WTM #890: Jumpin’ Kenny Roberts

wReck thiS meSS ~ Radio Patapoe 88.3 ~ Amsterdam
Ethno-Illogical Psycho-Radiographies
20 june 2005 / 17.00-19.00

You’re My Kind Of People > Kenny Roberts [1]
Alpine Milkman > Kenny Roberts & Elton Britt [2]
Chime Bells > Kenny Roberts & Elton Britt [2]
Cannonball Yodel > Elton Britt [3]
Chime Bells > Al Shade & the Short Mountain Boys [4]
The Alpine Milkman > Wilf “Montana Slim” Carter [5]
Prairieland Polka > Elton Britt & Rosalie Allen [5a]
Yodeller’s Lullaby > Bill Haley [6]
Yodel Your Blues Away > Bill Haley [6]
Roll Along Kentucky Moon > Kenny Roberts [1]
I’ve Got the Blues > Kenny Roberts [7]
Cotton Haired Gal > Bill Haley [6]
Just A Yodel For Me > Kenny Roberts [7]
Eddie Stubb’s “Way Back Wednesday” Intro [8]
I Never See Maggie Alone > Kenny Roberts [8]
Wedding Bells > Kenny Roberts [7]
That’s How The Yodel Was Born > Ranger Doug [9]
That’s How The Yodel Was Born > Elton Britt [10]
Yodel Blues > Ranger Doug [9]
Eddie Stubb’s “Way Back Wednesday” Hank Snow Intro of Roberts [8]
She Taught Me To Yodel > Kenny Roberts [8]
The Yodelling Ranger > Jimmie Rodgers [10]
The Texas Cowboy > Hank Snow [10]
Eddie Stubb’s “Way Back Wednesday” presents Blue > LeAnn Rimes [8]
Blue > Kenny Roberts [8]
Yodel Boogie > Rosalie Allen [11]
Boogie Woogie Yodel Song > Kenny Roberts [7]
Indian Love Call > Kenny Roberts [12]
My Prairie Rose > Wilf “Montana Slim” Carter [5]
Rattlesnake Daddy > Al Shade [13]
Slide Them Jugs Down the Mountain > Kenny Roberts [2]
They’re Burning Down the House [I Was Brung Up In] Polka > Elton Britt [5a]
Hillbilly Fever > Kenny Roberts [7]
Cowboy’s Sweetheart > Joyce Leonard [14]
Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree, Kenny Roberts [15]
The Man Called E.T. > Kenny Roberts [15]
Since That Black Cat Crossed My Path > Ernest Tubb [10]
Hillbilly Style > Kenny Roberts [7]


[1] “You’re My Kind of People” on KA <kennybett@juno.com>. This is a joyous collection by this infectious yodeler who is now 78 and still out on the circuit of small fireman’s halls, banquet halls and still — despite his genius setting up a table to hawk his wares. He just does CDs, which is fine with me. When it goes to doilies and mouse mats I get a little concerned. He opens with this song. He has no pretensions and absolutely no airs about him. He yodels because he likes it. That’s it. And he still answers all his fan mail personally. I know.

[2] “Then and Now” on Longhorn. This has a clear division between then [way back] and now [some 25 years ago]. the now is less than the then basically because some producer “now” decided to make the production as deadly and clean as a funeral parlor. The then has plenty of grit and comprises 75% of the disc space. Includes 2 duets with KR hero Elton Britt who died in 1972 and KR was called upon to fill in for him at a concert. Liner notes: “When Bettyanne was 14 years old, she went into a record store to purchase a vaughn Monroe record. Kenny’s first picture record had just come out. She fell in love with his picture and this record and bought it instead, little realizing that she would one day become – Mrs. Kenny Roberts.”

[3] EB is one of America’s most incredible yodelers, who has yet to be reckoned with on the same level as Jimmie Rodgers. Whenever yodelers cite influences, after Jimmie Rodgers it is usually EB. When you hear his combination of virtuoso and gutsy heartfelt yodeling you realize why.

