“Are You Depressed?”

So, my parents and my nephews are in town. At one point yesterday, the dog was barking non-stop to be let out of the house (which she could not be until the trailer was put up) and my parents were yelling at each other and the nephews were squabbling and hitting each other with sticks and I sat down in the open end of the van and stared at the lilies after a few seconds, it dawned on me that I could not hear them any more.

So, I looked over and sure enough, when I looked over, I could see them all storming around and I could hear them.

But apparently, when your brain is overwhelmed by negative stimulus, it can just shut that shit right down–almost hysterical deafness, if there is such a thing.

That’s a nifty trick to know that your brain can do, but maybe there might be stressful situations in which I might actually need to hear what’s going on so I hope my brain doesn’t make a habit of it.

At dinner, I got to hear about various family members and all that entails and after a while, my oldest nephew asked me if I was depressed. Dear lord, kid, where you not listening to these tales of woe and stupidity? How can a girl not be depressed?

And my sister-in-law called hysterical for some reason and later I heard my dad tell my mom, “Don’t tell Betsy, it’ll just upset her.”  Listen, the fact that she has custody of my nephew most of the time puts my upset-o-meter so far in the red that her calling and causing further nonsense doesn’t even shake the needle. But it’s stupid anyway–this whole keeping secrets bullshit. I mean, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know all this terrible crap nobody’s actually going to do anything about.  But I resent deeply this idea that it MUST be kept from me, for my own good.

Who the hell gets to decide that for another adult?

Anyway, I don’t believe it’s about my well-being anyway. It’s about a bunch of people who act weirdly like children keeping something from the person they have thrust into the role of adult in order to feel powerful.

And I also resent that–that my acting like an adult means that I become the authority figure who must be rebelled against.

Though, you know, the good thing about hearing all the family gossip is that it gives a girl a chance to see that all branches of the family tree behave this way, not just mine.

I don’t know, folks. I used to think that I wanted kids. But I watch my nephews and I’m not sure it’s fair to do this shit to another group of people, who didn’t do anything but be born into this family.

On a side note, my mom and I were talking about how competative my nephews are and she said she didn’t remember my brothers being like that and I said they were competative, but not as much as my nephews, but probably because we had these family friends whose sons warred with each other when they were little, literally tried to kill each other.

Neither my mom or dad remembers that. And they looked at me like I was making it up.

But I do remember it. I know it’s true–that those two boys fought so much and so terribly that it was hard to be around them.

But when both of your parents sit there and tell you they don’t remember it…

I don’t know.

It starts to make me feel a little crazy.

Which, you know, fine. Maybe it would be nice to find out that all the bad things you remember didn’t really happen that way.

But I have a lot of really good memories with a lot of the folks who read here.

And I would be devistated to learn that I was just making them up.

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers and Barry Mazor

I finally finished Barry Mazor’s book, Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century. This book is pretty amazing, because you finish it and you think, “Well, yeah, duh, of course this is a great way to talk about music and an artist.”  In other words, once you’ve seen it done, it seems like a complete no-brainer.  But I honestly cannot think of another book that takes this approach.

So, ha, yeah, I guess that kind of sucks for a writer–to do something original, and to do it with such dexterity, that you make it look easy and obvious. Mark my words, people are going to be ripping off Mazor’s approach, so read this now before it becomes ubiquitous and you forget a time when we didn’t talk about music in quite this way.

Anyway, so you ask, what is it that he’s doing?

He’s created what we might call a history of Jimmie Rodgers’s influence.  (A lot of reviewers make it sound like a biography and there is a lot of information about Rodgers’s life in it, but that misses the point.) Mazor is trying to understand Rodgers’s place in the landscape of American music–kind of the how and why Rodgers has mattered as much as he has.  And, in this case, in order to figure it out, he talks extensively to artists who were influenced by Rodgers, especially artists who were such big fans that they went on to record Rodgers’s songs.

There’s a lot to mull over in the book and I’m still turning stuff over in my head.  And then, since Mazor said he’d be happy to submit to another interview when I finished the book, I asked him some of the questions I’ve been mulling over (Yes I am going to segue from review to interview, just like that. I know, I think it’s a gutsy move, too).

