Meeting Jimmie Rodgers & Barry Mazor: Interview Part 2
Q: You bring up some film parallels to Jimmie Rodgers in the book.
B: We’ve just been talking about my background. It’s quite natural and easy for me to do that because I’m equally comfortable talking film language. But, I also felt it was a good way to get outside of the usual conversations of musical authenticity. The title says it, about shaping the pop music of the century. This is a book in some serious kind of way, and I hope in some light, readable, fun kind of way, about pop culture. And I think Jimmie Rodgers is a part of that. Before we get ourselves all serious and official, and I start turning it into a folklore museum piece about America’s great natural resource, God knows he never thought of himself as anything like that, and would have been astonished that anybody did. He was out there doing the best he could singing for people and making a living in show business.
So, part of the reason I go for correlations between music and movies is I think it’s sometimes a little easier – I hope it worked this way – of seeing the kind of push and pull, and even the cultural changes over time, if we step aside and say look what happened in these movies. And the parallel makes it easier to see what I’m talking about because I’m not stuck in the specifics of the music.
Q: It was interesting when you say that he combined Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin. When we think of 20s film comedy, these are who we think of. They were the giants.
B: And we don’t talk about the bad ten-minute reels that would also be on the bill.
Q: And there’s a lot of that with music, too, in that we remember Jimmie Rodgers, we remember the Carter Family, we don’t listen to Vernon Dalhart.
B: Right, we don’t. That’s all absolutely true, but it wouldn’t have done me any good to compare to what people don’t know.
Q: But, what I’m really getting at is this: Is there something about those four people, Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, and Rodgers, that above and beyond the fact that they were probably better than the people who were their contemporaries, but that makes them recognizable?
B: Yeah, I think so. I think you can’t read Meeting Jimmie Rodgers without a sense that I feel like I’ve found something that powered the legacy of Jimmie Rodgers – his music, his image, people’s idea of what he was as a performer in relation to them. And it had the power to push forward, which is what you’re asking me now. Why does it continue. So, I think there is something there.
I don’t say this from the context of not having looked. This is back again to the context of the Great Man, in a way. It parallels it, anyway. Is every genre that I go into in this book a construct? Is Of course it is, commercially they have to be. They find a way. You find something people respond to, you get more things like it, they keep buying. That’s pretty much what a genre is. It’s after the fact that you discover the reality. If it’s two years it’s a fad, if it’s thirty years, it’s a genre.
But there was something there. We had this conversation this morning [actually two weeks ago on Memphis to Manchester]. I was looking at a particularly crummy bagel. This is what now is mass marketed around the country, a soft little gooky thing that would be much better used as a sponge. The relation between that and a New York water bagel made by the Italian guys who made most of those bagels in the first place – what attracted people to bagelness in the first place is long gone. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a texture and a taste and a quality that spoke to people in the first place that made us now all have bagels.
So country music, or blues music, or rock & roll are commercial genres and if they don’t change, they die. The ones that are still with us have all changed. It’s only natural, or they go away and we talk about that thing that used to be. But if we’re having an ongoing conversation, it’s because they’re continuing to change. But, I don’t think, just because we’ve come to understand how much of it is a commercial construct sold to people, or how much personal branding I’ve put upon this thing and I’ve been passionate about – there are always these people who want to stand at the gates and keep it the way that it is. Well, I’m not dismissing that feeling on their part, either, because there’s a fundamental quality to a genre of music, there’s a fundamental quality to somebody like Jimmie Rodgers or Charlie Chaplin, which made them so potent in the first place. Something with a hook, like a hook in a pop tune, which people got involved with. And that’s a powerful thing with potential energy, and it’s real.
And it also gets past that awkward question of authenticity. Because it’s not a question of whether it’s a real bagel. A real bagel is what people got turned on to in the first place, like the real Jimmie Rodgers or the real bluegrass. It’s what they liked in that moment at that time. And it’s going to change. Life goes on. And you like it or you don’t like it. I don’t think it’s the end of the world if you like it or you don’t like it. You can get more of the same if you want it, and someone will provide it, and someone else will try to move it forward and try to do a mutation, make a contribution to it, change it a bit, and you might like what they do.
Q: Speaking of genres, authenticity, and words – blues. The word “blues,” you use differently than what I’m used to seeing from writers. Yes, people have often said country singers are “white man’s blues,” but you just accept that as the state. There are singers with a blues quality, whether they sing formal blues or not.
B: I think that’s the standard of most solid research and interpretation in the blues world today.
Q: But it hasn’t reached the mainstream.
B: Because people are invested in certain ideas of it. People are invested in the idea that blues are about guitar-slingers because they grew up with rock & roll guitar slingers. And that’s a distortion of what was the truth about blues music. The guitar was one instrument among many, and not necessarily the leading one for a long time. There happens to be this format called 12-bar blues which wasn’t the only one from the beginning. But there were singers who got called things. It was a commercial formulated genre that was found out of things. It was given a name, and it’s got a pretty broad scope. Most of the singers that we call blues singers today didn’t know they were blues singers any more than Jimmie Rodgers knew that he was a country singer. It’s what the record labels did. If you were a black singer of songs, the labels started to push you towards that. The fact is, Robert Johnson sang Bing Crosby and Jimmie Rodgers songs on street corners, because a quarter is a quarter. And he liked what he liked. They say he sold his soul to the devil; I say he sub-let it and he went to a Shirley Temple movie.