[4] “Pennsylvania Mountain People” on AlJean Records vinyl.  He called it this because, as he notes in his liner notes, because “at least 65% of the people of Pennsylvania love country music.” Interesting percentage. He is PA roots music. I had the amazing fortune to meet and interview Al & Jean Shade in their cozy and modest Central PA home in late April. I not only realized then and there that I had enough for a second book but it is people like Al & Jean who need to be written about because we have to spread the harvest of fame. And obviously talent and entertainment value are no guarantees for success. What I came away with is this: Al & Jean love to play music and love to perform and yodel. It is plain that they are living a more meaningful and FUN late [in their 70s] life than most people their age. At the KR performance, Al Shade and band opened and entertained the gray-blue perm crowd with a variety of dirty jokes and yodeling trickery and hoedown jamming. It is KR who made us aware of the fact that Al has NEVER been invited to play the Grand Ole Opry. What a delight to discover this local legend and excellent yodeler and his wife and duet partner Jean Shade. Some PA hillbilly stuff that will make you reassess the entire idea of what and where the sources of roots music come from. Anywhere and everywhere. Nice version of the Britt standard.
[see more below]

[5] “The Dynamite Trail” on Bear Family < www.bear-family.de >. An influential and pure [Canadian] yodeler [who looks like LBJ’s bro] of hundreds of yodel songs. He has had a big influence on a broad range of North American yodelers including KR. He is proof that yodeling leads to a life-affirming lifestyle [not goofy, really!] and longevity. He lives to almost 90. Basically 60 years of recording folksy [although somewhat too sweet to be considered hardcore rootsy] yodeling songs.

[6] “Hillbilly Haley” Rollercoaster . An amazing bridge record of rare recordings that document a furtive, festive and festering period of pre-rock and roll — and all happening in the unassuming and quaintly staid state of New Hampshire [US]

[7] “Jumpin’ & Yodelin’” on Bear Family . A really superb collection of early KR. Includes many of his signature tunes and gives a good indication of how KR is a key figure in the crossover from country to rockabilly.

[8] Blue by LR was a monstrous hit and includes some breakvoice yodeling that has an effect on one’s emotions even if the production is quite smooth and homogenous. KR was a Starday 1967 single that was a minor crossover hit.

[9] “Yodel the Cowboy Way” on Rounder. Ranger Doug is one of the great yodelers in contemporary music. His Riders in the Sky is the Marx Brothers of country music with plenty of yodeling in the Sons of the Pioneers and Tommy Duncan style. Also very indebted to the trailblazing styles of KR.

[10] “Yodelling MAD!” on Jasmine . Good starter introduction kit into white guys with cowboy hats on style yodeling. A few women included. Some nice rarities.

[11] “The Hillbilly Yodel Star of the 1940s” on Cattle . Already a star by the time KR arrived on the scene, this woman became famous for her yodel duets with Elton Britt. She was also one of the first female radio djs with her show in NYC. She also had her own TV show and opened up a record shop called “The Rosalie Allen Hillbilly Music Center”. Being a pioneering queen off hillbilly and yodeling she was very cool but fame has a strange way of turning cool into something that makes a person go astray – in 1975 she began working for the Jim Bakker PTL organization, certainly a dubious enterprise [religious mafia] if ever there was one in the name of G-O-D. Cattle / Binge is an incredible [German] label. Amazingly enterprising in digging up lost and forgotten American gems.

[12] “Indian Love Call” on Starday. This great record is the one that introduced me to the genius of KR. It showed a life-affirming exuberance that I had forgotten belonged to music. I was sitting at the Library of Congress in a sound booth. There they have this arcane system of listening and auditioning music. You write down your audio requests, hand them in to the librarian, who forwards your note to the man in the basement archive who fetches your requests. In the sound booth you are in touch with this basement archivist and fetcher who asks, which record you’d like to hear. He puts it on and then leaves you to your thoughts until you buzz him. Then he will put on side B or another of your requests. It is like having your own personal DJ. You can almost hear him running and shuffling and rummaging through an amazing labyrinthine network of stacks and shelves. Her is where I heard the galloping yodel and his amazing 50+ second held high note in the manner of Elton Britt and here is where I thought I have to get this. Luckily I did not have to contend with the sound on the LoC vinyl. I got this wonderful. Clear and heart-wrenching version.

[13] Single on AlJean records, vinyl, 1978. Great rockabilly yodeling single by this under-appreciated singer-songwriter-yodeler-DJ-promoter-producer. Brought KR to PA while I was there in April 2005.

