Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music
By Ben Wynne
Biography, 312 pages, LSU Press
If American music is a vast river of influence, one genre flowing into another, then the Mississippi Delta is the region where much of 20th Century music flows back to. It’s a region that has been marketed and mythologized by artists and corporations throughout the history of recorded music in an effort to claim some sort of legitimate musical heritage, a kind of preternatural connection to the ‘roots’ of American music. What are the roots of American recorded music and why do we mythologized the Mississippi Delta? Ben Wynne’s book Charley Patton, Jimmie Rogers, and the Roots of American Music from LSU Press examines the Delta’s place in the American music like no other book I’ve read.
The men whose lives make up the twin narratives of the book are, even now, shadowy figures in the American musical pantheon. Charley Patton was a seminal African-American blues musician born in Hinds County, Mississippi sometime between 1881 and 1891. Rogers was a white country singer from Meridian, Mississippi known for his yodeling, was one of country music’s earliest superstars. The two men embarked on vastly different career paths during the 1920’s and 30’s. Patton played juke joints and house parties throughout Mississippi, composing such seminal blues pieces as “Pony Blues” and “High Water Everywhere.” He died in 1934 and was nearly forgotten until being rediscovered by the mainstream blues revival of the 1960’s. Rodgers was a national celebrity when he doied in 1933 at the age of 35 after years of struggling with tuberculosis.
Wynne gives us a blow-by-blow account of the hard living ways of both men and the Delta culture that shaped each of them. He chronicles two restless, rootless men at-large in an agrarian world where, to live, one usually had to be tied to the land. More often than not, the land a person was tied to was not their own. Through music, both Patton and Rodgers sought to overcome those ties. Wynne details the multiple romantic relationships of both men, their afflictions, and their musical greatness, but surprisingly the real focus of the book is the Mississippi Delta itself. This is not the romantic Mississippi Delta of American popular culture, however, this is the delta as it truly was. Wynne spends significant time early on outlining the economic and social climate of Mississippi following the Civil War. We see the reascendance of the planter class as they tightened their grip on the economic lives of Both African-Americans and poor whites.
Patton and Rodgers were, in many ways, musical ambassadors of the Delta, and Wynne meticulously shows readers just how far their influence stretched. A continuously revolving cast populates the book, as Patton and Rodgers cross paths with some of the most influential musicians of the last century. We see a young Louis Armstrong backing up Rodgers on “Blue Yodel No. 9.” We see Rodgers in Louisville recording with the Farter Family, and making a pass at Maybelle in the process. We glimpse the environment surrounding Patton’s infamous alcohol-fueled 1930 trip from Lula, Mississippi to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount Records with musicians Son House, Willie Brown, and Louise Johnson.
What truly spread the Delta sound throughout the country, however, was recorded sound. Both men would be unknown today if not for the tremendous recordings they left behind, recording that constitute the bedrock for both blues and country. Wynne takes readers inside early recording studies where men like Ralph, director of recording for Okeh Records and Jay Mayo Williams of Paramount Records successfully exploited a growing market for African-American music in the 1920’s. Peer would also record some of the earliest country musicians, including Jimmie Rodgers. This ‘cross-pollination’ of music, as Wynne defines it is, in the end, the real story in the pages of In Tune. There really is no black and white American music, just a flow of ideas and influences, creativity and commercialism, that opens up into the wide world of American music, a legacy that is as wide and deep as the Mississippi itself.
There are many back roads and crossroads in American music. One road leads to another, branches off, and before you know it, the beginning of the trail is left somewhere in the dust. These musical crossroads have taken many shapes over the years. In the 19th Century pop and folk merged together, in the early 20th Century it was ragtime giving away to jazz, and later blues led to rock and roll. One of the most interesting crossroads of the last 50 years was the convergence of rock, country, blues, and folk in the 1960’s and 70’s. These styles incubated in the emerging American counterculture and led to the emergence of some of the best-known singer-songwriters of the last century. Artists like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson all became cultural icons. Among the most unheralded, at least by the general public, is singer-songwriters of that period is Mickey Newbury. I say unheralded among the general public, because Newbury’s influence on music is profound.
The man documenting that influence is Joe Ziemer, and the second edition of his biography on Newbury, Mickey Newbury: Crystal & Stone, is out now from AuthorHouse. You can order it here. I met Ziemer while working on my documentary film Dixie, where he discussed Newbury’s most famous contribution to popular music, “An American Trilogy,” a piece that deftly combines “Dixie,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “All My Trials.” Newbury spontaneously combined the tunes, which are respectively, the song of the Confederate Army in the U.S. civil war, the song of the U.S. Army during that same war, and a folk song based on a Bahamian lullaby. Newbury de-anthemized the songs, creating a haunting soundscape of the American experience. The song was a mainstay in Elvis Presley’s concerts in the 1970’s, popularizing gun the tune overseas. “An American Trilogy” has become emblematic of the United States in some circles and is perhaps more popular in Great Britain than it is anywhere else. It was chosen as the number one American song of the millennium in a 1999 UK poll.
The irony is that Newbury was a tremendously talented songwriter, whose compositons have been recorded 1,543 times in the last 50 years, by artists like Ray Charles, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings–the list goes on and on. A Texas native, Newbury was at the forefront of the outlaw country movement. Ziemer has called him ‘the original outlaw.’ As the title of Ziemer’s book implies, Newbury was a complex artist, full of equal parts strength and sensitivity. Ziemer, who befriended the musician later in life, paints a portrait of Newbury with the exhaustive research of the historian and the fondness of a close friend. He first encountered the music of Newbury while listening to a friend play him in concert in the 70’s. Ziemer had no idea who wrote the piece his friend played. For 50 years, music lovers have been discovering Newbury in much the same way.
I first heard Newbury named-dropped in Waylon Jennings’ 1977 hit “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”: “Between Hank Williams pain songs/And Newbury’s train songs/and Blue eyes cryin’ the rain/Out in Luckenbach, Texas/Ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain” I was intrigued. Who was this man wedged between two Hank Williams references in a Waylon Jennings song? It turns out, like many people, I encountered Newbury’s music without knowing it. Many of Newbury songs reached charged for other artists. Andy Williams reached #4 On the Adult Contemporary chart in 1968 with “Sweet Memories,” Jerry Lee Lewis reached #2 on the Country chart with “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” Younger generations perhaps best know Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s cover of Newbury’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” featured in the dream sequence of the Coen brother’s 1998 film The Big Lebowski.
Ziemer’s book is a robust 500 pages and was 15 years in the making, and will help round out the library of any American music aficionado. Zeimer put it best in his preface to this second edition:
“Mickey was fragile and tough… like crystal and stone… transparent and rock-solid. The man was obliging and stubborn, open-minded and opinionated. He was a brilliant Bohemian and an unpretentious country boy. Loyal and fearless to a fault, Mickey was a tender-hearted, spiritually perceptive Christian, a family man, a rambler at heart, and perhaps bipolar.”
One thing Newbury most definitely was: an American original. Ziemer’s volume captures the charisma and complexity of Newbury as a person and underscores the impact of Newbury as an artist.