Jimmie Rodgers

TrackSingle
Blue Yodel (T Is For Texas)Victor 21142
Dear Old Sunny South By The SeaVictor 21574
The Brakeman's BluesVictor 21291
Blue Yodel No.4 (California Blues)Victor 40014
Waiting For A TrainVictor 40014
Blue Yodel No.8 (Mule Skinner Blues)Victor 23503
In The Jailhouse Now No.2Victor 22523
Blue Yodel No.9 (Standing On The Corner)Victor 23580
T.B. BluesVictor 23535
Travellin' BluesVictor 23564
Bonus Track
Jimmie Rodgers' Last Blue YodelBluebird 5281

All included in the “Jimmie Rodgers: Recordings 1927-1933” box set.

 

Jimmie Rodgers photo 1

 

 

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Jimmie Rodgers playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

The most inspiring type of entertainer for me has always been somebody like Jimmie Rodgers, somebody who could do it alone and was totally original. He was combining elements of blues and hillbilly sounds before anyone else had thought of it. He recorded at the same time as Blind Willie McTell but he wasn’t just another white boy singing black. That was his great genius and he was there first … he sang in a plaintive voice and style and he’s outlasted them all.”
and
Jimmie Rodgers of course is one of the guiding lights of the Twentieth Century, whose way with song has always been an inspiration to those of us who have followed the path.”
Bob Dylan

It’s arguable that we just wouldn’t have this consistent, lasting genre of music based on one guy singing and accompanying himself on a guitar, that’s been pervasive in American pop music – country included – without him. I think he’s the guy, the prototype, for a Woody Guthrie, a Hank Williams, and an Elvis. What’s important with Jimmie Rodgers is that he accompanied himself on an instrument that could fill in all the gaps. A guitar has overtones; it will make you hear other instruments.” Steve Earle

He’d sit down and yodel to me and then I’d get out in the field and I’d yodel. I wouldn’t yodel just like him. I brought mine down more different. You know.” Howlin’ Wolf

Where to start with Jimmie Rodgers? Over a surprisingly short recording career (just under six years from August 1927 to May 1933) he helped to transform American popular music. Often described as the “father of country music” his own style includes traces of many other traditions from folk music to parlour ballads and through to jazz and blues. Indeed, he developed a unique synthesis which combined these disparate elements into something entirely fresh and new. He took the ‘yodel’ which had originated in Europe – and had often been associated with novelty music – and turned it into a vehicle which allowed him to express a range of emotions which could not be expressed in words. At the same time, he was one of the first white artists to draw directly from the blues. He did so in a way, however, that was authentically linked to his own experience. Unlike his later, usually lesser, imitators Rodgers never sounded forced or fake. This perhaps more than anything else is what linked him with the greatest of the country artists who followed him. To quote his biographer, Nolan Porterfield, when Jimmie sang a song “his audiences knew that he meant it”. Like Hank Williams, he sang “more sincere than most entertainers because … [he] was raised rougher than most entertainers”. For much of his life, Rodgers was also aware that he was living on borrowed time. In 1924, while still in his twenties, he had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. At the time, there was no cure for the disease, and, in Bob Dylan’s words, the diagnosis was “a quick assignment to the cemetery”. It was perhaps this awareness of his own mortality that allowed Rodgers to sing the blues so convincingly. It also served to increase his enjoyment of the good things in life and this is also very evident in his music.

 

Jimmie Rodgers photo 2

 

The Singing Brakeman

Jimmie Rodgers was born in September 1897 most probably in Meridian, Mississippi. At the time he was born, one of the key industries in the town was the local railway, the Mobile and Ohio Railroad (the M & O). His father, Aaron, worked for the train company, first as a section hand and later as a foreman.

Rodgers had an early experience of tragedy with the death of his mother, Eliza, in 1903. Following her death, he was shunted around among relatives for a time, before returning to live with his father in 1908. By this time, he had also developed a fascination with the so-called ‘tent’ or ‘medicine’ shows which featured travelling performers of various types. These often included ‘snake oil’ merchants, freak shows, circus type performers and vaudeville and minstrel-style musicians. He had even attempted to run away with his own travelling show although this was a short-lived adventure.