[14]  “Where Could You Take Me” on AMI, 1997. JL and former linesman and rhythm, mandolin player I met in Goshen Indiana at a yodel event of strange combinations: imagine a small progressive Mennonite college town in the middle of the flatlands where the people abide by 3 zones and where I spent 3 days doing research on Mennonite yodeling with the help of the Mennonite Historical Library staff and the Mennonite Historical Society archivists and ended up discovering some crazy illuminating stuff. The reading was held in a downtown coffeehouse frequented by students and locals but this night we had a sizeable crowd that included many Mennonites who had never been in such an establishment. JL & PL entertained the crowd with their warm and accomplished playing and JL’s incredibly charming yodeling that is as much lorelei serenade as anything else. After the main event [my reading and their performance] some actual Mennonite yodelers found their way to the stage and did some local Swiss-style Indiana yodeling. What a strange piece of rock we live on. We also appeared together on o Stateside with Charity Nebbe is a regional show on WUOM <michiganradio.org>, Michigan Public Radio. I was their guest on April 25 along with my yodeling companions Joyce “Michigan’s Yodeling Sweetheart” and Phil Leonard, who consistently demonstrate why yodeling is not only fun but soulful, expressive and thriving as well. The show was pre-recorded in the Ann Arbor studios and will be broadcast Friday May 20, 1 PM and will then be presumably archived at WUOM — it can also be heard on WVGR 104.1 [Grand Rapids], WFUM 91.1 [Flint], and WUOM 91.7 in Ann Arbor/Detroit. The archived show discusses YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: THE SECRET HISTORY OF YODELING AROUND THE WORLD as well as the origins of yodeling and some strange and surprising samples of yodeling from areas of the world where you would not  expect to hear yodeling. The show also features Joyce Leonard [and Phil]. she discusses yodeling from a practitioner’s point of view. You will also hear some in-studio yodeling from Joyce. Her/their work is definitely worth the search…

[15] “Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree” Received this private recording from KR himself. A great document of KR’s appearance on this show begun by the influential hillbilly singer, the man they called ET. Ex-beer salesman and Jimmie Rodgers wannabe, even toured playing his hero’s guitar, wearing JR’s suits and dueted with Rodgers’s widow. Lost his yodel after a tonsil operation when his octave range went to somewhere between bullfrog and freight train.


Kenny Roberts: In the writing of my book YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: THE SECRET HISTORY OF YODELING AROUND THE WORLD I met many fantastic people and the yodelers I interviewed live, by phone, letter or via email convinced me that yodeling brings a healthy aspect to life. Something about the amount of oxygen in the blood or maybe it has to do with the sound itself or the mechanics of yodeling or the fact that you are basically providing entertainment and happiness for people who might not all have equal access to the buoyant aspects of life. Or maybe it has to do with the knowledge that indeed your gift is a communication with spirits floating through the air. The yodelers all seemed – dare I say it – happy. Like ululating little buddhists in spangles and fringe.

In any case, I became transformed/transfixed or returned to an earlier state of fascination, a place I hadn’t been for years and years and that place was a reappreciation for simple heart-rending vocals with earnest lyrics [or without in the case of abstract vocalists] — folk music broadly defined. In my years as a DJ on radio, you grow pretty goddamn tired and cynical and blasé toward just about all music. In fact, crises of faith are not unheard of in DJing. Some just give it up when they cave in. I call it the Butthole Surfer syndrome. When you are engaged in post-mdoern relativizing cynicism and that becomes your MO you have a tendency to end up hating almost everything touched by humans. The great Butthole Surfers fell victim to this, maybe writers like Celine did as well.

Freeform DJs crave the new and the obscure – new obscure being best, although overlooked obscure is good and so is wacky obscure – and so for years I had given up on old genres especially rock and roll and folk. It just did not challenge the little skinny hairs inside my ears. I listened to electronica and avant garde and some jazz and trip hop and various beat driven musics as long as it didn’t have any drivel type lyrics.

