The story of Rodriguez, the folk musician from Detroit, Michigan, whose music in America laid dormant for 4 decades, continues to amaze me. If you’re a music fan like me, you already know the story of how his albums released in the 1970’s sold poorly and he subsequently vanished into the unassuming life of a construction worker in the “Motor City.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, and while he was going about his life after music, unbeknownst to him, thousands of miles away in South Africa, his music was being celebrated.
His fans in South Africa reportedly sang his songs with the same fervor as any Elvis or Beatles enthusiast. A persistent rumor circulated amongst his fans that Rodriguez had committed suicide. But after a while his fans managed to track him down and disprove the rumor, and what happened next would seem like pure folklore if it wasn’t true. The obscure American folk musician whose music was largely ignored in his own country became a living legend and his career was resurrected.
The documentary Searching For Sugar Man released in 2012 chronicles this modern day legend. The movie was shown in select theaters around the country and I did not get a chance to see it. However, I have plans to watch it on DVD very soon. In the mean time, I’ve read several articles about it and caught the 60 Minutes broadcast in which Rodriguez was featured. I also caught Rodriguez’s performance on the Later…With Jools Holland program.
Every time I watch video of Rodriguez walking around his inner-city Detroit neighborhood, I can’t help but envision him as some sort of musical superhero, merely wearing the disguise of an everyday Joe. If Rodriguez walked by you, you wouldn’t think he was capable of superhuman feats, sort of like if Clark Kent or Bruce Banner happened to stroll by you on the sidewalk. But instead of being able to fly or lift automobiles over his head with his bare hands, Rodriguez does the impossible with an acoustic guitar; he inspires the poor who are victims of economic injustice and gives a voice to the voiceless in the presence of deafening tyranny.
I purchased a copy of the soundtrack to the Searching For Sugar Man documentary, and I love how on the back of the CD it says: “Rodriguez receives royalties from the sale of this release.” It feels good to see an artist of Rodriguez’s stature finally get his just due.
The CD includes 14 of Rodriguez’s songs, heavy anti oppression anthems rich with imagery and metaphors. In the song titled Cause, Rodriguez sings,
Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas
And I talked to Jesus at the sewer
And the Pope said it was none of his God-damned business
While the rain drank champagne…
Rodriguez’s songs like this, the ones that call in to question everything I learned about religion, cause me to think about the world today. It makes me think about Pope Benedict XVI retiring and the news about fresh scandals in the church. It makes me think about unemployment and the millions of people who live in poverty in America – the wealthiest nation on earth. It makes me wonder how these songs could have been written 4 decades ago and yet sound like they were inspired by today’s newspaper headlines.
It is thrilling to be a part of a generation in America that is just now getting acquainted with the music of Rodriguez. A story like this doesn’t come along all that often. We’re a little bit late on this as Americans, but as the old saying goes, better late than never.
Have you seen Searching For Sugar Man or listened to the soundtrack? If so what did you think?