Concerned about his rambling and his increasingly “rough and rowdy ways”, his father decided to put him to work on the railway. For the next fourteen years, he worked on a variety of jobs with different railway companies. These ranged from ‘water-boy’ and ‘mule-driver’ type roles (as described in his classic song, Mule Skinner Blues) to working as a brakeman with the New Orleans & North Eastern. In his first jobs, Rodgers often worked with largely black crews (sometimes known as ‘gandy dancers’) from whom he picked up traditional work songs and similar types of music. He also mixed with hobo musicians – both black and white – where he probably heard many of the blues and folk songs which underpinned his later work. His sympathy for hoboes and those condemned to a travelling lifestyle was a marked feature of his own later songs. One example of this is the classic Waiting For A Train (“a thousand miles away from home/sleeping in the rain”).

Even when working on the train lines, Jimmie Rodgers continued to dream of becoming an entertainer. He still played music with local bands often performing Tin Pan Alley style hits without being paid. He also honed his skills as a guitarist and singer by copying the performers on the records he bought. Following his TB diagnosis, it gradually became clear to Rodgers that he could not continue doing the physically demanding work on the railways indefinitely. As a result, a career in music became an even more enticing prospect.

Jimmie Rodgers Victor Talking Machine Company

His big break came in 1927 when Ralph Peer, a talent scout or A&R man for the Victor Talking Machine Company (although neither role was strictly defined as yet), made his famous trip to the South to recruit ‘hillbilly’ and ‘race’ performers. Although not really a fan of either type of music, Peer realised that there was a largely untapped market for both which had not yet been reached by the existing record companies. His desire to find new artists was also partly driven by the fact that his contract with Victor was based on a share of the royalties in the recordings he made rather than on a regular salary.

In August 1927, Peer’s travels brought him to Bristol in Tennessee. In less than two weeks there, Peer recorded two of the foundational acts in country music, Jimmie Rodgers – who played solo – and the brilliant Carter Family. Rodgers’ first recordings were more conventional than his subsequent work. The sides recorded included the sentimental ballad, The Soldier’s Sweetheart and the lullaby-like Sleep Baby Sleep. Although neither record ranks among Rodgers’ very best work, they were good enough to persuade Peer to allow him a second recording session. The question of whether this was at his request or on Jimmie’s own initiative is still unresolved.

It was at that session that Jimmie recorded his first definite masterpiece and my first choice – Blue Yodel (T Is For Texas) – also sometimes known as Blue Yodel No.1. The song introduced a new type of persona to country music – rough and ready and with a strong line in macho bravado and bluster (cause I can get more women/ than a passenger train can haul). There is also a violent undercurrent – I’m going to shoot poor Thelma/ just to see her jump and fall – which prefigured later artists like Johnny Cash (I shot a man in Reno/ just to watch him die).

Rodgers also interspersed lines of his own with lines drawn from the blues in a way that characterised his work from then on (I’m going where the water drinks like cherry wine). Apparently this is a variant on lines from the song Michigan Water Blues recorded by Alberta Hunter in 1923 (Michigan water taste like sherry, I said sherry, Lord, I mean sherry wine). What also made the song so effective was its combination of disparate elements – blues, hillbilly and the European element of the yodel. In many ways, however, Jimmie’s style of remarkably fluid and emotionally affecting yodelling was unlike anything that had ever been heard before.

 

Jimmie Rodgers was one of the first country singers to sing blues that black people liked.”
B.B. King

Jimmie Rodgers – just his voice, the guitar and the yodel – shaped my part in life. I knew when I was twelve years old what I was going to do; I was going to sing. I’d come in frustrated from school and it’d help me. It has always helped me … I’d yodel and harmonize with him and it gave me peace. I can truly say he was the biggest influence in my life.” Lefty Frizzell

The tempo and the attitude never sag. In some of those very last records Jimmie made, even then, lying on a cot, he still knew where the beat was. A tremendous beat sense. And his articulation was amazing; there’s nobody ever beat him. The songs share a total corner of the history of blues in America.” Merle Haggard

 

The Blue Yodeler

Over the year, 1927-28, Jimmie Rodgers’ fortunes changed dramatically. He became a hugely successful commercial recording artist, with a loyal and remarkably devoted audience right across America. He also began to expand his range, into the more obviously ‘country’ sounding song (although the genre did not really exist yet) like my second choice, Dear Old Sunny South By The Sea. This also featured Ellsworth Cozzens on the steel guitar, another pointer to the future sound of country music. Like many of Jimmie’s song, it also had a strongly nostalgic feel. However, he almost always managed to stay on the right side of that fine line between pathos and sentimentality.

