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Jimmie Rodgers: The Original Roots Music Hero

Barry Mazor documents this chameleon of authenticity

Jun. 22, 2009
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The period when Jimmie Rodgers changed American popular music was one of immense cultural and social upheaval. During his lifetime, he achieved prominence concomitantly with the rise of radio and moving pictures, the popularity of the phonograph and a huge interest in live entertainment by commoners with uncommon songs ("real people" singing about "real life"). Without compare, Rodgers was the superstar of the 1920s and '30s. He has endured long after many of his contemporaries have either been forgotten or reduced to box sets of obscure music.

Barry Mazor's expertly researched and elegantly written book, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America's Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century (Oxford University Press), is a valid history of Rodgers' success. But Mazor also reveals the mysterious weight carried by all American roots music performers who turn into popular heroes and, most enchantingly, by all who end up as roots artists even though they did not begin that way.

Jimmie Rodgers possessed a shape-shifting, protean talent for assuming numerous public personas. He was a salt-of-the-earth working man, a fancy cowboy and even an edgy poet in an entirely new kind of song, the "Blue Yodels," which connects blues, country and jazz with a speech-derived, close-to-the-microphone jive singing voice that influenced everyone from Woody Guthrie through Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Beck and every uncommon commoner who feels the presence of poetry but will not write books (not real ones in the literary world, anyway).

Rodgers' influence on cowboy songs is most revealing. He never was a cowboy. He learned how to dress like one and speak like one-through song-and had it not been for his songs, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Ray Whitley and even Dolly Parton would never have known how to walk down the dusty, lonesome and dangerous streets of Laredo.

As early as 1929, he was dressing like a cowboy-but like one that did not exist even on Sunday in the Old West, and certainly not in Rodgers' hometown of Pine Springs, Miss. As Mazor writes, he took "a leap in imagination (and in creative marketing, as well) by donning some flashy Western duds for a set of now well-known publicity photos." His songs introduced a "novel, potently attractive image of the lonesome roving cowboy, drifting along, lazy and free, amidst the prairie sunsets and blooming cactus." Rodgers was a Mississippi-born vaudevillian. He could sell snake oil as fine whiskey or, better yet, sell it as snake oil and make the buyers proud they do not drink the better stuff.

But Mazor's purpose is not to debunk Rodgers; rather, it upholds the man for his ability to become a chameleon of authenticity. Meeting Jimmie Rodgers finds his influence in nearly every American music idiom, and does so with critical acumen and brilliant flashes of insight. Long known as the first white entertainer to go black, he predates Elvis Presley. The conclusions Mazor comes to are all perfectly delineated. After reading this book, it would not be surprising if Rodgers eventually turns up in one more Hall of Fame, having been put into Blues, Rock, American Songwriters and Country halls already-specifically, the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame, for his white into black music transfer.

So where does this leave us? Have we been influenced or duped regarding Rodgers' legacy? The brilliance of the book is that we do not care. The outrageous nature of American roots music, where Robert Zimmerman becomes Bob Dylan, and Elliot Adnopoz becomes Ramblin' Jack Elliott, is that the vocal intimacy is all that matters. The arresting, gritty voice carries far beyond speaking in historical tongues. This intimate sound, replete with earthy vocabulary and natural instrumentation, is a continuous touchstone through the decades for being the opposite of Bing Crosby and "American Idol" stars. But is it real, this American popular roots music? That is the wrong question to pose. The right question is, is it more real than its alternative? The answer is yes, it is.


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