Singing Brakemen, Satchmo Eggs (The Motherless Child Soundtrack Project, Part 6)
Now here’s what I meant about this book writing me, or writing itself while I did my damnedest to stay in the corner and keep from humming so it didn’t realize I was there:
In the post below, I talked about Natalie, my protagonist, at the moment she realizes she’s about to hear the Whistler– fabled musical monster of melancholy– perform. She tries to imagine what he’s going to sing, thinks first of George Jones. She’s got her self-pity all nicely warmed and fluffed and folded, has lit a mental candle or two, and seems all set to settle into a long, indulgent bubble-bathos. And so, naturally, the next possibility she thinks of is…
Blue Yodel #9 ? Really? Is that song even sad?
Well, yeah, I guess it is. Sure it is. I mean, it was recorded, what, a year into the Depression? The persona’s a street-tough, jobless, very possibly homeless. And Jimmie Rodgers, at 33, had less than three years to live, and maybe it’s hindsight or more likely primitive recording equipment, but you can hear the shadow in the voice. That ghostly suggestion of weight.
But mostly, what I hear in this song is swagger. The hobo-culture roots of the Dirty South, where the po-lice grab our singer and he does the opposite of folding; he puffs up. He preens, while Satchmo’s trumpet eggs him on: “You can find my name/on the tail of my shirt/I’m a Tennessee hustler and I don’t have to work.” Then the police take him to jail. Then the street-tough’s much tougher girlfriend retrieves the firearms and comes to town to get him.
And then the Singing Brakeman yodels.
And that’s why Natalie thinks of this song. Because that sound…
Wild and free. Defiant and solitary. Hungry and sad.
It’s not Whistling. Not yet. But it’s close.
The version of this song that I most often hear, in my head, is probably Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s. For all the elemental oddness of his voice and his phrasing, though, he’s way too grounded and reflective a guy to inspire the Whsitler.
At least, until he hits the yodel.
And I find myself understanding– and, worse, hearing— what the Wichita Lineman hears in the wires.