack doesn’t enter with the drums until the line “Looking hard into your eyes,” a line given painful emphasis through low vocal harmony. And that last line—“To feel so alone,” delivered in full voice with perfect clarity—seems to extend far beyond the musical moment, an expression of existential-level isolation.
He hasn’t brought me to tears yet, but Jackson has certainly awakened my sense of empathy by describing an archetypally painful moment in language that cuts through the generalizations inherent in an archetype. In the second verse, he recognizes that words don’t often have impact “compared with the things that are said when lovers touch,” tacitly acknowledging the possibility that the touching has also served to mask the underlying fissures in the relationship. The third line signals the passage that initiates the tears for me, for all my relational failures have been accompanied by the realization that my partner really never loved me, but their wish-distorted image of me:
You never knew what I loved in you
I don’t know what you loved in me
Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be
Awake again I can’t pretend
And I know I’m alone and close to the end
Of the feeling we’ve known
“And I know I’m alone” breaks the dam for me; by the end of the bridge I’m absolutely destroyed:
How long have I been sleeping
How long have I been drifting alone through the night
How long have I been dreaming I could make it right
If I closed my eyes and tried with all my might
To be the one you need
That last sustained note, resolving not on the expected C major but its A-minor complement, is so beautiful, so utterly painful. Sometimes we can’t work it out, and wishin’ and hopin’ won’t make it so.
David Lindley gives us some time to pull ourselves together with a gorgeous guitar solo that moves from a mood of respectful mourning to a quick upward shift announcing the “awake again” passage, followed in turn by an extended and slightly modified “How long” passage that mourns lost time and opportunity:
How long have I been sleeping
How long have I been drifting alone through the night
How long have I been running for that morning flight
Through the whispered promises and the changing light
Of the bed where we both lie
Late for the sky
The original impetus of the song was simple: Jackson Browne wanted to write a song that ended with the line “late for the sky.” What came from that tiny fragment of creative thought far exceeded anyone’s expectations. “Late for the Sky” may be a tough experience, but it describes real experience—and it’s always better to deal with reality, no matter how unpleasant or agonizing.
“Fountain of Sorrow” continues the themes of “love’s illusions” and existential isolation while linking them more closely to what Jung called the process of individuation. Before I go any further, I have to call bullshit on the Wikipedia contributor who added a section called “Origins” and filled it with this: “The song is generally assumed to have been inspired by Browne’s brief relationship with Joni Mitchell.” Gripe 1: “Generally assumed.” What the fuck? Gripe 2: Who assumed? Name your source! Show your work! Gripe 3: WHO GIVES A SHIT? Am I supposed to be impressed? What does that alleged relationship have to do with the interpretation of the song? Harrumph!
The story begins when Jackson finds an old photograph in a drawer, an experience common to most people, even famous musicians. Using the classic ABAB rhyme scheme and some clever manipulation of language (“I was taken by a photograph of you”), Browne uncovers something more behind the superficial physical manifestation:
Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true
You were turning ’round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes
The experience that occasioned the sorrow is similar to the situation in “Late for the Sky.” Our search for the perfect union is filtered through our essential loneliness—a filter of desperate hope that distorts our perception of the other. When the façade inevitably collapses, we experience the embarrassment that triggers the flight response:
What I was seeing wasn’t what was happening at all
Although for a while, our path did seem to climb
When you see through love’s illusions, there lies the danger
And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool
So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger
While the loneliness seems to spring from your life like a fountain from a pool
Note how Jackson adds a few metrical feet to that closing line to make the line work, a neat little trick that I hope will draw the attention of lazy songwriters everywhere. At this point, he inserts a chorus that turns out to be a bit of foreshadowing that falls short of true resolution:
Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light
You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight
You’ve had to hide sometimes but now you’re all right
And it’s good to see your smiling face tonight
We know now that all is forgiven; that both parties in the relationship accept “that magic feeling never seems to last.” Still, the urge to flee into isolation presents a risk because “. . . if you feel too free and you need something to remind you/There’s this loneliness springing up from your life like a fountain from a pool.” Resolution comes in the extended chorus that appears at the end, supported by bright, uplifting harmonies and that contribute mightily to the engaging crescendo:
Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light
You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight
You’ve had to struggle, you’ve had to fight
To keep understanding and compassion in sight
You could be laughing at me, you’ve got the right
But you go on smiling so clear and so bright
Once again, the band is tight yet subdued; the music flows as naturally as a mountain stream; the melody is intensely memorable. Even with the optimistic ending, the lasting impression is one of sorrow, the lingering sense of sorrow that is part of the human condition.
