He was America’s Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman, and the Father of Country Music. He was Jimmie Rodgers. From a humble upbringing, he went on to have a profound impact on the music and culture of the Western world. Those counted among his devotees spread far and wide across the globe, his influence stretching from contemporaries like the Mississippi Sheiks and Big Bill Broonzy, to blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, to latter day superstars like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, and too many country musicians to count. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the legendary Robert Johnson’s guitar playing was an attempt to imitate Rodgers. Without a doubt, he was among the most influential musical figures and cultural icons of the twentieth century.
James Charles Rodgers was born on September 8, 1897, the sixth of seven children of railroad man Aaron Woodberry Rodgers (1855 to 1933) and his wife, the former Eliza Bozeman (1868 to 1903), a humble family hailing from Meridian, Mississippi. Although his birthplace is usually given as Meridian, Jimmie was likely born about forty miles northeast of there in his grandparents’ hometown of Geiger, Alabama—which Rodgers himself listed as his birthplace—and only began giving Meridian as his hometown to please the folks back home, who considered him a native. Some sources alternatively list Pine Springs, Mississippi as his birthplace. Jimmie’s mother died of the same disease that would eventually be his own downfall when he was but five years old, and the young boy was sent to live with a series of relatives nearby before returning home to live with his father, who had by then remarried.
As a young man, Jimmie’s father found him work on the railroad, first as a water boy. Later, he became a brakeman for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. In his railroad work, Rodgers learned musical styles from hobos and fellow rail workers, and picked up blues traditions from the gandy dancers. For a time, Rodgers relocated to Arizona to work for Southern Pacific, where he likely picked up some cowboy songs as well. In 1920, Jimmie married Carrie Williamson and had two children, the second of whom died in infancy. From his early youth, Rodgers was musically inclined, but he did not pursue a career in entertainment until later down the line. When he was twenty-seven years old, Jimmie contracted tuberculosis, which put his railroad career to an end. After some recuperation, Rodgers worked a variety of different jobs before deciding to focus on his passion for music and embark on a new career in entertainment. He found work in minstrel and vaudeville tent shows for a while, traveling around the South as an itinerant performer before more stable work came his way.