In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music by Ben Wynne


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In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Roots of American Music
Ben Wynne
296 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0807157800
Louisiana State Press

With surgical precision, Ben Wynne teases away all the romantic claptrap surrounding two titan music contemporaries, placing them in their appropriate historical perspectives, perspectives that make for a unique Venn diagram of social and cultural overlaps that highlight the elements common to both the blues and country music. He does this by a lengthy consideration of poor black and white people in the south during the Reconstruction to World War II period. Wynne echoes the sentiment addressed in Douglas Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name (Doubleday, 2008) and Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (Penguin, 2017) and J.D. Vance's incandescent Hillbilly Elegy (Harper, 2016).

The author deftly identifies the relentless and grinding poverty created and maintained by a (mostly) southern institutional Capitalist/Racist social diptych for the rise of the circumstances from which artists Patton and Rodgers arose.

Wynne takes full advantage of the fact that Patton and Rodgers were contemporaries separated spatially by 120 miles (Edwards to Meridian) and social by a light-year, emphasizing that the only advantage Rodgers may have had over Patton was the lack of Jim Crow treatment of the period. The author goes to great (and mostly successful) lengths to bridge the racial divide with the closer socioeconomic ones. The author sums up the sociological part of his book, thusly:

"Patton And Rodgers did not live completely paralleled lives as human beings, but their stories were similar in many respects. Told together, their stories paralleled the story of the American South, a region where racial divisions written into law could not completely restrain cultural interaction between blacks and whites. Both men were bone in Mississippi, where rigid segregation was the law of the land during their lifetimes, but where many whites and blacks were equally poor and therefore suffering similar economic hardships. Neither man was satisfied with the conventional life patterns in which both southern blacks and whites of the early twentieth century toiled. They wer downtrodden. Patton was trapped in a permanent (at least in his lifetime) underclass that was never allowed to reach its full potential while Rodgers was poor and sick..."

Wynne gives taut, but detailed biographies of each man with an accounting of their recordings, emphasizing how these artists help detonate the "big bang" of what would become the recording industry. He also deftly echoes the unsurpassed cultural criticism of Elijah Wald when noting:

"The search for the blues origin of rock, and for the bluesmen associated with them, became something akin to the search for the Holy Grail for those caught up in the activity. Many researchers interested in tracing the history of the blues during this period were middle-class whites with ties to the counter-culture or academia. Some claimed to be searching idealistically for something pure and therefore not yet tainted by the darker elements of modern society."

Wynne further hammers a stake into the faux-romantic heart of the blues as creating a perfectly wrought and pure folk music by correctly noting,

"It is difficult to discuss the family tree of any type of popular music in the biblical "this artist begat that artist, who begat this artist," sort of way. Music is not produced with that type of scrutiny in mind. Even the terms used to describe various genres country, blues, jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, easy listening —are products of the marketplace more than of the actual music they are meant to describe."

This final notion pretty well slays all of my romantic thoughts of the pure folk in music. The only way that could have ever been achieved was before the recording era, when a performance of music existed only as long as it took to perform. While learning this was a bit like learning there is no Santa Claus, I do prefer to be in a "well-lighted place" rather than faux- romantic pining away for what never was.

Wynne superbly researched and thoughtfully wrote this book. This is an evenhanded account of the lives of two men: what came before them, what they did, and what came after. I do not expect to read a better-written book on American music this year.

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