In my spare time, and when the thought occurs to me, I enjoy browsing the Digital Video Repository of the Moving Image Research Collections (or MIRC) at the University of South Carolina, a vast online archive of historical film footage, much of which consists of newsreels footage. Often, I’ll just enter some different search terms and see if I can find anything interesting. It was on one such online excursion that I stumbled across a newsreel (or rather outtakes thereof) depicting the arrival of the famed humorist, movie star, and cowboy philosopher Will Rogers in San Antonio, Texas, that caught my attention. I am (as any red-blooded American surely must be) counted among Will Rogers’ legion of admirers, but his presence was not what attracted my interest to the video. Rather, it was the appearance of a background character that struck me as a familiar face.
After ascending to stardom with hits like “Sleep Baby Sleep” and “Blue Yodel”, Jimmie Rodgers began relentlessly touring across the United States, often to his own physical detriment. In the summer of 1930, Rodgers was in Hollywood. While there he had a total of ten recording sessions between the thirtieth of June and the sixteenth of July. During that time, he recorded a total of fourteen sides, including such classics as “Moonlight and Skies”, “Pistol Packin’ Papa”, and “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)”, and was backed by a variety of talent including Lani McIntire’s Hawaiians and Bob Sawyer’s Jazz Band. On his final Hollywood session, Rodgers recorded only a single title, another installment in his “Blue Yodel” series titled “Standin’ On the Corner”. For accompaniment, he was joined by a young trumpeter who had just arrived in California for an engagement at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Culver City, an up-and-coming talent named Louis Armstrong, and his wife Lil on piano. How exactly this rather unlikely collaboration came to be is lost to time; Armstrong in later years recounted that he’d “been knowin’ Jimmie for a long time,” and “Jimmie said, ‘man, I feel like singin’ some blues,’ [and Louis] said ‘okay daddy, you sing some blues, and I’m gonna blow behind you,’ and that’s the way the record started!” It certainly wasn’t the first time Rodgers had been backed by jazz players. Likely, the session was engineered by Ralph Peer, who was acquainted with Armstrong as well as Rodgers. In any event, the resulting music etched into hot wax that day became the stuff of legend, three great American styles of music—jazz, blues, and “hillbilly”—all crossed paths to make something even greater, brought together by two of the greatest figures in all of America’s rich musical legacy: Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong.
Victor 23580 was recorded in two separate sessions, the first on July 16, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and the second on June 15, 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky. Victor files report a total of 25,071 copies sold—not bad for 1931. The 78 Quarterly included the disc in their “Rarest 78s” section of the tenth issue, suggesting “less than fifteen?” Frankly, I suspect that there are quite a few more copies out there than that, but it is regardless one of Rodgers’ more sought after records due to the accompaniment. On the “A” side, Rodgers is accompanied by Louis and Lil Armstrong on trumpet and piano, respectively. On “B” he is accompanied by Cliff Carlisle on steel guitar, Wilber Ball on guitar, and his own ukulele.
On the “A” side, Jimmie sings and yodels that rough-and-tumble blues number, the ninth entry in his famous series, “Blue Yodel Number 9 (Standin’ On the Corner)”. The song bears considerable resemblance to another blues song on which Louis played four years prior: “The Bridwell Blues” by Nolan Walsh, which featured a similar piano and trumpet accompaniment and the opening lines, “I was standing on the corner, did not mean no harm… and a police came, nabbed me by my arm,” raising questions over whether Rodgers was familiar with Armstrong’s work, or, conversely, that Armstrong had an uncredited hand in composing the song. “The Bridwell Blues” itself was preceded by “Standing On the Corner Blues” by Ozie McPherson, further cementing Jimmie Rodgers’ foundation in the blues, and the “standin’ on the corner” lyric dates back at least to the 1895 Ben Harney and John Biller composition “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon but You’ve Done Broke Down”, likely earlier.
On the reverse, Jimmie sings another dilly: “Looking for a New Mama”. This is one of only two recorded sides that have Jimmie playing ukulele (the other being “Dear Old Sunny South By the Sea” from 1928). Ralph Peer in later years opined that Rodgers’ peculiar chording techniques on the guitar were carried over from his skill on the ukulele. Jimmie also claimed proficiency on banjo and steel guitar, though he was never recorded playing either.
