‘‘Here’s the irony: His music came into South Africa through bootlegging but it’s South Africa that’s given him the voice to say ‘This is wrong!’ and people get that, they understand now.’’
He said at least 200,000 copies of both albums have sold in the last year or so.
But Rodriguez appears untouched by the money, Segerman said. Now in his 70s with failing eyesight, Rodriguez continues to live in the same old house he’s occupied for decades in Detroit, and gives most of the money away to relatives and friends, said Segerman.
In South Africa in the old days, his fans isolated by sanctions and censorship believed Rodriguez was as famous at home as he was in their country. They heard stories that the musician had died dramatically: He'd shot himself in the head onstage in Moscow; He'd set himself aflame and burned to death before an audience someplace else; He'd died of a drug overdose, was in a mental institution, was incarcerated for murdering his girlfriend.
In 1996, in the newly liberated South Africa, Segerman and journalist Carl Bartholomew-Strydom set out separately to find out the truth and then got together to solve the mystery. Nearly two years of frustration and dead ends finally led to Detroit, where they found Rodriguez — sane, free and working on construction sites in his home town.
‘‘It’s rock-and-roll history now. Who would-a thought?’’ Rodriguez said, struggling to explain his improbable tale even several months before the documentary was nominated for an Oscar. How does an anonymous laborer in the Motor City who failed to make it in folk music unknowingly became a mysterious musical prophet in South Africa? And how does the persistence of two fans thousands of miles and an ocean away lead to redemption and a Hollywood-style victory for his long-ignored talent?
Those who produced his records could not believe they flopped. ‘‘This guy was like a wise man, a prophet, I've never worked with anyone as talented,’’ Steve Rowland, who produced hits for Jerry Lee Lewis and Peter Frampton, says in the documentary. He produced Rodriguez’s second and last album.
Rodriguez was the first artist signed to Sussex Records. Its second was Bill Withers.
Rodriguez said he wasn’t wallowing in self-pity after his music career fizzled — he just ‘‘went back to work.’’ He raised a family that includes three daughters, launched several unsuccessful campaigns for public office, obtained a philosophy degree and reverted to manual labor in Detroit. He gave up the dream of living off his music but never stopped playing it.
‘‘I felt I was ready for the world, but the world wasn’t ready for me,’’ Rodriguez said. ‘‘I feel we all have a mission — we have obligations,’’ he said. ‘‘Those turns on the journey, different twists — life is not linear.’’
Karoub reported from Detroit.