Friday, May 9, 2014

Ervin T. Rouse

As its title refers to a prominent Miami-based train, it's no surprise that "Orange Blossom Special", one of the most enduring pieces of instrumental music in Americana, comes to us by way of a Floridian.

Ervin T. Rouse (often errantly spelled "Erwin") was born in North Carolina but came to make Florida his home. He and his brother Gordon spent their entire life performing that peculiar ancient music generally referred to by the common man as "Bluegrass" but which actually encompasses an entire minature Universe of different sounds. And yet, next to no one today knows who Rouse was, and they hardly knew it back then in his own lifetime.

"Orange Blossom Special" was copyrighted in 1938 by Rouse, and it was based on an even earlier tune he'd been doing for years called "South Florida Blues". I don't really care about the convoluted controversies some try to keep kindled over the claims of Chubby Wise that he actually co-wrote the song in Jacksonville, but if you do, it makes for some absorbing reading here.

No, my interest in Mr. Rouse is in the reputation he carved for himself as one of Florida's great enigmatic eccentrics. In much the same way Hasil Adkins did for rural West Virginia, Rouse became rural Florida's penultimate mystery musician. The facts and the lies within the legends surrounding him are now impossible to parse; many of the tallest tales, it must be said, came from Rouse himself.

In 1993, Rouse appeared as a character in a novel written by one of his barfly buddies, Randy Wayne White. White's The Man Who Invented Florida is the third in a series featuring marine biologist Doc Ford, and follows in the footsteps of the previous generation's great ecologically-aware gumshoe, John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. In it, Rouse appears as himself, or a version of himself, as Ford's curmudgeonly neighbor who helps out with a bizarre scheme to disseminate a magickal Floridian water that is so powerful an aphrodisiac it causes testicles to regrow on a gelded racehorse. White maintains that most of Rouse's dialogue in the book, and outlandish anecdotes related, are as straight from Rouse's mouth as possible. "I may have paraphrased in places, but I tried to repeat his stories pretty much as they were told to me."

Rouse spent most of the 50s and 60s trying to convince people he had written "Orange Blossom Special", which by that time had faded into people's memories as being an "old standard" whose author was long since forgotten. Johnny Cash came to his rescue after Rouse met with him backstage at one of his concerts, and by the time John Travolta's classic Urban Cowboy used the song for its soundtrack, Rouse's royalties were properly restored, if not quite his reputation.

Many a reporter tried to get Rouse's real life story out of him, but Rouse seemingly took delight in leading each newsman through a slightly different maze than the one before. That Rouse chose to live in a ramshackle dwelling deep in the Big Cypress Swamp made each visit seem rather like a pilgrimage to a remote guru, like those cartoon Swamis that only answer your questions about life after you climb up to the top of a treacherous mountain to meet them. Rouse said of his lifestyle: "Out here, you're in the wilds. When night falls, it's so dark. Oh, it's wild!"

An attempt by the U.S. Govt to evict homesteaders from the swamp in 1974 resulted in Rouse giving up the rights to the land, although provisions were made to allow people who'd built their homes before 1971 to remain there for the rest of their lives. Rouse kept the swamp house even after he finally was convinced in old age to move to a more civilized house - specifically 3729 Northwest 20th Court in a district of Miami called Alapattah.

In Randy Noles' great book Orange Blossom Boys, Vassar Clements talks about just how out-of-touch Rouse was with the modern world: "I don't want to say this the wrong way, because Ervin was a genius at playing, but he was a man who didn't know a lot, and didn't care about a lot. I remember seeing him at a festival down in Florida where I was playing. He was carrying a $10,000 royalty check from "Orange Blossom Special" in this old briefcase, and he walked up to a little booth and tried to buy a hot dog with that check. He didn't understand why you couldn't do that."

By the end of his life, Rouse's health had taken a downturn due to his hard-drinking ways. He'd always been an Olympic-class drinker even in his youth, but something about the silence and solitude of the swamp really seemed to put the zap on his head and drive the man further and further out there into deeper and darker conversations with the demon rum.

His decline was also hastened, some opine, by his insistence on shunning medical doctors (he only sporadically attended his necessary three-times-weekly dialysis treaments.) On the other hand, he lived to the ripe old age of 64 doing practically nothing but what he wanted.

How long you wanna live, anyway?

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