Book Review: Meeting Jimmie Rodgers
Author: Barry Mazor
Reviewed by: Dr. William Scaggs
When did I meet Jimmie Rodgers?
Most recently, and most completely, with Barry Mazor's creatively framed , well documented and superbly told tale of "How America's original roots music hero changed the pop sounds of a century." Yep, it's titled “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers.”
Personally, Jimmie Rodgers and I were introduced and "connected" in the early 1940s when I discovered "Hobo Bill's Last Ride" among my parents' very spare collection of 78s. It was one of those turn the crank and enjoy the "story song" experiences. Our dirt road home was within a block of an Atlantic coastline road in the heart of Florida citrus country with orange groves east and west and grapefruit and avocado out the back door. My folks kept a wood pile for hobos to split. Hobos and trains were part of my formative world. And like many small town rural kids, we lived in a world of excellent story tellers. Jimmie was most welcome in that world.
Then in 1963, Sally and I arrived in Meridian in our 1961 Volkswagen Beetle. Beyond the community college, I knew one thing about this place: "Jimmie Rodgers." We met again. And as the years passed, his hometown became our hometown. Of course, I'm a child of my time as he was of his. For as my friends know, I'm an old Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Louis Armstrong, Tom Paxton and Mahailia Jackson kind of guy. Plus I'm tone deaf and arrhythmic.
In Meridian, I found some caring folks who tended to use defining but limiting frames for their portraits of Jimmie Rodgers. "The Father of Country Music,” “The Singing Brakeman,” and “The Blue Yodeler" were probably the three most common public frames. Some of the backdoor views were less grand: a rounder, a wanderer, a rowdy, and others. Barry Mazor invites us to move beyond these descriptors and revisit Jimmie Rodgers' creative genius as a seminal roots music entertainer.
In the 1960s I slowly discovered that many of the most effective champions of Meridian's Jimmie Rodgers heritage were "outsiders." Somehow the people who "got" the Jimmie Rodgers story were performers, promoters, politicians and storyteller-writers. Mazor begins with the legendary Johnny Cash-Louis Armstrong duet at the Ryman in 1970. Echoes of the Rodgers-Armstrong work in 1930 on "Blue Yodel 9" abound. And the connections unfold.
To name any more performers would leave out too many others. However, Barry Mazor does a terrific job of identifying these individuals and spotlighting their musical connections to Jimmie's legacy. Plus he provides a very clear mapping of "select soundtracks" or recordings which illustrate musically the Jimmie Rodgers influences across the popular music of the last century. And best of all, he effectively connects this plethora of diverse tracks to Rodgers' "roots."
Mazor invites us to revisit Rodgers in the context of early 20th Century Meridian and the audiences of post WWI America. Born into a time of flourishing live entertainment via traveling performers and an emerging recorded music capacity, his last dozen years included the ebullience of the early 1920s and the economic realities of the emerging great depression.
Then he carries us to contemporary entertainers and audiences as well as those of the intervening decades. He correctly and definitively casts Jimmie Rodgers as a 20th century entertainment icon. And like all great storytellers he then brings us home.
Mazor quotes Steve Forbert as observing "…it's not that I hear a lot of my hometown in Jimmie Rodgers--it's that I find a lot of Jimmie Rodgers in my hometown." And so it is for me. Thanks, Barry! I took your advice. I put on "Miss the Mississippi and You" and cranked it up. I'm continuing to meet Jimmie Rodgers. And I'm still “Waiting for a Train” as I watch Hobo Bill split the fire wood.
Bill Scaggs, President-Emeritus, Meridian Community College
384 pages; 15 halftones; 6-1/8 x 9-1/4; ISBN13: 978-0-19-532762-5ISBN10: 0-19-532762-4
About the Author
Barry Mazor has been writing about American music since the 1970s. A long-time senior editor for the roots and pop music magazine and website No Depression, he writes frequently on country and pop music for The Wall Street Journal. He is a recent winner of the Charlie Lamb Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tenn.