Welcome to life, my friends.
“Farther On” presents a looser structure, as Browne abandons classic rhyme schemes for a mix of internal rhyme and imbalanced lines and stanzas. After the eight-measure intro, we get two “passages” that consist of 4, 5 and 3-line “verses.” Those passages are followed by a four-line chorus and a solo that employs the chord structure of the intro. What we’d normally refer to as the bridge comes next—four lines based on a new chord structure. The bridge is followed by two renditions (musically similar but lyrically different) of the chorus, with an additional line appended to the final go-round. If those structural principles had been applied to a building, that sucker would have collapsed in a 3.0 earthquake. Browne’s poetry isn’t as sharp here, featuring some Shelleyan excess (“adrift on an ocean of loneliness”) and the random awkward construction (“My dreams like nets were thrown”). While I think killing the similes and replacing them with metaphors might have strengthened the poetry, the structure is too weak to carry much of a load, and the song takes forever to get to the eventually satisfying tie-it-all-together moment.
“The Late Show” expands the relationship focus of the album to include non-intimate friendships while continuing to point out the dangers involved in searching for “perfect love.” I wouldn’t call Jackson’s tone here “cynical,” but it’s obvious he’s met a few assholes along the way:
Everyone I’ve ever known has wished me well
Anyway that’s how it seems, it’s hard to tell
Maybe people only ask you how you’re doing
‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care
But when you know that you’ve got a real friend somewhere
Suddenly all the others are so much easier to bear
I don’t know about that. My partner and I are truly in love, and I have several good friends and wonderful parents, but because of those marvelous relationships I actually find assholes and phonies harder to bear. I relate more easily to his frustration with the concept of perfect love, expressed with a bit more sting in this song:
Now to see things clear it’s hard enough I know
While you’re waiting for reality to show
Without dreaming of the perfect love
And holding it so far above
That if you stumbled onto someone real, you’d never know
That’s a great line! Unfortunately, it’s followed by the first of several lines featuring Jackson’s motley group of local musicians singing harmony. Some of the lines are call-and-response; others are legitimate verse lines containing fresh thought. I find these harmonized lines somewhat distracting except for the two harmonized lines in the closing passages (the “let’s just say” lines). I really resent their prominence in the mix because it interferes with my enjoyment of David Lindley’s sweet, not-a-note-wasted slide guitar. I wouldn’t go so far to say that the harmonizers ruin the song, but I sure am happy when Jackson shifts to conversational tone and says “Look,” following it with one of his stronger similies, one that transforms isolation from a concept to something tangible:
It’s like you’re standing in the window
Of a house nobody lives in
And I’m sitting in a car across the way
The harmonizers return at this point, but instead of competing with Jackson for attention, they sing their brief lines and get the hell out of the way:
(Let’s just say)
It’s an early model Chevrolet
(Let’s just say)
It’s a warm and windy day
You go and pack your sorrow
The trash man comes tomorrow
Leave it at the curb and we’ll just roll away
The closing passage of “The Late Show” forms a perfect segue to “The Road and the Sky” on side two. After four slow and mid-tempo songs, it’s great to hear the band rocking out, and while it may not match the power displayed on “Redneck Friend,” I’ll take it. The rhyme scheme works out to AAABA, with each B line beginning with the word “but.” The first “but” is used in contradiction to common wisdom (“They told me I was gonna have to work for a living/But all I want to do is ride”), the second to separate past from present (“I used to know where they ended and the world began/But now it’s getting hard to tell), while the third warns of coming disaster (“Now you can hold on steady and try to be ready/But everybody’s gonna get wet”). Those phrases form a lyrical progression that falls on the pessimistic side: from freedom to uncertainty to certain disaster. When I said “Even the upbeat songs have a touch of melancholy,” this is what I meant. What saves the song from becoming a depressing drag is the spirited bridge, which essentially says fuck-all to obstacles, real or feared:
I’m just rolling away from yesterday
Behind the wheel of a stolen Chevrolet
I’m going to get a little higher
And see if I can hot-wire reality
That’s all fine and dandy, but it does present yet another contradiction. How can you “roll away from yesterday” in an iconic brand that formed part of the hallowed foursome of Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet? When Jackson Browne was growing up, did he fall victim to the enthusiastic voice of Dinah Shore urging viewers to “See the USA in your Chevrolet?” This may seem an irrelevant point until you remember that Americans have an unusually intimate relationship with advertising. Don’t believe me? Let us consider the most important annual celebration in American life: Super Bowl Sunday, in the year of our lord 2019. From Forbes:
Pex, a company that delivers video and music analytics and rights management services, tracked views of 28 Super Bowl ads before, during, and after Super Bowl Sunday on 24 video and social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Ads tracked include Amazon, Pepsi, Toyota, Old Spice, Budweiser, Stella Artois, Pepsi, and Doritos, among others.