No lyrics no texts, I didn’t trust text/words. I had become a writer totally suspicious of every word that was spouted by ever singer everywhere. The only lyrics were those in a foreign language I did not understand. The more incomprehensible [nonsense texts qualify] the better. This all changed with yodeling. Although a textless utterance, its context is often a standard lyrical song with the yodel serving as refrain. And at some point I went to Washington DC — still then in the spring of 2002 — a paranoid warzone. But spending 4 days at the Library of Congress [thanx to the DC housely-hospitality of the Charles Bukowski of our generation, Jose Padua] I ran across some crazy yodels in their archives. One that stuck out was an old recording of KR’s, Indian Love Call [see above]. It was the songs, yes, and the virtuoso yodeling as well but what really got me was the cumulative effect of listening to the entire album. This was not just some guy who yodels periodically like Merle Haggard or Jerry Lee Lewis or Dolly Parton. This guy yodeled a lot and had made a career of it and had a handful of top 10 hits as well. The record finishes with the classic yodel tune “She Taught Me How to Yodel”, which features his galloping yodel, which means fast like a galloping horse. Virtuoso and yet full of fun. Yikes, what was happening to me, an aficionado of the dark and gloomy [see Joy Division and now wave and other existential musics].

The more I started focusing on him the more he didn’t seem available. Whoever was advising him advised him not to answer my questions for fear it would compromise his in-progress biography. Nothing could be further from the truth. When he finally communicated I was very pleased to be able to interview him. Although the global broad and wide nature of the book precluded longer more in-depth interviewing with him and others I hope to right that with some articles and these playlists and book number 2. This gentleman deserves more than what he has thus far received and, ever the gracious guy, he says au contraire and believes he’s been blessed with plenty of success and pleasure in his life. And that is evident.

During my lecture tour in April 2005 [which was supported by the Dutch Consulate, Pro Helvetia, and the Universities of Wisconsin and Colorado] which included a lot of the Midwest, I also stopped in PA to visit my mother who is all alone in the middle of some winding way suburban housing development. Where you never see anyone walking, riding a bike or much of anything except for a quick mow of the old lawn. I also wanted to interview the wild and wooly Hank Hart [his stage name]. What a wild character. Nearly 80, he grew up a Mennonite and has spent more than 40 years outside the fold of the church to pursue his muse, which was music and sometimes a turn toward what used to be described as sinful behavior. I will not go into all of this in deference to his almost paranoid need to keep his secret a secret. What I did learn was that he was fount of information, oral history is what I was getting from a wonderful motormouth with a photographic memory. Many of his fondest memories dealt with a fertile and still under-appreciated aspect of world culture, that of radio. Specifically in the US during the 30s thru 50s when radio was the major outlet for hillbilly music [country & cowboy] other than fireman halls, bingo parlors and county fairs. He left the church to find his fame and fortune, only to find dejection and rejection and plenty of adventure during the depression, wandering the countryside with his guitar. Although what he did become was a consummate fanatic of old timey music, and specifically yodeling in the C&W tradition.

He shared a stage with me when I did a reading at a Lancaster Barnes & Noble [alas none of the indie bookstores responded to my request for a reading] and he provided a bit of pizzazz by doing some tunes, a little Elvis maneuver and a tongue twisting yodel. What we shared is an admiration for Kenny Roberts. On this most recent trip I realize the importance of circumstance, synchronicity, fortuitous happenings and it just so happened that while I was visiting my mother, Kenny Roberts was performing in a fireman’s hall in Mt. Zion, not far from Lancaster. The opening act was Al & Jean Shade, 2 committed local folk / country musicians [Al’s also a local DJ promoting independent country] and I had the good fortune to meet them and interview them on top of also meeting and talking at length with KR and his lovely wife, Bettyanne.

The hall, a country fireman’s hall filled with hundreds of bus tourists and locals of the age where the women all have blue rinses or strange perms that make their heads look like a ball of steel wool and the men dress in clothes so comfortable that it looks like they just climbed out of bed. But among them were a number of very perky people, fans of KR and the like with fond 60-year-old memories and old vinyl to have autographed. One incredibly pouty self-assured young punkette who had brought her grandma was with us because she had to go outside and smoke a cigarette. Beautiful and gloriously full of herself and a world glowing with possibility she was in her slender bio, pure trailer trash with multiple piercings bound to set off even the dullest metal detector in airports and tattoos of gods from alien worlds. Yes, she had experienced domestic violence and neglect and was now living with her grandparents in a trailer home. But she seemed beyond that, already playing guitar and bass in a punk band as well as being an accomplished visual artist who in a casual and bemused matter-of-fact way ready to conquer her little acre of earth.

