Riding the first real hot streak of his short life, Jimmie Rodgers hit town in October, 1928, recruited a backup band in an Atlanta speakeasy, and in two sessions the following week recorded four of the songs that would send his name around the world and into our century: “Blue Yodel No. 4,” “My Carolina Sunshine Girl,” “I’m Lonely and Blue,” and his greatest hit, “Waiting for a Train.”
All around the water tank, waiting for a train,
A thousand miles away from home, sleeping in the rain
I walked up to a brakeman to give him a line of talk
He says “If you’ve got the money, I’ll see that you don’t walk.”
Rodgers, who billed himself as “the Singing Brakeman,” here takes on the persona of a hobo. The song is about the power relationship between these two classic American types: the hobo and the brakeman, the rootless and the rooted, the footloose and the marginally employed.
Except as an anachronism, the term “hobo” disappeared from American English at roughly the same time “homeless man” came into common usage. We romanticize one and denigrate the other, but in reality hobos were, by and large, as much destitute and addicted as homeless men, and homeless men make their choices in life as much as did hobos. Only the mode of transportation has changed.
I haven’t got a nickel, not a penny can I show
“Get off, get off, you railroad bum.” He slammed the boxcar door.
This is about the only song, besides “Trouble in Mind,” that I can remember my father singing. As was the case with most railroadmen, I think, he called it “All Around the Water Tank.” He sang it blusier and with a harder swing than the corny rendition – click here to hear. Rodgers later gave in the film short you’ll find on YouTube. It was more like the original recording, or the Jerry Lee Lewis version: “All a-ROUND the wah-tah TANK, Wait-ing for a train…”
My old man was a cold realist about hobos, whom he knew primarily from tense encounters in the dead of night, on the edge of the L&N yard in Montgomery. But he was also a there-but-for-fortune kind of guy. He understood that the line between the hobos who rode the boxcars and the high rollers who rode the Pullman cars was narrower than either class of passenger might realize.
Something of the same ambiguity appears in the song between the first and second verse. Did the brakeman kick the hobo off the boxcar before he slammed the door, or let him ride on another stretch? And how much of the hobo’s plight is real oppression, and how much of it self pity? It seems open to interpretation:
He put me off in Texas, a state I dearly love,
The wide-open spaces all around me, the moon and stars up above
Nobody seems to want me, or lend me a helping hand,
I’m on my way from Frisco, I’m going back to Dixieland.
Though my pocketbook is empty and my heart is full of pain,
I’m a thousand miles away from home, just waiting for a train.
Within months of their release in the United States, Rodger’s “blue yodels” were being played in South Africa, where they were greeted in the black townships with an electric shock of recognition not unlike that of the Congolese when they first heard recordings of Cuban music. By as early as 1930, artists like Griffiths Motsieoloa were producing their own blue yodels in Sesotho, Zulu and other African languages.
In his semi-autobiographical novel, “Familiarity Is the Kingdom of the Lost,” the South African author Dugmore Boetie wrote about growing up in the 1930s as a street urchin in the mixed-race Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown, which holds a place in the imagination of that country similar to Storyville or Harlem. In one scene, the boy listens to a 78 record on a stolen gramophone in the storm-sewer hideout he shares with an older mentor:
The voice in the record belonged to Jimmy Rodgers. He was singing a song called “Waiting for the Train” with guitar accompaniment. The first time I heard that record, it took me like a drunkard takes to drink.
I must have been dreaming. Of what? Only my ancestors know…. I didn’t want anything to go wrong. Not while I was listening to that record.
South Africa’s apartheid government, which despised everything Sophiatown represented, began the forced removal and bulldozing of the section in February, 1955, the year Fats Domino and Pat Boone had hits in the United States with their black and white versions of “Ain’t That a Shame.”
Racial tension and inequality has been with us a long, long time, but we forget how recently the strict physical and cultural separation of the races occurred, and how much conscious energy went into creating the illusion that this had been a permanent condition. Yet, a quarter century before the artificial segregation of Fats and Pat, Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley, the “father of country music,” as Rodgers was known, recorded “Blue Yodel No. 9” with Louis Armstrong, the George Washington of jazz.
The farther back one investigates, the more it becomes apparent that the different kinds of music represented by Rodgers and Armstrong are, in fact, the same music. Any attempt to discover the roots of “pure” mountain music, blues music or any other kind of American music soon dissolves into a confusing amalgam of German hymn tunes, Scottish ballads, Italian operatic themes and Yoruba rhythm patterns, among dozens of influences.
“All music is folk music,” Armstrong once pronounced. “I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”
Jimmie Rodgers was never really forgotten in the years after his untimely death in 1933, but the memory of the tubercular, soft-spoken singer who performed in a railroadman’s work clothes was overshadowed by flashier performers like Hank Williams, Elvis and Otis Redding, who achieved a sort of popular apotheosis with the rise and spread of mass media.
But another sort of deification awaited Rodgers. As the years passed, his 78s made their way out of Africa’s urban centers, up the rivers, down into the valleys and out into the deep bush. Around 1950, visitors to the remote Kipsigi tribe in Kenya noted the use of the 78s in connection with rites to a recent addition to the Kipsigi pantheon, a half-man, half-antelope to whom maidens sang in ceremonies to promote their fertility.
The new god’s name was Chemirocha. Click here to play it.
Note: This story is another in the continuing series, “Southern Song of the Day.”