It has come time once again to pay tribute to a legend lost, to the greatest of them all, America’s Blue Yodeler, and the Father of Country Music: Jimmie Rodgers. At the time of this posting, it has been eighty-five years to the day that Jimmie walked through those pearly gates, a victim of the white plague at only thirty-five years old.
In the wake of Jimmie Rodgers’ tragic demise, numerous songwriters published melodies eulogizing him. Among the most successful of these were Bob Miller’s “The Life of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Death of Jimmie Rodgers”, recorded by Gene Autry and Bradley Kincaid, the latter of whom also sang “Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers’ Lament”, composed by Rich Kuster. But those were far from the only ones. Songwriters Dwight Butcher and Lou Herscher, who had collaborated with Rodgers in composing “Old Love Letters”, which Jimmie cut at his last session, penned the popular “When Jimmie Rodgers Said Goodbye”, recorded by a fair number of artists, including Autry and radio yodeler Kenneth Houchins, and by Grand Ole Opry performers Asher Sizemore and his son Little Jimmie under the title “Little Jimmie’s Goodbye to Jimmie Rodgers”. Three years after Rodgers’ passing, Ernest Tubb made his recording debut backing Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers (the former Carrie Williamson) on a weepy performance of “We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall”, then he sang “The Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers” and “The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers” himself. Even decades later, Rodgers was still being honored in song by devotees such as Tubb and Hank Snow, two of the countless many whose lives his music had touched.
Vocalion 02605 was recorded on October 11th and 10th, 1933, respectively, in Chicago, Illinois. The Light Crust Doughboys are Herman Arnspiger and Leon Huff on guitars, Sleepy Johnson on banjo, Leon McAuliffe on steel guitar, and Ramon DeArman on string bass. Leon Huff provides lead vocals. W. Lee O’Daniel was there, too, but he didn’t do anything on this record.
Opening out with a guitar run reminiscent of Rodgers’ signature style, Leon Huff sings and yodels W. Lee O’Daniel’s own tribute to the Blue Yodeler, “Memories of Jimmy [sic] Rodgers” (though either he or the record company misspelled Rodgers’ name).
Lightening up considerably from the more solemn tone of the previous song, the Doughboys sing a humorous number poking a little fun at the Depression on the flip, “I Want Somebody to Cry Over Me”, punctuated by Sleepy Johnson’s tenor banjo.
This is the first Jimmie Rodgers record I ever owned, I picked it up at a little record store down in Austin that unfortunately no longer bothers stocking 78s. I hadn’t been collecting for long at the time—mostly I just had a bunch of records inherited from my great-great-grandfather and some junk from used bookstores—and that was one of my first forays into record stores to look for 78s. My musical knowledge wasn’t so vast then, but I’d heard Jimmie’s “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” and I wanted to find a copy of that one. When I picked up this one, I couldn’t really recall which number of Blue Yodel that one was, and I hoped this one might’ve been it. I took it to the listening station in the store, and it wasn’t, but that was okay, it was only $3.99, and I wanted it anyway. When I got home, I listened to it over and over and—though the sound was a little rough, especially on the cheap equipment I had at the time—I fell in love with both sides just the same as I had with “Mule Skinner Blues”, and so began my quest to find more.
Since my original posting of this record, I’ve come into possession of a considerably cleaner copy (about an “E-” as opposed to my original “V”, for those versed in the VJM record grading system), so I’ve replaced the transfers and label scans accordingly.
Victor 21291 was recorded in Camden, New Jersey on February 15 and 14, 1928, respectively. It was issued that June and remained in the catalog until 1936. Jimmie Rodgers is accompanied by his own guitar, and by Ellsworth T. Cozzens on steel guitar on the “A” side and on ukulele on “B”.
On the “A” side, Jimmie sings the second installment in his Blue Yodel series, “Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille)”. I’d argue it’s one of his best, but then, aren’t they all?
On the “B” side is another of Singing Brakeman’s classics, his eponymous “The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away)”.
Updated on October 28, 2017.
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 even gone so far as to suggest that the now legendary Robert Johnson’s guitar playing was attempt to imitate Rodgers. His work, as a whole, is a reflection of the human condition: life and death, compassion and hatred, joy and sorrow. Without a doubt, Jimmie Rodgers 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.