I was travelling through Mississippi a few years back and saw a sign on the highway for the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian. I figured it was worth a stop, since I’m such a fan of early country and folk music. The little museum was pretty much what I expected, a timeline of Jimmie’s rise to fame and subsequent early, tragic death, accompanied by various tokens and memorabilia. I was the only visitor there, and the little old lady docent was thrilled to talk to me since I had more than passing interest. She showed me Jimmie’s guitar, encased in a climate-controlled security vault with a glass door. I felt a touch of sadness to see something that can only communicate through human hands be so utterly isolated, buried alive. A guitar in solitary confinement for eternity. Tragic. Perhaps more tragic than Jimmie’s long losing battle with tuberculosis.
As I wandered the museum, a man came in and momentarily opened the guitar vault with a special key, and then disappeared into a back room. The docent approached me with a soft bony hand on my shoulder. “He comes in every so often to service it,” she explained. “It’s the only time the vault is ever open.” She hesitated a moment, and then continued, “he’s in the store-room a minute. Here’s your chance.” My chance? “You can touch the most famous guitar in the world,” she breathed. While this was sinking into my head, she made her decision. “I’m going to go touch it,” she vowed. “No one has touched that guitar since Jimmie died in 1933.” I followed her across the room. I was witness to a semi-religious act, as the frail woman gently placed the ball of her index finger on the curved body of the guitar and then withdrew her hand again. She turned to me. Well, sure. I extended my index finger and touched the wood, also. Then we walked away and the man reappeared about a minute later and locked the vault again.
The most famous guitar in the world? I don’t know for sure, but Jimmie Rodgers was a superstar of grandiose proportions in his day. Known as The Father of Country Music, many of the most famous rock and country stars will tell you they were influenced by him. Surprisingly, he is even noted as a big influence on blues artists like Howling Wolf and Mississippi John Hurt (my favorite bluesman, by the way).
Jimmie was a poor white boy born in 1897 who worked on the railroad. Railroad workers typically sang as they worked since laying track is a rhythmic operation that requires workmen to act in synch; music facilitates this, and it makes the work easier, too. Jimmie taught himself to sing and play guitar among the railroad men, and became known as the Singing Brakeman.
Jimmie certainly had a lot of talent but like most folks who become famous, he was also in the right place at the right time; circumstances created him just as surely as talent. A few things were in Jimmie’s favor to launch him to mega-stardom. For one, he had a sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, who wrote most of his songs (like most musicians who are self-taught, Jimmie couldn’t read music). He also happened to be a young man in Mississippi during times of tragedy and loss, which provided both popular themes for his songs and a means to market his music and find work as a musician.
In 1927 a devastating flood turned Mississippi into a disaster area, and the Red Cross was busy feeding half a million people every day. They hired Jimmie and other local musicians to provide entertainment at their relief stations, which brought him to the attention of the radio and recording scouts. That same year he began a radio program for a brand new radio station in Ashville, North Carolina. Radio created a broader audience for folk musicians than had ever been possible before. Again that same year, Jimmie Rodgers and his band were recorded for the first time.
Jimmie went on to record over one hundred songs over the next six years, becoming one of the first musicians to ever sell over one million records. It was a phenomenal, unprecedented success for anyone in the early 1930’s. This was possible because the phonograph had finally become a common item in many homes, and since not many recordings existed to play on a phonograph if you had one, any artist who had a recording would have an audience.
Jimmie set the stage for everything country music became known for later: poverty, hard times, traveling to find work, and a hopeless struggle against bad luck and illness (Jimmie battled tuberculosis but this transformed in country music to the more common battle against the bottle). The Red Cross continued to hire Jimmie to play all over the country through the Great Depression.
The docent at the museum also informed me excitedly that “Jimmie Rodgers’ music became internationally famous, so that many people all over the world started learning English just so they could understand his lyrics. He’s even worshipped as a god in Africa, now.” I was suspicious that there just had to be more to that story, but I reserved judgment until I had a chance to check it out online. I’m not sure about people getting interested in speaking English just because of Jimmie. I would think the economic hegemony of the United Kingdom and the United States in the 20th century explains that pretty well, although maybe Jimmie gave them a better excuse up front. But a god in Africa?
It turns out, that’s actually true, just exaggerated a bit. Kenya was still under British colonial rule in the early 20th century, and Englishmen living in Kenya brought their phonographs with them. As I said, not too many recordings existed at the time to play on phonographs, so a lot of these folks had Jimmie Rodgers in their collection. Some Kenyans of the Kipsigis tribe heard his music and loved it so much they began to imitate it, creating songs of their own. They began to fantasize about the person behind the voice, the music, and decided he was some sort of half-antelope, half-man, god-like being they called Chemirocha (Chemi=Jimmie, Rocha=Rodgers). Adolescent girls in the tribe still sing a song to him, inviting him to come to them and dance.
You can hear the girls singing here: Chemirocha Song
It seems that the magical technology of phonographs and musical recordings was having an astounding cultural effect on the peoples of the world, who could never have imagined such incredible inventions. Jimmie Rodgers became a legend of a rapidly changing world, as well as a legend of hardship at home.
Inscribed on the Jimmie Rodgers marble monument outside the museum in Meridian are these words:
His Is The Music Of America.
He Sang The Songs Of The People He Loved,
Of A Young Nation Growing Strong.
His Was An America Of Glistening Rails, Thundering Boxcars And Rainswept Nights,
Of Lonesome Prairies, Great Mountains,
and A High Blue Sky. He Sang Of The Bayous And The Cotton Fields,
The Wheated Plains, Of The Little Towns,
The Cities, And Of The Winding Rivers of America.
We Listened. We Understood.