The results show that despite a snoozing Super Bowl that led to a low televised audience around 98.2 million viewers, ads were watched massively online before and after the game. On Thursday and Friday before the Super Bowl, the 28 ads tracked had already been viewed about 105 million times across the original YouTube ads and more than 1,000 videos, including on the brands own accounts, organic re-uploads, and pre-roll views (ads that play before a YouTube video, for example). 65% of the re-uploads included the full commercial. Clearly, some advertisers could have started their Super Bowl party as early as Friday night, had they been aware of these numbers and the corresponding early success of their campaigns.
Non-American readers may assume that I’m attempting to belittle the significance of Jackson Browne’s work on Late for the Sky by pointing out its connection to something as crass as advertising, but the opposite is true. Every culture is defined by its archetypes and symbols, and Jackson Browne had to figure out how to communicate his thoughts to a generation whose primary source for nuggets of wisdom had changed from Sunday school to the boob tube. And because that generation grew up during a period when America was systematically destroying its public transportation infrastructure in favor of the automobile and the Interstate Highway System, the Chevrolet—at the time, the most popular car brand in the USA—was a near-universal symbol of American progress and individual liberty. Given the threat to that liberty posed by gas shortages and government regulation, the Chevy is transformed into a symbol that highlights the tug of war between past and present, between forward and reverse—a struggle that defined America in the 70s and every decade since.
So, what the hell? Since current reality sucks, why not steal a car, hit the open road and build a new reality? Shifting to one of the few still-universally understood metaphors from the good book, Browne argues that with another great flood headed our way, it’s time for a little carpe diem:
Now can you see those dark clouds gathering up ahead?
They’re going to wash this planet clean like the bible said
Now you can hold on steady and try to be ready
But everybody’s gonna get wet
Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet
I’ve always felt that the belief in a doomed future is fueled by human frustration and impatience with other humans rather than some kind of mystical inevitability, but apparently, I’m in the minority. What I find so curious about that orientation is that even with Watergate, oil shocks and recession, the USA was still the richest and most powerful country in the world. So why all the doom and gloom? Although I doubt listeners understood it at the time, “The Road and the Sky” is essentially an elegy marking the death of American optimism.
Continuing with a more poignant and disquieting take on loss and change, “For a Dancer” finds Jackson Browne reflecting on the death of a friend and the larger issue of death itself. Death isn’t a particularly welcome topic in popular music, so there have been few serious attempts to explore its fundamental meaning through that medium. There was the teen drama phase in the early 60’s with crap like “Ebony Eyes” and “Tell Laura I Love Her” (I exclude “Leader of the Pack from the crap category because The Shangri-Las understood melodrama) and the raft of suicide songs in metal, grunge and punk during the 80’s and 90’s (continuing into the 21st century with Metallica’s “Fade to Black”), but few serious confrontations with mortality. Ben Gibbard confronted it head-on in “I Will Follow You into the Dark” and “What Sarah Said” on Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans; McCartney wrote a genuinely tender and heartbreaking song about helping a child through the death of a parent in “Little Willow;” and Blue Oyster Cult followed Jackson Browne’s lead a couple of years later with “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” What I admire about Jackson Browne’s treatment is his ability to ask the hard questions and translate question and response into feelings we can all appreciate:
I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
But I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
He also offers a solution while refusing to offer resolution. In the process, he once again highlights the essential isolation of our species, trapped in separate bodies, infallibly mortal:
Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another’s steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone
That’s the part about death that troubles me the most—doing the dance alone. The other troubling aspect of existence involves the purpose of life itself. Most of us want our lives to have meaning, a sense of purpose; unfortunately but honestly, the song fails to provide the answer we want to hear:
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know
The harmonies on “For a Dancer” don’t seem quite as intrusive, but that could be due to having my attention riveted on David Lindley’s fiddle, so sensitive, so lovely.
