Rodgers Remembrance Vol VIII: My Rough And Rowdy Ways

Jimmie RodgersThis week we are going to once again remember the life and times of America’s Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman, and the Father of Country Music: the late, great Jimmie Rodgers. On Sunday, May 26, Jimmie Rodgers will have been gone 80 years.

Arguably the most significant man in American music, he has heavily influenced country, blues, folk, jazz, Hawaiian, rock, pop, Americana, western swing, jazz, and bluegrass music. As I did last year, I will be highlighting a Rodgers’ song each day and showcasing popular bluegrass versions of each song, to celebrate the career of Jimmie Rodgers.

For years and years I rambled, drank my wines and gambled
But one day I thought I’d settle down
I met a perfect lady; she said she’d be my baby
We built a cottage in the old home town

[Yodel]

But somehow I can’t forget my good old rambling days
The railroad trains are calling me always
I may be rough, I may be wild
I may be tough and counted vile
But I can’t give up my good old rough and rowdy ways
[Yodel]

Sometimes I meet a bounder who knew me when I was a rounder
He grabs my hand and says, “Boy, have a drink.”
We go down to the poolroom, get in the game and then soon
The daylight comes before I’ve had a wink.

[Yodel]

But somehow I can’t forget my good old rambling days
The railroad trains are calling me always
I may be rough, I may be wild
I may be tough and counted vile
But I can’t give up my good old rough and rowdy ways

[Yodel]
[Yodel]
[Yodel]

The quintessential rounder song, My Rough And Rowdy Ways tells the story of a man who tries to quit his wild lifestyle. But, alas, he can’t stray from his “good old rough and rowdy ways,” and finds himself drinking heavily, playing pool, and who knows what else. Since the song’s 1929 release, “rough and rowdy ways” has become a popular phrase to describe one’s “hell-raising” tendencies. The phrase has even resurfaced in popular music.

Popular modern folk band and Jimmie Rodgers’ fans, The Head & The Heart tip their hat to Jimmie in their hit song, Down In The Valley.

I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade.
Like riding around on rail-cars and working long days.

Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.
Lord have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways.

The Head & The Heart

Not only does The Head & The Heart borrow Jimmie’s phrase, but the “riding around on rail-cars” may be more than a coincidence. The band also frequently performs Blue Yodel #1: T For Texas in their live shows.

What makes the story of My Rough And Rowdy Ways so appealing? By many accounts, My Rough And Rowdy Ways may be somewhat autobiographical. Jimmie was known to love liquor, women, cars, and gambling. Author of Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, Barry Mazor even points out, “There are specific, credible stories of Jimmie arriving in a town, meeting a few women, and leaving several new divorces in progress in his wake.”

To say Jimmie could be “rough and rowdy” at time would be putting it lightly. It should not be surprising that Bonnie Parker (of the notorious Bonnie & Clyde) was a big Jimmie Rodgers fan. “She liked Jimmie Rodgers; she had every record that he ever made,” said Bonnie’s sister, Billie Jean Parker.

This “rough and rowdy” image proved to benefit Jimmie. The romantically taboo lifestyle Jimmie portrayed appealed to the average working man. In their minds, he lived a life of excitement and adventure that they never could. In a way, they lived vicariously through his legendary exploits.

Jimmie understood this. His sister-in-law, who wrote or co-wrote many of Jimmie’s biggest songs, including this one, Elsie McWilliams said, “He wanted to appear very rough. He wanted everyone to think that he was a rough sort of fellah.”

Regardless of the degree to which Rodgers’ adventures were or were not exaggerated, his “rough and rowdy” persona served him well and contributed to the construction of the “rockstar” image later held by everyone from Hank Williams to Steven Tyler to Johnny Cash to Evil Knievil.

However, what makes My Rough And Rowdy Ways so brilliant, is in addition to the rebellious nature he can’t control, you can’t forget the first verse of the song.

For years and years I rambled, drank my wines and gambled
But one day I thought I’d settle down
I met a perfect lady; she said she’d be my baby
We built a cottage in the old home town

His childish behavior came at a price. The listener doesn’t find out what happens to the “perfect lady,” but that’s fine. Your imagination does Jimmie’s work for him. Regardless of what happens, you know one thing: she is going to be heartbroken at his behavior.

At first, My Rough And Rowdy Ways seems to glorify this lifestyle, and it does… to a point.

Despite his “rough and rowdy” lifestyle, the man is not happy. He is viewed by others as rough and tough, but also as wild and vile. Why? Because he can’t give up his rough and rowdy ways.

Doc & Merle Watson - Ballads From Deep Gap

The song has since become a rounder’s anthem, having been recorded by such country stars as Hank Thompson, Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell, and more. There are few recorded bluegrass versions, but Doc & Merle Watson’s inclusion of the song on their album, Ballads From Deep Gap, is exceptional.

Doc recorded more bluegrass versions of Jimmie’s songs than anyone — eighteen or so. Rodgers was one of Doc’s earliest influences.

Jimmie Rodgers has always been a favorite; I liked the kind of songs he did. To me, they were adventure, and hobo trips, and all that kind of thing — besides the good sound, and those lyrics, the way they were put together. It was a different sound, totally different from all the other music.

My Rough And Rowdy Ways must have been one of the adventures he loved to hear Jimmie sing about. Doc’s interpretation is great. You can tell he is having a blast singing one of his hero’s songs. His laid back approach fits Jimmie’s songs perfectly. The picking and singing are tasteful, and although the song pays homage to one of Doc’s favorite artists, Doc still manages to make the song his own.

Come back tomorrow for Rodgers Remembrance Vol IX: Any Old Time.

If you enjoy the Rodgers Remembrances this week, feel free to tune in to my radio program, Bending The Strings, this Saturday afternoon on Classic Country Radio from 3:00-5:00 p.m. (EDT). In honor of the life of Jimmie Rodgers, I will be producing a very special tribute show including many of the songs discussed in the Rodgers Remembrances this week. You won’t want to miss it!

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel is from southwestern Ohio and has been around bluegrass his entire life. He manages the Classic Country Connection, a music store in southern Ohio which specializes in bluegrass, classic country, gospel, and Americana music. He is the host of the Bending The Strings radio program, which plays a variety of bluegrass, newgrass, and Americana music. He also maintains the website for Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. photo by LuAnn Adams