What is so impressive about Kenny is his graciousness and stamina. He’s nearly 80 but can still do a full yodeling gig of over an hour – even managing a characteristic jump and a breath-taking galloping yodel. And he still has the range and can still hit [most of] the high notes. Plus he beams with gratitude and the fact that he has a lovely and cool songwriting wife. More interesting is how he is often considered a lightweight because he has a joyous voice, hosted a children’s show on TV and his songs are mostly happy-go-lucky, plus he’s a yodeler. But he stands at the confluence — and his yodeling is much admired and imitated — of various movements and periods of time. I consider KR to be one of the major links between country and rockabilly and it all happened in Keane, New Hampshire where he gigged with the Downhomers and eventually taught Bill Haley how to yodel.

What I have come to value is that the songs are great, easy to singalong with and the yodeling makes them virtuosic and unique. I now see that our culture ever since white guys got steeped in the blues as suffering and suffering only [seldom seeing the renewal, glory, and downright happy stuff in those songs] that set the tone for rock and roll and how we hear music. Soul music is good because it is deep because it is about pain. It is only in our part of the world where happy music is discounted and devalued as not serious or not a valid part of the western ouevre. This is so deeply ingrained I am guessing this has something to do with my uphill [altho not without its rewards and kudos] battle to convince the establishment that yodeling although perceived as a joyous [even goofy] outburst is serious vocalizing, every bit as serious as soul singing falsetto or opera or what have you. I think our culture has so ingrained this casual bemused dismissal in its standard repertoire of reactions that is informed by the idea that serious is solemn and that everything else is surface and is easily tossed aside as bubbly flotsam.

This for me began with the purge known as punk. A necessary upheaval for all of us especially in reaction to the over-produced treacle of most arena rock but with this bath water, the baby also got thrown out and by baby I mean roots and by roots I mean all those musical forms clinging to those roots, which included a lot of hippie music [which was back then the absolute most pejorative thing you could call music other than disco], out of this cultural revolution not unlike the Chinese Commies came a kind of narrow definition of what was cool. Black clothes, night life, self-destruction with a bit of poetry and glamorous dissipation. It took many years for me and others to recover a sense of equilibrium and perspective that allowed us to listen to the music damned to the cut-out bins. Funny, most punk is now in this category and has in my reanalysis become largely unlistenable. How our ears are part of the herd mentality and the prevailing zeitgeist. Or maybe my internal organs just needed punk [etc.] at the time it came along. As your body changes, hormones readjust and so do our ears…

Of course, I never gave up on other music, especially as a freeform DJ – I played a little bit of almost anything and maybe in one 3-hour show even. But still, it took a long time because there seems to be a period of 20-25 years before cultural artifacts can be accurately reassessed – this may have to do with our society although it may also have to do with our biological make up, that our ears and memories have a necessary lag time [some audio-historical wave form] before we can listen to things without the cultural distraction and hyped commotion along with it.

I listen to a lot more roots music – its not necessarily more real or even better or more soulful than other styles – it’s just good to listen to especially to reorient and reshape the ears. And Kenny Roberts embodies this struggle in me and probably on a societal level as well. What I am saying is: he’s every bit as good as many of the greats who have been handed the seal of approval as bonafide star or genius. Hank Snow, Gene Autry, and several others come to mind. But when I listen to KR I do not hear a qualitative difference. He’s every bit as good as these greats. The obverse is also true, both Patsy Montana and Jimmie Rodgers are great and are now considered American cultural icons [almost on the level of Gershwin] but when you listen to them, part of their greatness was their ability to artistically overcome their sizeable shortcomings mostly to do with their playing and limited voices. I like both of them very much, don’t get me wrong, BUT I do get the distinct feeling that they are vaguely overrated. They become increasingly famous because they are already famous, the old snowball effect.

I understand in the case of both of them that they were groundbreakers and made it possible for others to follow in their paths. But this has nothing to do with the quality of their songs, singing and yodeling. Take Carolina Cotton. Who? You ask. Well, a very accomplished and sophisticated singer and songwriter who wrote songs for a number of  Hollywood productions and even sang and acted in some of these. She is great and yet circumstance like in the case of KR that they are ignored, neglected, and what not.

With my book and subsequent compilations, a feature-length documentary, and a second book YODELING IN HI FI, I hope to set some of these injustices straight and further untangle the world’s under-documented worlds of strange musics.


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