“Walking Slow” seems harmless enough at first—Jackson strolling through his old stomping grounds, feeling pretty good about things as he lopes along to a nice bouncy beat peppered with sound of a bass jug courtesy of Fritz Richmond. All is going on swimmingly until he encounters his old friends—Isolation and The Grim Reaper:
Don’t know why I’m happy
I’ve got no reason to feel this good
Maybe it’s because I’m all alone and I’ve got no place to go
And everywhere I look I see another person I’ll never know
I got a thing or two to say before I walk on by
I’m feeling good today
But if die a little farther along
I’m trusting everyone to carry on
Dude! I appreciate the sentiment and your fervent commitment to the continuity of the species, but you can’t spend all your quality time thinking about death! Enjoy the sun, enjoy the vibe and forget about the 16-ton weight!
Actually, the song is more upbeat than the lyrics would imply—Jackson delivers one of his best pure rock vocals, combining passion, grit and a touch of playfulness. The perfectly-timed handclapping helps lighten the atmosphere while suggesting that listeners might want to join in the fun, and if you’re into great guitar solos, David Lindley is there to provide.
The closing piece, “Before the Deluge,” extends the scope of predicted social collapse to include environmental self-destruction. The message seems to be directed at that subset of the Woodstock generation that led the “back to nature” movement:
Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature
In the second verse, though, Browne seems to indicate that the movement is running out of steam because of the endless attractions of the material world, where Woodstockers are exchanging “love’s bright and fragile glow/For the glitter and the rouge.” Browne then predicts that those who opt for the superficial over the substantial will be “swept before the deluge.” That seems more than a bit preachy and judgmental to me, but the “back to nature” movement has always been marked by the elitism common to true believers. Sorry, Jackson, but I don’t think glam rock was a threat to society or that David Bowie was the devil incarnate.
The problem with the first two verses is that Browne is “trying to be poetic,” piling on the metaphors and similes as if he truly believes the deluge is coming and there will be no tomorrow. We finally get some concrete clarity at the start of the third verse:
Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
Justifiable anger to be sure, but the personification of nature as the avenging angel that follows (“And they struggled to protect her from them/Only to be confused/By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour”) is melodramatic nonsense. I could go on about how nature has no consciousness and therefore, incapable of motive or feeling, and also point out that if nature was “self-aware,” it certainly wouldn’t engage in self-destructive actions like destroying fauna and flora with volcanic ash and fire . . . but let’s just say I believe the best part of the song is (once again) David Lindley’s fiddle and leave it at that. “Before the Deluge” is one of several failed attempts at a serious and meaningful closing number that marked many a post-Sgt. Pepper album—everybody wanted to end their work with another “A Day in the Life,” and only a very few came close. If you’re looking for a far superior closing number with a more relevant and powerful message to the Woodstock generation, you need look no further than “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” If anything, “Before the Deluge” confirms that Jackson Browne was a much stronger poet when he focused on common experience expressed in concrete language.
Though I don’t think much of the song, “Before the Deluge” is certainly consistent with the album’s melancholy mood as well as the pervasive anxiety that accompanies loss, change and uncertainty. Late for the Sky is essentially an album dedicated to the great human paradox: when we are frightened, we tend to turn inward and seek refuge in isolation instead of reaching out to others and facing the fear together. We are living that paradox right now, in every corner of the world: dealing with a species-level calamity that requires us to isolate ourselves from other human beings so we can live another day but also requires us to figure out a way to work together to defeat the common enemy. We are all experiencing loss, change and uncertainty, and some will dance “the one dance you’ll do alone.” I suggest you consider Jackson Browne’s advice on how to cope with disaster and eventually turn a bad situation into something better:
Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
Go on and make a joyful sound
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
Please help others when you can, and above all, stay well.