At this time Jimmie’s songs also began to reflect his own experiences working on the railways. The next choice, The Brakeman’s Blues is a particularly fine example of this type of song. It also displays his increasing habit of including spoken words interjections in his songs (Hello Memphis, Right on down to Birmingham, Hey Buddy, Sing them blues boy, Hush your noise.) This was another element derived from the blues which Jimmie very much made his own. The song also shows the extraordinary potency of that seemingly simple combination of guitar and voice which he pioneered. The skilfulness of Jimmie’s apparently effortless yodel also becomes clear when listening to the many people who came afterwards who tried to copy it and – more often than not – failed dismally.

Jimmie Rodgers’ uncanny ability to capture the voice of the people of his times was a key element in his commercial success. His sympathies were always with the underdog and those suffering from various types of economic hardship. These traits were clearly apparent in my next choice, California Blues, with its brilliantly free and easy jazz-style arrangement. The song itself deals sympathetically with the hopes and fears of those hoboes and migrants heading to the ‘sunshine state’. The next selection, Waiting For A Train, ranks high among Rodgers’ greatest songs. In his biographer Nolan Porterfield’s words, the lyric “has an authenticity” born of Rodgers’ “own experience … of those many times, not long past, when he’d been stranded alone and far from home, wet and hungry” and trying to find a way home. The melody is also one of his very finest.

As we have seen, Rodgers drew even more heavily on his own experiences for the next one, the brilliant Mule Skinner Blues. The song also features one of his finest guitar breaks, one which was to influence numerous country guitarists in the years that followed.

Like many of his best songs, Jimmie drew on many pre-existing songs for In The Jailhouse Now. One of the closest models for it was Blind Blake’s brilliant He’s In The Jailhouse Now, which was recorded in 1927. Apparently the first recorded version of the song was that by Toots Davis and Ed Stafford released in 1915. It was subsequently covered with some alterations by Whistler’s Jug Band in 1924. By this point, the song had divided into two main variants, one which emphasised the political aspects of its story and the other which emphasised its ‘good-time’ (‘gambling’, ‘tomcatting’ etc) and anti-authoritarian elements. Perhaps unsurprisingly Rodgers’ version followed the latter course. Like many of his songs, it backed the little guy against the repressive forces of the police and the state. It also demonstrates the infectious joie de vivre which was always such a key element in his style. He recorded the song twice but, in my opinion, the second version recorded in 1930 is clearly the definitive one.

My next choice, Standing On The Corner, is another of Rodgers’ finest songs. Its final verse also serves as a reframing of the classic ballad Frankie And Johnny from a male perspective. Rodgers had previously recorded a very fine version of that song which I would have included if I had more space. Standing On The Corner also features the great Louis Armstrong on trumpet. He gives a typically beautiful and sensitive accompaniment to Jimmie’s vocal. While some people have criticised the song for its lack of a clear narrative, for me its fragmentary character gives the song an intriguing quality which only strengthens its power.

 

 

T.B. Blues

I got the blues so bad
Till the whole round world look blue

(Jimmie Rodgers, Train Whistle Blues)

I’ve been fighting like a lion
Looks like I’m going to lose

(Jimmie Rodgers, T.B. Blues)

My last two selections and the bonus track come from the recordings Jimmie made in the last two years of his life. By this point his health was increasingly poor and it was becoming clear that he did not have that long to live. In this context, T.B. Blues is an extraordinary song which deals with his own mortality in a starkly eloquent way. To quote Nolan Porterfield, “it is both an artistic achievement and the most eloquent evidence of Jimmie Rodgers’ tragic vision. It was a vision born of his own courage and will, of his great zest for life and his own coming to terms with the transience of it, a vision substantial enough to elevate him to the ranks of those poets, and painters and artisans whose work illuminates and eases all our human lives.”

By contrast, Travellin’ Blues, with its string band arrangement, helped to point the way to the sound adopted by later Texan Swing artists like Bob Wills. Like many of Rodgers’ songs, it was also a testament to his love of ‘rambling’, although such travelling was now sadly more in his imagination than reality.

The bonus track selection, Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel, comes from one of his very last recording sessions. Despite the fact that he was in considerable pain at the time and had to be propped up with pillows while recording it, Last Blue Yodel showed that his roguish sense of humour was still very much intact.

Within two weeks of recording it – on 26th May 1933 – Rodgers had died. During his relatively short career, he had created a musical legacy, traces of which still echo on down through the works of later artists. Such artists include people of the stature of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle … Through synthesising a range of diverse musical styles going from vaudeville to parlour music to folk ballads and on through to the blues, Rodgers helped to create an entirely new musical idiom. Later artists would develop this new style further, but Jimmie Rodgers remains one of the great figures in twentieth century music and a trailblazing pioneer.

