Victor 21291 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1928

“Thumbs Up—On the Spot.”  Jimmie Rodgers donning his brakeman attire for a famous studio pose.  Circa 1930.

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.

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?

Blue Yodel No. II (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille), recorded February 15, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the “B” side is another of Singing Brakeman’s classics, his eponymous “The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away)”.

The Brakeman’s Blues (Yodeling the Blues Away), recorded February 14, 1928 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Spotlight: Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie

Jimmie Rodgers, “with a real Blue Yodel” (autograph authenticity unverified).

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 four 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.

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Victor 20864 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1927

In early August 1927, Ralph Peer was continuing his recording sessions for Victor in Bristol, Tennessee, when he received a telephone call from a radio performer in Asheville, North Carolina, who had read of this opportunity in the newspaper, and was interested in recording with his string band.  Peer arranged for this man to meet for an audition.  Somewhere along the line, he had a disagreement with his band, and they parted ways before the audition.  Nevertheless, he auditioned before Peer, who saw a huge potential for success.  On August 4, 1927, Jimmie Rodgers made his first recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company, only two sides.  The first was his own composition, “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”, the second was the old yodel song, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep”.  The record was a hit, and Rodgers recorded with Victor again only a few months later, making the first of his famous Blue Yodels.  Over the course of the following six years, he became one of Victor top artists, one of the best-selling record artists of the Great Depression, and earned the moniker of the Father of Country Music.

Victor 20864 was recorded between 2:00 and 4:20 P.M. on August 4, 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, the only two sides cut in Jimmie Rodgers Bristol session, and his first ever recordings.  It was released in October of 1927.

Jimmie’s second song at the session, but issued as the “A” side of his debut disc was his haunting rendition of John J. Handley’s old time yodel song, “Sleep Baby Sleep”.

Sleep Baby Sleep, recorded August 4, 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Sleep Baby Sleep, recorded August 4, 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Issued as the “B” side, Rodgers own composition “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” marked the first time that the voice of America’s Blue Yodeler was ever preserved in shellac.

The Soldier's Sweetheart, recorded August 4, 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers.

The Soldier’s Sweetheart, recorded August 4, 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Bluebird B-5942 – Jimmie Rodgers/Jesse Rodgers – 1931/1935

This record is a remarkable one for a number of reasons.  One of those is that, being a Depression era release, it is quite scarce (and I don’t mean to sound braggadocious, I’m still surprised that I have it, myself).  Another is that is one of a number of records of the 1920s and 1930s to feature black and white artists performing together, in this case Jimmie Rodgers with the Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band.  On the downside, this copy has certainly seen better days.  The years have not been kind to it, and its sound reflects that. It’s still listenable, but has a layer of surface noise.  Another bit worth mentioning is that the flip side of this record, which was released after Rodgers’ passing, features a recording by another blue yodeler who was supposedly Jimmie Rodgers’ first cousin.

Both sides of Bluebird B-5942 were recorded on separate occasions.  The “A” side was recorded on June 16, 1931 in Louisville, Kentucky, the “B” side was recorded January 28, 1935 in San Antonio, Texas.  The personnel of the jug band on the first side includes George Allen on clarinet, Clifford Hayes on violin, Cal Smith on tenor guitar, Fred Smith on guitar and Earl McDonald on jug, the same basic group as the Dixieland Jug Blowers.

On the first side, the Blue Yodeler sings “My Good Gal’s Gone”, with outstanding accompaniment by Earl McDonald’s Louisville Jug Band.  Though it was recorded in 1931, this 1935 Bluebird is the first issue of this recording.

My Good Gal’s Gone, recorded June 16, 1931 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the “B” side, Jimmie’s (supposed) first cousin, Jesse Rodgers sings “Leave Me Alone, Sweet Mama” in a style that reminds me of Cliff Carlisle more than Jimmie.  Jesse stuck around for quite awhile, dropping the “d” from his name to become Jesse Rogers by the end of the 1930s, and later styling himself as a singing cowboy.

Leave Me Alone, Sweet Mama, recorded January 28, 1935 by Jesse Rodgers.

Leave Me Alone, Sweet Mama, recorded January 28, 1935 by Jesse Rodgers.

Updated with improved audio on May 23, 2017.

Crown 3058 – Frankie Marvin and his Guitar – 1931

One of the few independent record labels to spring up during the Great Depression was Crown, founded in 1930 by the Plaza Record Company after the merger that created the American Record Corporation, leaving them without their flagship label, Banner.  Most of Crown’s output consisted of popular and jazz music, but they also issued some interesting country recordings, such as this one.

Frankie Marvin was born January 27, 1904 in Butler, Indian Territory, where he grew up with his brother, the future popular singer and ukulele man Johnny Marvin.  At some point in the mid-1920s, Frankie came to New York to begin a recording career like his brother.  Frankie Marvin sang variously as a studio vocalist for dance and jazz bands (he can be heard singing “St. James Infirmary” with King Oliver’s Orchestra) and a country singer a la Jimmie Rodgers, often accompanying himself on guitar.  Marvin also worked as an accompanist to Gene Autry on some of his early records.

Crown 3058, recorded in New York by Frankie Marvin in January 1931 features two off-brand versions of country hits of the day.

First, Marvin sings Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 8”, better known today as “Mule Skinner Blues”.  Based on my own research, this is likely the first of many covers of Rodgers’ classic song.

Blue Yodel No. 8, recorded January 1931 by Frankie Marvin.

Blue Yodel No. 8, recorded January 1931 by Frankie Marvin and his Guitar.

Next, Marvin sings his, Gene Autry, and George Rainey’s composition “True Blue Bill”, occasionally known as “I’m a Truthful Fellow”.  He seems to be channeling “Ukulele Ike” Cliff Edwards’ trademark form of scatting, known as “effin'”, here.

True Blue Bill, recorded January 1931 by Frankie Marvin and his Guitar.

True Blue Bill, recorded January 1931 by Frankie Marvin and his Guitar.