History of Jimmy Rodgers, Blue Yodeler by John Lilly

“Folks everywhere knew about Jimmie Rodgers, and although some of them were reluctant at first to believe that he was really there in person, playing their own town, they soon learned that he was as much at home in Sweetwater or O’Donnell as in front of a Victor microphone or on the stage of some fancy big-city theater. Vernon Dalhart and Gene Austin might make a lot of records, but they didn’t come out into the boondocks to rub shoulders and tell bawdy jokes and laugh with the plain folks who bought them. The effects of the Blue Yodeler’s tours had been apparent for some time. Just when the first baby was named after Jimmie Rodgers isn’t known, but there would be many to follow; and everyone had a personal story to tell about him what Jimmie had said the time he played Wetumpka or Conroe, how he’d given his guitar to a blind newsboy in McAlester, the way he sang his way out of jail after killing his girlfriend, the time he invented the yodel, ran off with the mayor’s wife, threw beer bottles off the hotel balcony, shot up the city square, or paid off the mortgage for a destitute widow. Most of the stories were pure fabrication, a few had some basis in fact, but all were derived from the simple, eloquent circumstance that I Jimmie Rodgers was a genuine hero to those who needed one most-the plain, ordinary people across the land.”

This account, taken from Nolan Porterfield’s masterful biography, Jimmie Rodgers; The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler (University of Illinois Press), depicts the far-flung effects of Jimmie Rodgers’ short recording and performing career. The long-term effects are played out on a daily basis over country radio stations, in recording studios, in live performances, and on front porches nearly 60 years after Jimmie Rodgers committed to wax his last “Blue Yodel.”

Born James Charles Rodgers on September 8, 1897, in the east Mississippi town of Meridian, Jimmie was the youngest of three boys born to Eliza and Aaron Rodgers. Aaron was a section foreman on the Mobile and Chic) Railroad and his work kept him away from home much of the time Eliza was a frail woman for much of her life, and died during childbirth when Jimmie was five years old.

As a result, Jimmie Rodgers was brought up in a series of foster homes throughout Mississippi and Alabama, occasionally tagging along with his dad on railroad runs. His education was sporadic, mostly taken from the streets and rail yards where he and his buddies located and hustled their time away. Living by his wits and almost constantly on the move, Jimmie’s “rough and rowdy ways” were established early. He grew to be a clever, self-reliant individualist, happy-go-lucky and carefree on the One hand, lonely and disaffected on the other.

Jimmie Rodgers’ musical upbringing was as checkered as his home life. He had a granddad and a preacher uncle who both fiddled, an aunt who was trained in “serious” music, and an early personal fascination with medicine shows and cylinder recording. Naturally drawn to the fun, excitement, and cash potential of show business, Jimmie organized neighborhood shows, entered talent contests, and even ran away with a traveling troupe. Among other useful arts, he learned black-face comedy, various singing styles, and how to play the banjo, mandolin, and guitar.

Whatever his musical ambitions might have been at that time, he kept coming back to Meridian and to railroading, like his father and older brother. Jimmie enjoyed hopping on board, pulling the whistle, and entertaining the work crews with songs on his guitar. More important, as he traveled the miles and spent long hours “waiting for a train,” he learned how, the yardmen, switchers, and hoboes amused and impressed themselves with gandy dancing, lullabies, and the blues. Mississippi in the 1920s was a haven for black blues artists. Jimmie Rodgers had extensive contact with these musicians and singers through his work and travel on the railroad. The simplicity, directness, and depth of feeling inherent in the blues also became essential elements in Rodgers’ music, and his interpretation of the black blues tradition played a huge part in his role as the “Father of Country Music.”

In 1920 Jimmie Rodgers courted and married Carrie Williamson, the daughter of a local Methodist minister, and in 1921 had a baby daughter, Anita. His young family was a source of tremendous pride and inspiration, possibly his first experience with domestic stability. They would eventually stay with him through some unbelievable highs and lows during the next 12 years. Jimmie’s early efforts to provide for them were a combination of occasional railroading and sputtering forays into show business. Scratching together pick-up bands and signing on with traveling tent shows alternated with hanging around the rail office to see if his name would appear on the call board.

This slow, simmering pattern might have continued indefinitely except for an ominous act of fate. In 1924 Jimmie was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was hospitalized and nearly died. At that time, T. B. was incurable and a leading cause of death in America. Despite the awesome burden it put on Jimmie’s spirits and his family’s prospects, the disease served to challenge and drive him, forcing him to pursue his dream of music since the rigors of railroading were no longer an option.

On the doctor’s recommendation, Jimmie and his family soon relocated to the altitude, beauty, and clean air of Asheville in the mountains of western North Carolina. There he plied his many talents wherever he could, eventually appearing on WWNC radio, and performing locally with a stringband, the Tenneva Ramblers, a.k.a. The Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers. Together, they made a sincere effort to become full time performers, playing concerts, square dances, radio shows, and anything else the local mountain communities would support. Their repertoire consisted of traditional string band material, popular songs, blues, and original numbers that Jimmie put together.

This was the act that made its way across the Blue Ridge in a borrowed car to audition in Bristol, Tennessee, for the Victor Talking Machine Company in early August 1927.

Ralph Peer, on behalf of Victor, conducted auditions and recording sessions in an empty warehouse in downtown Bristol over a two-week period that changed the future of country music. Searching for indigenous folk talent from Appalachia, he also discovered some of the most creative and commercially viable artists ever recorded. Among them were the Carter Family, the Stoneman Family, and Jimmie Rodgers. (Many of these recordings, and a wonderful account of these sessions written by Charles Wolfe, are available on the Country Music Foundation re-issue, The Bristol Sessions CMF-01 1, reviewed in OTH vol. 1 no. 3.)

