My Rough and Rowdy Ways (Jimmie Rodgers)

This is probably my favorite Jimmie Rodgers song, which is saying a lot. I don’t remember when I first heard one of Rodgers’s records, but whenever it was, I already knew at least a couple of his songs. I’d learned “Mule Skinner Blues” from Cisco Houston and “T. B. Blues” from Pete Seeger, and I’d tried to manage the yodel on the latter, but I couldn’t get it — maybe in part because at that point I was eleven or twelve years old and my voice hadn’t changed, but I didn’t get appreciably better with adolescence.Not that I ever stopped trying — I worked on Bob Dylan’s version of “Freight Train Blues” and Jack Elliot’s “Sadie Brown,” and later on I managed to get some kind of handle on Hank Williams’s version of “Lovesick Blues.”

By that time I would have been more familiar with Rodgers’s originals. I loved the way he sang, yodeling or not, and his guitar work, as well as some of the more pop arrangements like “Any Old Time,” which I originally heard and learned from Maria Muldaur’s version. I’d also heard Merle Haggard’s tribute album, with its gorgeous version of “Miss the Mississippi and You.” What I hadn’t heard, and still haven’t, is the recording of Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James doing a duet of “Waiting for a Train” — it exists, but has never been released — but I was aware of how many great Black blues artists recognized Rodgers as one of the defining masters of that genre. Tampa Red, Tommy Johnson, and the Mississippi Sheiks all recorded yodeling blues in his style; B.B. King often named him as a favorite; and Howling Wolf said he always wanted to yodel like Rodgers, but the closest he could get was his namesake falsetto howl.

That’s probably the only thing Wolf and I have in common, and without the yodel I didn’t see the point of doing Rodgers’s songs… and then I was hitchhiking across the US in 2005, the trip I wrote about in Riding with Strangers. (There’s more about that in some previous posts, like “Key to the Highway” and, yeah, “I’ve Been Everywhere.”) That time, I mostly stuck to the interstates, but from St. Louis to Iowa City I followed the old roads. The most memorable part of that leg was a night in Hannibal, Missouri, sleeping rough in the yard of the Mark Twain house: the cops rousted me around midnight, and I explained that I’d asked myself, “What would Huck Finn do?” — which got a laugh, but they moved me on and I slept the rest of the night under some pine trees outside town. I got back on the road early the next morning, and after an hour or so watching the local going-to-work traffic, got a lift from a guy who was inspecting grain elevators and took me a couple of dozen miles to his rural turn-off.

Here’s how I wrote about it in the book:

It was the first time this trip that I was somewhere I could walk. For a hitchhiker, that’s a pretty fair definition of “country”: a stretch of road where you might as well be walking as standing in a good spot. This was not a particularly scenic bit of country. It was flat and dust-yellow, and there was some kind of electrical plant or generator over to the right…. I’ve always liked the periods of walking, as long as the weather cooperates. It makes a change from riding, a chance to stretch your legs, and there’s also the macho pleasure of covering ground under your own steam. That’s one pleasure that grows with age, the enjoyment of pushing your body, going hungry, sleeping on bare ground, then shouldering a pack and walking ten or fifteen miles if you have to.

Also, it was an opportunity to yodel. Set me out in the middle of the prairie and I can sing like Jimmie Rodgers, especially if there’s no one for miles around. It had been over a year, and the flat farmland roofed by a cloudless blue sky formed a perfect concert hall:

I may be rough, I may be wild,
I may be tough and accounted vile,
But I can’t give up my good old rough and rowdy ways
Yodel-ay-ee-hoo, de-lay-ee-hoo, de-lay-eeee . . .

I was kind of disappointed when a car pulled over.

I swear, under the open sky, when no one is around, I really can yodel like Jimmie Rodgers. Indoors, with people listening, it’s not the same, but I still like to give this one a try.