 

Jimmie Rodgers photo 3

Footnote

For those wanting to find out more about his career, the definitive biography is Nolan Porterfield’s classic “Jimmie Rodgers: The Life And Times Of America’s Blue Yodeler”

There are also two excellent recent books which look at his career from very different perspectives: Barry Mazor’s “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed The Pop Sounds Of A Century” which explores Rodgers’ long-term influence; Ben Wynne’s “In Tune: Charley Patton, Jimmie Rodgers, And The Roots Of American Music” which looks at his kinship with that great blues musician.

 

Jimmie Rodgers photo 4

Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in Louisville in 1931

 

Best Jimmie Rodgers Covers

Mule Skinner Blues – Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys (RCA Victor ‎20-3163)
Why Should I Be Lonely? – Ernest Tubb (Decca ‎9-46308)
My Carolina Sunshine Girl – Jerry Lee Lewis (The Sun Years)
California Blues – Lefty Frizzell (The Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers)
California Blues and Travelin’ Blues – Merle Haggard (Same Train, A Different Time)
Mule Skinner Blues – Dolly Parton (RCA Victor ‎447-0859)
Waiting For A Train – Boz Scaggs (Boz Scaggs)
T For Texas – Waylon Jennings (Return Of The Outlaw)
Miss The Mississippi And You – Emmylou Harris (Roses In The Snow)

… and these from The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute (1997):

Somewhere Down Below The Mason Dixon Line – Mary Chapin Carpenter
My Blue Eyed Jane – Bob Dylan
Peach Pickin’ Time Down In Georgia – Willie Nelson
In The Jailhouse Now – Steve Earle & The V-Roys
Mule Skinner Blues – Van Morrison

 

 

 

The Folk Alliance honoured Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of American Music, with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011

 

The underest dog is just as good as I am; and I’m just as good as the toppest dog.” Jimmie Rodgers (1897–1933)

 

Jimmie Rodgers Museum official website

The Official Jimmie Rodgers Legacy and Family website

Country Music Hall of Fame: Jimmie Rodgers (1961)

Songwriters Hall of Fame: Jimmie Rodgers (1970)

Jimmie Rodgers biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post: Louis Armstrong, Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Lefty Frizzell, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Howlin’ Wolf

TopperPost #912

5 Comments

  1. Dave Stephens
    Oct 24, 2020

    Another splendid Toppermost Andrew. Rightly or wrongly, I always get the impression that Rodgers is under appreciated in the UK. You’ve done a fine job in educating those who might feel that way.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Oct 26, 2020

    Thanks for this Dave. I think you are right – Van is the one big champion of Jimmie that I can think of on this side of the world.
    On another point, when researching the piece it struck me that there are traces of Jimmie in Jerry Lee’s vocal style. He has recorded some excellent versions of Rodgers’ songs.

    • Dave Stephens
      Oct 26, 2020

      You’re absolutely correct Andrew though he was several country albums in before he let rip with a yodel. My favourite is a song not written by Jimmie but wholly associated with him: “Miss The Mississippi, And You” and I’d go for the second version that Jerry cut (for “Mean Old Man” in 2010) rather than the 1995 “Young Blood” take. There’s a lot of affection for the song and its greatest performer in this take. I’m a sentimental old sod and that final yodel always gets me.

  3. David Lewis
    Oct 27, 2020

    No Jimmie, no Hank, No Bill, no Hank, No Bill, no Elvis as we know them… I don’t want to live in that world.
    Jimmie was internationally famous: along with his contemporaries, The Carter Family, he was revered in Australia, and the yodel was (and is to a lesser extent) a key part of Australian country. Slim Dusty refused to yodel after his first single and never performed the first single live because of the yodel. Of course, Slim changes Australian country because of this…
    Jimmie brings authenticity as a concept to country music – I’ve said before that the best country stems from the experience of long dusty trips in utes or pickups or trains. Jimmie sets this template. It remains.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Oct 28, 2020

    David, thanks for this. I thought of this one as part of reverse trilogy (as it were). This started with Merle Haggard, who recorded probably the best tribute album to Jimmie, went on to Lefty Frizzell, who also made a fine tribute record and then back to Jimmie himself. As you say, in many ways, Jimmie, along with the The Carter Family, is where it all starts in relation to country. But one only has to listen to Woody’s version of ‘Mule Skinner’ or Pete Seeger’s version of ‘T.B. Blues’ to see his influence on the early stages of the Folk Revival.

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