Me: I hope it goes without saying that I love this book. I mean, I don’t want to sit here and blow smoke up your ass, but it’s beautifully written and fun to read. But more than that, I felt like this approach, of focusing on how Rodgers’s musical legacy played out really is an amazing way not just to learn about Rodgers’ music but to understand how a lot of very disparate parts of American music fit together. So, the first question I had when I finished the book was “Wow, has anyone else ever done anything like this before?” I mean, upon completing it, it seems like such an important and interesting way to write about music, but I’ve also been wracking my brain and I think you may be the first person who’s done this, and so I wonder about your inspiration. How did you decide to write a book like this? And do you feel now like you might have invented an approach?

Mazor: First, thanks for the kind words on your reaction. My mission was to find a way to make Jimmie Rodgers’ music, image and the extent of his impact more immediate and palpable for people up here in the 21st century, and I actually arrived at going about it this way, as a “life story of the music” rather than another life story of the man, which wasn’t that needed anyway, pretty early on.

I’d seen books on the history of the way some lasting cultural figure had been taken over time, how the notion of them evolved and was used–but the subjects were Leonardo or Shakespeare over hundreds of years or Jesus over several thousand. And of course, popular music in the mass media age sense had not been around long enough that anybody had much tried something like that, about any performer, but it simply occurred to me that with Jimmie Rodgers, whose music had gone a lot of places over some 80 years, it would be possible to try. One reason it looked possible was that, while nobody asked popular music fans in the 1920s, down home or elsewhere, what they thought about performers–and they’re rarely asked now; they just get to volunteer it online!–in Mr. Rodgers neighborhood, so many of the eventual interpreters of his music had been fans first. So the unrecorded responses could be gotten to through the celebrities and semi-celebrities. I did see that, along the way, as you just did, that Meeting Jimmie Rodgers opens a whole new way to get at pop music. I guess it will be up to other writers to see if it works out that way!

Me: Another thing I keep thinking about in the context of your book is Johnny Cash. Did you see Robert Gordon’s Shakespeare was a Big George Jones Fan? And you know there’s that moment when Johnny Cash goes to lie on A.P.’s grave to have a smoke with him? It felt to me like this moment of Cash trying to interact with the legend as a person, to understand him as a person. And you talk about Cash literally putting on Rodgers’s clothes to perform his music. I don’t guess I exactly have a question here, but it’s something I’d like to understand more about, about how Cash understood his relationship to these men, because it seems different to me than how you describe what other folks, like Merle Haggard, get up to. It seems less about preserving the legacy and more about trying to figure out how he fits into that pantheon (or if he does). But I wonder what you make of it or if you think I’m reading too much into things?

Mazor: Oh sure; I’ve seen that film;the scene at the grave is hilarious. Johnny’s buddy and producer Cowboy Jack Clement, the film’s main subject, is a hero and, I’m still astonished to be able to say, a friend, and as you know he figures in my book himself. For one thing, he’s the one who in effect introduced Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong, who went on to do recreate the Armstrong-Jimmie Rodgers duet on TV, which is where my whole story begins. Well, Merle donned some brakeman clothes for the cover shot on his Rodgers salute album after all, and for a video-like film, I do think you’re on to something. With A.P. Carter, there was the special; element of a relation by marriage never known.

But Johnny Cash was clearly obsessed with Jimmie Rodgers in the early sixties and wanted to portray him in a movie; I uncovered quite a bit about that. I think that the way Cash would get close to that obsession, the adoption of the look and feel, the persona, was a bit like seeing an actor prepare for a role, in a more public arena. I think he just was inclined to really get a feel for his subject that way–although Johnny also did some hard research out of documents and such as well. Maybe he threw himself into Jimmie’s world so deeply because he understood that they shared what I term the “roots music hero” identity. They both stretched out across lines, evolving their images and musical reach–and the subjects of Rodgers songs also became subjects of Cash theme albums. And Cash was a man, I think, who, like Jimmie, understood a lot about the way he was perceived and how to work that.

Me: Are you trying to drive people into bankruptcy with all the musical suggestions at the end of each chapter?!

Mazor: Yes. I had to get at all that music somehow, no matter the cost, and now it’s your turn!

But seriously folks–I do know what you mean. I read Tony Russell’s extraordinary little book Blacks, Whites and Blues when it came out in 1970 (I was an infant) and spent a lot of time and money tracking down as many records he brought up as I could. I’ve been wandering around in those musical borderlands ever since, and when I eventually met him, much later, I said “Thank you for ruining my life!'” I’d advise you to take your time; there is a lot of music in the discographies in my book. And remember, at least some of the music I point people to is available free, legitimately, online, or could be borrowed from libraries.