These were real people, and they had real interests beyond which was preserved. Muddy Waters liked “I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle-Jangle Jingle” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” In the real world, they lived on this planet, not in the imaginary ones that we want out of our own musical cultural ideas. And it gives them credit to treat them as human beings, as artists, not as artifacts. Not just a mode of unfiltered, raw passion. This is something white boys do to blues singers to feel better about themselves. And it’s kind of demeaning to the artists who made something, like any other artist does.
There happened to be a twelve-bar form, but basically the genre was such a fad that they were sticking the word on anything. You could take any old form and just call it a blues. But there is something I think that we know, which is a fundamental quality that a blues performer brings to the performance. As I say, this conversation between the “I” that I bring to the song, and the “we” that we understand. That’s part of the blues process. Now, it’s part of the Gospel process in the black church, too, which is not our subject because Jimmie didn’t get into Gospel so much. I’m saying blues is a complicated subject, and if you asked anybody in his own day what he was, as much as anything, they probably would have said he was this Vaudevillian blues singer.
Q: It’s good you mentioned Gospel there, because it brings me to the shadow of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family. They’re there when he first records, and I was astounded that you found out they were there at Hillbilly Music Day (the dedication in 1953 of a statue of Jimmie Rodgers in his home town of Meridian, Mississippi).
B: Yeah, because everybody had that wrong. Their own biographer had that wrong. They don’t think that they performed together again, but I’ve heard them, I’ve seen photos. And they did it because of “their old friend Jimmie” was being saluted. And people think A.P. and Sara couldn’t be in a room together any more, but they were that day. In fact, they were in a stadium singing together.
Q: And you refer again and again to the themes the Carter Family did that Jimmie Rodgers didn’t.
B: Very clear, distinct differences.
Q: I’m just wondering, could a book like this be written from the point of view of the Carter Family’s influence?
B: I think it would be hard. There’s no question when you look at what people say, clearly, it’s the Carter Family also made a contribution to laying out the subject matter that people have sung about ever since. Arguably even more than Jimmie, people desperately want A.P. Carter to be a songwriter like they want Jimmie to be one because they want them to be Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan. He’s not. A.P. reintroduced songs in a way that was very contemporary. He knew how to clean up songs like Jimmie did to make them appeal to people in a pop market. I hate to tell you this, they were not the last folk singers, they were among the first country singers. They were commercial singers.
I think it would have been more difficult because I think probably the most modern thing they did, and the thing that had the most influence, had to do with the way Maybelle attacked the guitar, and the rhythm, as a stand-alone. It’s not that other people didn’t do it, I mean Jimmie did it in a very different way. But she found a very flexible, workable kind of turn on something that other musicians were doing. And I think that certainly you can follow that rhythm into parts of folk music and country music and parts of rock & roll, too.
One of the real differences was the way that Jimmie Rodgers was a modern singer. The way people out in the country and the small towns of the American South sang songs was they sang a set rhythm to them. This was the way the church trained them in things, and this was what Greil Marcus was talking about by the “sound of old, weird America.” The fact that a lot of these people were terrified in front of a microphone didn’t help. But you sang the rhythm of the song, you didn’t read the line, which we’re so used to we don’t think about it. Jimmie, like Bing Crosby and other singers of his day, sang the stresses so you would be able to follow the story. Sara Carter has some of that in the way she sings. She’s a real transitional singer, but there’s an awful lot of the sound of the old style, and the church, and what people now would say is folklike about her. It’s not an accident that they were so much part of the folk revival and he wasn’t.
The folk revivalists reviled, oddly enough because they were often in the same coffee houses, jazz, and all this modern, terrible radio music. “Oh my God, that’s a commercial conspiracy.” Music people actually like, and all. Actual people actually like as opposed to what theoretical people theoretically should like. Rodgers got left out. But the Carters had enough of that porch and that church in there that even though they were modernized, they were accepted. The credit they get, I think, is entirely justified, but it’s a different angle. And country music has, still, this strong kind of southeastern angle, this mountain angle, which has a strong church singing background.
Q: The Carters just turn up again and again, just in terms of rock. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had Maybelle with them. And there’s Uncle Tupelo with “No Depression.” It just keeps coming back.
B: I think there’s a divide there. I think you can find more nameable Jimmie Rodgers music in Jeff Tweedy’s music than in Jay Farrar’s music. Obviously, Jay was pulled more in the Carter direction in terms of what spoke to him, and I think that’s what you should do. What speaks to you speaks to you. What you want to say, you say.
Jimmie’s not the only influence on music. I make the case that he’s a very central and strong one, in many ways that don’t meet the eye, even when they’re meeting the ear.
Q: And I guess what’s fun for me is once you started making that case, I started thinking about who else is like that.
B: I hope so. This is a different kind of book. You see books about the changes over time of how people took Leonardo da Vinci or Shakespeare, or for that matter, a couple thousand years of Jesus. But pop music hasn’t been around long enough to do it, but I realized that with Jimmie Rodgers, a lot of it was on the record, or I could go find out. And it might be interesting to try. Because if you’re going to find out how things have moved and changed across times as fast-changing as the 20th Century was, I knew I was going to encounter things. You just do. If you think about here’s “Muleskinner Blues” and it’s skiffle in London which will lead you to the Beatles, or here’s “Muleskinner Blues” and it’s Bill Monroe manning the stage of the Opry and it’s the first bluegrass song you ever heard, with only a slight change on the rhythm. You start thinking about these things, and it’s not difficult to find. The ones you just know if you knew versions of Rodgers’ music by anybody, and you start to think, well it is all over the place. So I said, well, how did that happen? More importantly, why? And I think if you get a hold of that, you can get a hold of how you can meet Jimmie Rodgers.
Photos courtesy of Barry Mazor.
You may order Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century at Amazon.com.