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Middle Sea
By Danny McBride - 08/20/2001 - 04:47 AM EDT

By Danny McBride © 2001

When Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain for the New World in 1492 he was really looking for a direct route to Cathay. He turned out to be Cathay’s Clown (sorry) as he did not find Cathay (China) or Cipango (Japan) or any of the Spice Islands he was looking for. (No, not the home of The Spice Girls.) He died penniless in 1506 still not knowing what he had really found. He had wanted to become "Admiral of The Ocean Sea". He thought of himself as a failure, and many of his contemporaries agreed. He had not found the middle sea passage around the world that he was looking for. If he had been a songwriter instead of a sailor that would have meant he would never have had a hit in his lifetime, and only later be discovered as someone whose tunes should have been listened to more closely. Chris had a good press agent, so we still remember him.

Recently the "Singing Brakeman", Jimmie Rodgers, has enjoyed a whole new renaissance as a result of the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou" which features songs in that great American Music tradition called "old-timey mountain music". This predates bluegrass, which was a concoction of the late 1940s that mixed mountain music with pop sensibilities and instrumental innovation--notably by Earl Scruggs, the banjo player with Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys (hence the name). Scruggs perfected a three-finger style of rapid-fire picking that has been copied by every finger-picker since. It’s named after him. Earl Scruggs, along with his partner Lester Flatt, is best known for the theme song to "The Beverly Hillbillies" TV show and the film soundtrack for Warren Beatty’s "Bonnie and Clyde". Earl has recently released his first CD in quite a long time.

But before that was Jimmie Rodgers. Born in 1897, in Meridian, Mississippi, he began his recording career on August 4, 1927, and died from the complications of tuberculosis 36 hours after his last session in May of 1933. A six-year career. He is called the "Singing Brakeman" because he was a railroad worker for ten years- -age 14 to 24--until he contracted TB and had to quit. He had learned guitar and lots of old songs from the mostly black work crews on the trains, and turned professionally to music. Today he is called the Father of Country Music. He was not only the first inductee into the Country Music Hall Of Fame, he was among the original inductees to The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, his music is that inspirational to all 20th Century songwriters. His songs live on in new versions recorded by all kinds of people- -Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard- -including his "In The Jaihouse Now" performed by The Soggy Bottom Boys- -George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson lip-synching in the "O Brother" movie- -although Nelson is credited with this vocal on the CD.

Ralph Stanley is on this album too. He is old enough to be the link from the original Jimmie Rodgers to today’s hip young audiences. He was born the year Rodgers began recording. His haunting "Oh, Death" has been sung for years but is just now coming to the attention of a whole new generation. His signature tune for over 50 years, "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" is the hit of the album, although in a strange twist of fate, it is sung- -and wonderfully- - by Dan Tyminski of the Alison Krauss Union Station group and lip-synched in the film by George Clooney. (Couldn’t his Auntie Rosemary have taught him to sing a little? She sure does okay still.) But Stanley’s clawhammer prints are all over this album, and by default that means Rodgers too- -Rodgers played guitar- -Stanley plays banjo.

( For those who think of "Honeycomb" or "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" when the name Jimmie Rodgers is mentioned, please know that that is a pop singer whose career sparkled with chart toppers from 1957 through the early 60s, and who is still performing, but is no relation to "The Father Of Country Music".)

Robert Johnson was born in 1911 and died in 1938 (he was poisoned by the husband of a jealous lover). Johnson recorded only 29 songs in his entire career- -three days worth of sessions in November 1936 and two days in June 1937- -that’s it. But his repertoire includes such all-time blues classics as "Cross Road Blues", "Love In Vain" and "Sweet Home Chicago"- -songs that have been done by Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and every blues band that ever played three chords. Johnson was also born in Mississippi, in a town called Hazlehurst. His influence, also during the depression years, was so strong that he is known as the "King Of The Delta Blues". He, too, was among the original inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, and is also a powerful influence on modern day writers.

Neither Jimmie Rodgers nor Robert Johnson saw much in the way of "Big Time" celebrity as a result of their writings, although they did each travel to the big cities of the North to perform and record- -New York, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere. Their fame and influence has grown since their deaths. Their importance to current popular music is unmeasureable, both musically and lyrically. They have left their finger-pickin’ finger prints all over every country, rock, or blues tune of the past 50 years.

But don’t just listen to the Eric Clapton or the Merle Haggard or whatever versions. Go get the original anthologies that inspired all of us who ever played a guitar. Each man has his own style of playing- -Johnson’s was especially innovative Their lyrics are already in most of our vocabularies. For example, there’s a scene in "O Brother" where a man with a guitar is hitch-hiking at a crossroad. When Clooney and the gang stop to give him a lift he tells them he has just sold his soul to the Devil in return for musical success, just as Johnson claimed he had done. (Of course if you don’t know the Robert Johnson song, this scene will not play as humorously as it does in the film.)

What you have to know is that your work has value too, even if it doesn’t seem to be very appreciated now. Make good demos and keep good journals of your lyrics and ideas and let friends and family know about them. You may hope that "Death may spare me over for another year", as Ralph Stanley sings as hauntingly as almost anything you can ever hear, but if not, you still may have written something your children and their children can enjoy for the rest of their lives. Write like their lives depended on it. To be a contemporary writer does not mean that you actually have to be alive- -only your songs.

Ralph Stanley does what he’s been doing for over 55 years. He’ll be 75 on his next birthday. He still plays about a hundred dates a year. With people like Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters gone, and others who were the direct links to the founders of our recorded country and blues based music, he’s a living legend that should not be missed. In fact see any old performer you can, even if it’s not a so-called living legend. Heck, I could qualify in a year or two.

Alright enough. I’m going down to the crossroad…I need to get a few things at the store.

-30-


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