T.B. Blues

Note, to avoid confusion: This is about the Jimmie Rodgers song. There is also another song with the same title, recorded by Leadbelly (who may have written it) and others, which begins “Too late, too late…”

Jimmie Rodgers was the first country music superstar, before it was called country music. He was considered a hillbilly singer, but the blues were really at the heart of his music. By prevailing southern race definitions of the time, his music might have been called “Negro,” as the black elements would have made the music “quadroon” or “mulatto” by the even most conservative of musical gauges. One of Rodgers’ recordings even featured Louis Armstrong along with his wife, Lil Hardin, on piano. The primacy of African-American elements in American country music has never gotten its due recognition.

Known as “The Singing Brakeman,” Rodgers worked for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad before his performing career took off. His big break came in 1927, when Ralph Peer recorded a veritable Old Testament of early country music (including The Carter Family) in Bristol, Tennessee, for the Victor company.

Rodgers had contracted tuberculosis in 1924, and it was to do him in nine years later. One of his most affecting songs, “T.B. Blues,” deals with his disease without equivocation. This is definitely not illness as metaphor.

[The excellent steel guitar work on the recording is by Charles Kama]

My good gal’s trying to make a fool out of me
Lord my gal’s trying to make a fool out of me
Trying to make me believe I ain’t got that old TB
I’ve got the TB blues

When it rained down sorrow it rained all over me
When it rained down sorrow it rained all over me
Cause my body rattles like a train on that old S.P.
I’ve got the TB blues

I’ve got that old TB, I can’t eat a bite
Got that old TB, I can’t eat a bite
Got me worried so I can’t even sleep at night
I’ve got the TB blues

I’ve been fightin’ like a lion looks like I’m going to lose
I’m fightin’ like a lion looks like I’m going to lose
Cause there ain’t nobody ever whipped the TB blues
I’ve got the TB blues

Gee but the graveyard is a lonesome place
Lord that old graveyard is a lonesome place
They put you on your back, throw that mud down in your face
I’ve got the TB blues

Consider that first line. “My good gal’s trying to make a fool out of me.” What’s the first thing a listener thinks upon hearing this? I’d say, here comes a “she done him wrong song.” But Rodgers turns that assumption on its head when we learn that the good gal is trying to comfort him with optimistic sentiments. It’s really brilliant, yet it’s not something I ever thought about until I decided to write about it.

From there we get the classic rain metaphor for personal gloom, followed by a vivid simile from his railroad world. Surely listeners of the time would have easily recognized “that old S.P.” as the Southern Pacific Railroad.

And when Rodgers sings “I’ve got the T.B. blues,” he does so in his signature yodel (indeed, many of his tunes were titled “Blue Yodel,” followed by a number).

The song ends on a stark, dark note, with a harrowing image. “They put you on your back, throw that mud down on your face.” Perhaps inaccurate, but certainly much more gut-wrenching than “throw that mud down on your casket,” wouldn’t you say?

A number of others have recorded the song: Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Leon Redbone, Don McLean, Pete Seeger and, the best of them all for this song, Merle Haggard. Haggard has a special affinity for Rodgers’ music. Really, most country musicians worth their salt do, but Haggard has always had Rodgers songs in his repertoire and in 1969 he recorded a tribute album.  But as good as Haggard is, as good as any of them are, they’re performing another person’s illness; Rodgers was living it and dying from it as he sang it.

* * *

In 1929 Rodgers starred in a short film, “The Singing Brakeman,” in which he performs several of his best known tunes.

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The Real Pain of Rodger Penzabene

I was planning to write about Barrett Strong, the lyricist who, along with composer Norman Whitfield, wrote many of the Temptations’ biggest hits. Of all their great songs, which one would I write about? “Just My Imagination”? Fabulous song. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was a very strong contender too, a story you can sink your ears into. Then I thought about “I Wish It Would Rain,” a very powerful, very moving song. Only, I learned, Barrett Strong didn’t write the lyric, Rodger Penzabene did (with music by Whitfield). And when I read a little more about the story behind the song, and about Penzabene’s ultimate fate, it was too compelling a tale to hold off on. Barrett Strong would just have to wait his turn on the back burner.

Penzabene had penned the words for an earlier Temptations song, “You’re My Everything.”

You surely must know magic girl
‘Cause you changed my life
It was dull and ordinary
But you made it sunny and bright

Now, I was blessed the day I found you
Gonna build my whole world around you
You’re everything good, girl
And you’re all that matters to me…

This song was inspired by Penzabene’s wife, with whom he was head over heels in love.

Alas, not long after, Penzabene discovered his wife was cheating on him. Terrible for the psyche, but fodder for one of the great modern torch songs.

“I Wish It Would Rain”

Hmmm
Sunshine, blue skies, please go away.
My girl has found another and gone away.
With her went my future, my life is filled with gloom.
So day after day, I stayed locked up in my room.
I know to you it might sound strange.
But I wish it would rain. (How I wish that it would rain)
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

‘Cause so badly I wanna go outside. (Such a lovely day)
But everyone knows that a man ain’t suppose to cry, listen.
I gotta cry ’cause cryin’ eases the pain, oh yeah.
People this hurt I feel inside, words can never explain.
I just wish it would rain. (Oh, how I wish that it would rain)

Oh, let it rain.
Rain, rain, rain (Oh, how I wish that it would rain)
Ooo, baby. Let it rain.
(Let it rain) Oh yeah, let it rain.

Day in, day out, my tear stained face
Pressed against the window pane.
My eyes search the skies, desperately for rain.
‘Cause raindrops will hide my teardrops.
And no one will ever know.
That I’m cryin’… cryin’ when I go outside.
To the world outside my tears, I refuse to explain.
Oh, I wish it would rain. (Oh, how I wish that it would rain)
Ooo, baby.

Let it rain, let it rain.
I need rain to disguise the tears in my eyes.
Oh, let it rain.
Oh, yeah, yeah listen.
I’m a man and I got my pride.
Give me rain or I’m gonna stay inside.
Let it rain.

(Let it rain)
(Let it (rain) (rain) (rain) rain, rain)

This is a torch song with a vengeance. The pain is palpable. The prevailing conceit, the weather motif, common enough in popular music (“Stormy Weather” anyone?), is worked out eloquently and consistently, from a simple but powerful beginning: “Sunshine, blue skies, please go away.” The jilted lover doesn’t see stormy weather, he wants stormy weather, so his pain can blend in.

Just the other day I was asking my musical collaborator Lee Feldman, an excellent lyricist in his own right, what qualities he thought made for a great lyric. He said strong visual imagery was the thing he most looks for, the image that can crystallize the sentiment.

Day in, day out, my tear stained face
Pressed against the window pane.
My eyes search the skies, desperately for rain.
‘Cause raindrops will hide my teardrops.
And no one will ever know.

Positively cinematic, no? A man (who “ain’t supposed to cry”), crying at the window, cursing the beautiful day, yearning for an external manifestation of his inner misery in the weather, a kind of cosmic companionship as well as convenient camouflage for his tears.

The record was released in late December of 1967. A week later, on New Year’s Eve, Rodger Penzabene committed suicide.