Makin’ Stuff Up – Kissing Cousins: Country And Blues

Jimmie Rodgers. Public Domain.

This article appears in our May/June 2015 Blues Issue. 

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By now, most everyone has chortled over the crude regional putdown, “If a couple gets a divorce in Mississippi, are they still cousins?” Although several Southern states have been the butt of that same one liner, Mississippi was selected purposefully in this forum – this is the Blues Issue, after all. 

You see, it turns out that two distinctively American musical genres sprouted from the same talent-rich soil of the Magnolia State. For decades, hidden from view, their roots intertwined while, above the surface, they cross-pollinated. From the 1920s through the ’40s – even in the totally segregated South – kissin’ cousins blues and country were inseparable and oft-times barely distinguishable from one another.

Jimmie Rodgers probably yodeled out from the grave when he was anointed “The Father of Country Music.” In his eyes, he was, purely and simply, a Vaudeville entertainer. As a water boy on the railroad, Rodgers learned guitar from rail workers and hobos, while absorbing the work chants of African American laborers called “gandy dancers.” In 1927, an audition for Ralph Peer of The Victor Talking Machine Company led to his first recording session, for which he was paid a virtual fortune at the time – $100. From Rodgers’ follow-up session came “T For Texas” (a.k.a. “Blue Yodel”), which exploded nationwide, selling more than a half-million copies and transforming the skinny, consumptive fellah into a superstar. That Louis Armstrong blew trumpet on Rodgers’ sequel “Blue Yodel #9” testifies to his soaring celebrity status at the dawn of the 1930s.

However, Rodgers wasn’t actually the first “country” performer to catch the attention of a national audience. That distinction goes to a Georgian named Fiddlin’ John Carson. During the 1920s, hillbilly songs (as they were called) were often as bawdy and suggestive as their bluesy kin. Carson himself issued the barnyard double-entendre, “The Old Hen Cackled, And The Rooster’s Going To Crow.” The Light Crust Doughboys achieved notoriety with a lewd little number titled “Pussy, Pussy, Pussy.” The refrain to another popular ditty of the day went, “It’s a shame to beat your wife on a Sunday – when you’ve got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday …” etc. Whoa! And I thought rockers and rappers were misogynistic! As the ’30s rolled around, radio was becoming the major medium for promoting hillbilly music, and the airwaves were considered the only “safe” platform for female purveyors of the genre. So, to get exposure, performers kowtowed to broadcasters’ and advertisers’ insistence on more wholesome, family-friendly lyrical content.

Meanwhile, the future Father of Country Music was doing more than any other figure of his era to proliferate the blues. Rodgers’ recordings had a profound influence on fellow Mississippians Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, and Howlin’ Wolf, who, in a Rolling Stone interview, named Rodgers as his boyhood idol, admitting, “I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’.” Mississippi John Hurt’s “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me” was derived unabashedly from Rodgers’ “Waitin’ On A Train.” 

Meanwhile, equal influence was traveling in the opposite direction. Hawaiian steel aficionado Cliff Carlisle popularized a hybrid style dubbed “Hillbilly Blues.” As the ’30s came to a close, another genre-splicing sound hit the airwaves with Johnny Barfield’s “Boogie Woogie,” based on bluesman Pinetop Smith’s “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.” The fundamental groove for ’40s and ’50s-era country was borrowed directly from black ivory ticklers like Jelly Roll Morton. Popular piano man Moon Mullican adopted ragtime, zydeco, and stride, making those heretofore all-black idioms “acceptable” for white audiences. In 1941, Ernest Tubb’s “Walkin’ The Floor Over You” set that piano-based, two-beat rhythm in a full rhythm-section format, officially hijacking “Honky-Tonk” for Caucasians in cowboy hats.

Early ’50s country was dominated by two dudes called Hank and Lefty. Hank Williams had received the sum of his musical education from Alabama street bluesman Tee-Tot Payne, who taught the boy “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” the bluesy little number Hank revived for his debut chart single. The young star also credited Moon Mullican and Jimmie Rodgers as his idols. Hank incorporated Rodgers’ signature yodel into lyrical passages, as in his 12-bar “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” in which he agonizes, “I’m goin’ down three times, but Lord I’m only comin’ up twice.” If that ain’t blues, I don’t know what is. Lefty Frizzell launched his meteoric career with a Rodgers tribute compilation, featuring a chart-topping cover of “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got The Time.” (Both Jerry Lee Lewis and Merle Haggard would keep the Singing Brakeman’s flame burning for decades with myriad covers and tributes.)

By the mid-’50s, as blues and its country cousin both gained increased mainstream popularity on either side of the racial divide, a very public divorce seemed inevitable. From that point, for country performers, the “blues” seemed to have more to do with an emotional state than any specific musical style – Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” for example. Black artists, however, found it unnecessary to put “the word” in their song titles. Blues was implicit in the pigmentation of their skin, embedded in the dark legacy blackness still signifies in America.

Jimmie Rodgers, who was among the first three inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 – alongside Hank Williams and songwriter/publisher Fred Rose – had to wait yet another half century to receive equivalent recognition by the Blues Hall of Fame.

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