Me: Speaking of driving people into bankruptcy, I bought the three “Chemirocha” songs from the Smithsonian and the third one, with the Kipsigi girls, blew my mind. I almost didn’t know how to make sense of what I was hearing. So, here you have a girl singing along to a stringed instrument that seems to be making very blues-like noises, singing about Jimmie Rodgers and… well, just holy shit. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to figure out in which directions the influences are flowing there. But my question is more basic. How did Jimmie Rodgers songs end up in Kenya in the 1940s to begin with? Would these folks have heard him on the radio? Or were his records being important into Kenya?

Mazor: The records had begun to reach English speaking parts of Africa–South Africa and Kenya for instance–even in his own day. He had worldwide reach. It had just taken some years for the records–and it was by way of records–to filter through to where the Kipsigi live and English is not the first language. Incidentally, I’m getting e-mails and such about the book from people reading it as far away as Japan right now–and that’s actually not a surprise, given the subject.

Me: I also have been thinking a lot about the story you tell about Rodgers’s influence from and on black blues musicians. Usually, the standard myth of the white country singer, like Hank Williams, is that he learns to play the guitar from an almost anonymous black guy and then he goes on to white mainstream success and that’s supposed to, I think, prove that the roots of his music are somewhat firmly established in black culture. But what you’re describing with Rodgers is much different than that, a man who was keenly aware of what all sorts of his contemporaries were doing and often eager to play with them and have them play with him. And it seems to me that we don’t really see this kind of whole-hog enthusiasm for all different kinds of music from a country music artist again until Elvis. Do you think that’s a fair assessment? If so, do you think that’s part of what made Rodgers such a popular entertainer?

Mazor: That’s the “”stretching out” I was talking about a minute ago, from its musical side. I think that’s basic to becoming not just a star entertainer, which Jimmie and Elvis both were, of course, but something more, a roots music hero. If you’re going to function as a sort of unelected representative of the people you come from, on a grand scale, the more places you represent your people, the more they’ll like it! You’re affirming that identity, and theirs, on a wider stage, which is why people like them can move out of boxes. With Jimmie and Elvis too, I doubt they ever thought they were in one, musically at least, that they could go where they please. Dolly Parton is a good latter day example of the same thing; no matter how pop and Hollywood she went, her folks always accepted her and were tickled that she was doing it, and when she headed back towards straighter country music, even bluegrass, she was immediately accepted right back, not many questions asked. It was OK; she’s a roots music hero.

Me: You talk a lot about how few women (in comparison with men) cover Jimmie Rodgers and I guess I’m still pondering that. I think you tease out a lot of the reasons, and I think you’re right that there’s something about Rodgers’s gender presentation that makes his songs seem particularly masculine and maybe harder for women to feel some ownership of. And I also think that female artists have a tendency to look back to other female artists. So, I wonder, too, if part of the problem isn’t that Elsie McWilliams’s involvement in the creation of so many of these songs isn’t more widely known?

Mazor: Well, it should be more widely known, as well as how easily Jimmie worked with her, and I do my best in that regard. But I don’t know whether knowing more about that collaboration and Elsie’s outright composition of many of the songs can change the Jimmie and women situation; the songs were created with him and his persona in mind, after all. (And that persona combined macho and vulnerability.) As you’ve read, though, it seems to me that Rodgers songs have always been empowering to those who were attracted to them and took them on–and women– some pretty interesting women performers, at that–from Texas Ruby and Rose Maddox to Odetta and Wanda Jackson, Dolly Parton and Tanya Tucker–have taken the leap.

Me: I noticed you didn’t address the legend of Jimmie Rodgers being some kind of Johnny… er Jimmie Marijuana-seed across the land. As you were doing your research, did you find anything to substantiate or finally put to rest this rumor?

Mazor: Well, that’s a pretty obvious case of a legend getting attached to another legendary story–the Johnny Appleseed story, as you almost said. There are a lot of what I call “Jimmie stories” like that. Legends breed them. I know of no creditable evidence that Jimmie Rodgers used recreational drugs or that, as is sometimes claimed, Maybelle Carter ever said he did–although he was a buddy of lifelong reefer lover Louis Armstrong, so who knows? Not the people spreading the story, I can assure you! They spread that one because they’d like a guy like that; thy want to see him that way. Which says something once again about the continuing power and pull of a man, his image, and his music after 80 years. That stuff keeps happening. Did you know that he was an iPod hacker?