Accounts vary concerning the reason why The Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, who arrived in Bristol as a unit, recorded separately. The Tenneva Ramblers (Jack and Claude Grant and Jack Pierce) were well received by Ralph Peer, and recorded some fine sides of traditional mountain music. Jimmie Rodgers, alone with his guitar, recorded two songs, “Sleep, Baby Sleep,” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” beginning a legacy of over 100 recordings which, 60 years later, continue to inspire listeners and other musicians. The combination of ease and intensity in his voice and guitar work, his natural phrasing and articulation, and that strange and beautiful yodel are all present and fully developed in Jimmie’s earliest recordings. Ralph Peer must have seen these things because, even though Rodgers’ Bristol sessions did not yield any big hits, Peer was quick to arrange a follow-up session a few months later in Camden, New Jersey.

This time they got one. “T For Texas (Blue Yodel #1)” was a national phenomenon and generated an excitement and record-buying frenzy that no one could have predicted. The song was a Jimmie Rodgers original composition which drew heavily on traditional blues while showcasing his strong, unique guitar style, aggressive vocals, and a crystal-clear, bone chilling yodel which became his trademark. The lyrics made an obvious connection to the southern states, talked about hard times with women and work, and had a macho, slightly dangerous undertone. Not only were these to be recurring themes in subsequent Jimmie Rodgers songs, (he re-worked these ideas for a total of 13 “Blue Yodels”) but they continue as themes in country songwriting to this day.

By 1928, Jimmie Rodgers had experienced a meteoric rise from obscurity to stardom similar in many ways to the later experiences of Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. His years of hard living and grassroots entertaining served him well as he scurried to meet the demands for live appearances and recording sessions. He continued to feature traditional songs like “Frankie and Johnny,” sentimental favorites like “Mother Was a Lady,” railroad songs, and his calling card Blue Yodels. He also discovered a gold mine in the songwriting talents of his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams. Carrie’s piano-playing sister had been in a three-piece dance band with Jimmie in the early Meridian days, and she composed and collaborated extensively with him during the critical early phases of his recording career.

Like any successful recording star, Jimmie soon had songwriters and publishers pitching him material from every direction, augmenting his own prolific output. Happily free from the fetters of precedent and stereotyping-after all he was the first nationally successful country singer-Jimmie and producer Ralph Peer recorded a staggering variety of music. From “Everybody Does It In Hawaii” with real Hawaiian back-up, to “My Blue-Eyed Jane” with full jazz band, Jimmie embodied the music of his time. In various combinations, he recorded with mandolin, jug, steel guitar, ukulele, banjo, tuba, harmony whistling, and musical saw. He shared the studio with such musical icons as Louis Armstrong, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Skillet Licker Clayton McMichen (who also wrote “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia”).

Through all this, Jimmie somehow maintained an undeniable identity. No matter how eclectic the setting, his distinctive voice and yodel made each performance a reaffirmation of his own unique style and indomitable spirit. In addition, nearly half of all his recordings featured the pure, honest sound that lie started with-voice and guitar.

During the glory years, 1928-1933, Jimmie, Carrie, and Anita Rodgers lived a hectic and exhilarating life of travel and wealth which made them the envy of depression-era Americans. But always lurking just out of view was the specter of impending doom in the form of a fatal disease. As Jimmie wrote in a song: “Ain’t no one ever whipped the T. B. Blues.” He, his family, and audience knew this all along, and his struggle with it made him an even more heroic figure. He finally succumbed on May 26, 1933, while on a recording trip to New York City.

In death, as in life, Jimmie Rodgers captured the imaginations and emotions of millions. Volumes of tribute songs were written, and a veritable yodeling army of Jimmie imitators took to the road and to the recording studios. Some of these singers went on to become marvelous talents on their own once they developed their personal styles. Among them were Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis, Hank Snow, and Ernest Tubb, pioneers of the next generation of country musicians.

Since then, such diverse interpreters as Crystal Gayle and Lynard Skynard have recorded his songs. Through his influence on Bill Monroe, Tommy Duncan, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell, Rodgers deeply affected the eventual formation of Bluegrass, Western Swing, and Honky Tonk Music.

Norm Cohen, in his introduction to The Recordings Of Jimmie Rodgers: An Annotated Discography by Johnny Bond (JEMF Special Series, No. 11), suggests the following as Rodgers’ major contributions to country music:

a) Increased reliance on new compositions by contemporary writers and composers;

b) Increased reliance on studio musicians

c) Popularization of yodeling

d) Popularization of “white blues”-a hillbilly offshoot of the classic 12-bar blues popular with both white and black audiences in the mid- 1920s

e) Creation of a stable of lasting country music repertoire, still actively in use

f) Creation of a singing /guitar style emulated by many major artists during his lifetime and afterward

As much as Jimmie Rodgers represented a break with past traditions in country music, typified in his parting of the ways with the Tenneva Ramblers, he also must be viewed as a point of common ground for devotees of many disparate musical idioms, including blues, old-time western, Hawaiian, jug band, and jazz. In blending these elements together with the strong personal style of a sincere, self taught, southern artist, he provided us with a rallying point for all those who truly love American music.

John Lilly is an old-time musician and songwriter, currently living in Charleston, West Virginia. He is the editor of the book, Mountains of Music: West Virginia Traditional Music From Goldenseal, published by the University of Illinois Press, and since 1997 has served as editor of Goldenseal magazine, a quarterly folklife journal published by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Contact john.f.lilly@wv.gov

THE OLD-TIME HERALD SPRING 1992

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