Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lost Roots and Broken Branches

Jimmie Rodgers
My earliest exposure to music was to the country music my Dad loved.  Having been born in 1923, this meant artists such as the Carter Family, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow and Hank Williams.  He was especially fond of Jimmie Rodgers, a/k/a the "Singing Brakeman," considered by some to be the father of country music and most certainly the patron Saint of yodelers.

Dad would try to impress on my nine-year old brain why "Blue Yodel" ("T for Texas") was the greatest song in the world as it played from his truck radio.  I suppose I probably thought it was too although, at that age, I had no opinions of my own and even sat willingly through countless episodes of Hee Haw.  Before long I had my own eight-track player and we weren't listening to or talking about music together.  Within a couple of years, we wouldn't be listening or talking together at all.

My Dad's family was not close.  At all. I only have a hazy recollection of my paternal grandparents, who I was too young to remember meeting and who both died before I was in first grade.  I hate to admit their  American Gothic-like photo freaks me out and makes me wonder what weekends at Grandpa's would have been like.
Charles and Maude Odle

As a result, I know next to nothing about my genealogical roots on his side of the family.  The oral history is sparse.  I know the birth and death dates for my grandparents Charles and Maude Odle (nee McBride), and that they came to  McKinney, Texas from somewhere in Appalachia.  Dad didn't talk about his childhood or family for reasons I'll just never know.  The only specific factoid I remember him telling me, that Maude was a cousins with John Wesley Harding and had letters from the outlaw--may have been a tall tale for all I know.
I wish I knew more.  As it is, the roots to my family tree are long lost and it's branches are broken<-----much less gag inducing if turned into a song title.  Which it will be.  Maybe not.  But more than that, I wish I knew a little more about my musical roots.  Appalachia? Was there a tradition of music in the family? Dad strummed the guitar, but who else?

I thought for a few minutes about my father's adoration for Jimmie Rodgers.  Rodgers career was short.  From the time TB made him quit his railroad job and give music a shot in 1927 and he died in 1933, when Dad was 10.  How did he come to love Rodgers?  I'm sure the radio of the day in McKinney would have played his songs.  But in the middle of the great depression, I don't know if my father's family even had a radio or time to listen to it if they did.

I became curious, so I turned to web for some musical genealogy. I knew Rodgers was from Meridian, Mississippi, but had no idea he moved to Kerrville, Texas in about 1932 or 33.  He apparently played most of his live shows in the region, presumably to avoid the rigors of travel.  Then I ran across a piece on Bill Neely, a country blues singer who grew up in McKinney too. Neely, who was a few years older than Dad, claimed to have had his first impromptu guitar lesson at age 13 from Jimmie Rodgers himself.  He tells the story in the song "On a Blackland Farm," which describes Jimmie Rodgers playing a show in McKinney under a tent. 

I wonder what kind of spectacle it was for the great Jimmie Rodgers to come to McKinney (pop. 7,300).  Was Dad one of the kids running around trying to catch a glimpse?  Perhaps he even saw the show.  I wish I had asked him.

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