I usually put in a good chunk of time at the International Country Music Conference every year, but this year I got to be there for a grand total of six hours.
Still, in that time, I got to talk to Michael Betrand (who, you may recall, is brilliant), hear all about Hank Williams deeply, deeply fucked up sister, hear a bunch of different version of “Lovesick Blues” and hear all about Jimmie Rodgers.
The brilliant thing I want to think about some more before I decide if I agree with it that I heard and want to share with you so that you can mull it over and decide if you agree with it is paraphrased as following from a man we shall call Mr. M. Mr. M says that there were two modes of Southern white boy rebellion in the early 20th century, the Tom Sawyer trouble-maker who was clearly smart and knew it and was clearly destined to marry the judge’s daughter and eventually enter polite society. And then there was the Huck Finn mode of boy from the outskirts of society who sympathized too much with black folks and who was a constant challenge to the way things were done.
Mr. M’s argument is that part of what made Jimmie Rodgers so compelling was that he was the first in a line (that includes Elvis) of Southern White Male figures who would combine the Tom Sawyer with the Huck Finn.
To which I say “Hmm. I have to think about whether I agree with that.”
He had an awesome clip of Odetta doing Muleskinner Blues, which I could not find on Youtube, but I bring you this instead. Points if you can follow my train of thought.
Kathy and I went out looking at houses. I only have one thing to say: Nashville, what the hell?
Sounds like too convenient a schema by far. A lot of the early artists dropped a couple of tracks on wax and went back home — record companies weeded out a lot of people because they had a specific notion of what “authentic” was, so any grand theory that doesn’t take into consideration the mediating influence of the gatekeepers is probably starting in the wrong place. And I guess I wonder what the theorist means by “rebellion.” I personally think up and leaving a steady job at a North Carolina cotton mill to make a few records is rebellious for most working-class men, defiantly going to leave a sonic mark of their voice and their song. (Especially given what we know of the volatility of the textile mills and radical organizing there, I’d be looking more closely at those fellers, if it were me.) But if they went on back to the mill and were never heard from again, would that sufficiently rebellious for our speaker? Or does he bring his own “drunks, womanizers, and men who crossed the color line” middle-class notions of what impropieties are sufficient?
Anyhow, even taken on its own merits, the theory works well enough for a guy like Al Hopkins or anyone in his band, but utterly fails the Gid Tanner/Skillet Lickers test. Gid had a run of about eight good years and cut a lot of sides, but then he went back to raising chickens and playing barn dances. He sure as hell didn’t like black folk (his songs are straight-up racist and he did mean-spirited black-face comedy for Klan audiences that was an act of theft, not love). Gid was a cantankerous redneck shit-kicker who didn’t clean up well. However, he was exceptionally popular in the lower South until the Great Depression, when there was more money to be made on the farm. Clayton McMichen (the guy who actually wrote Peach Pickin Time in Georgia) was another of these men who don’t fit either of the archetypes.
I don’t know. I kind of like it in broad strokes. But, yeah, look too close and it breaks down.