Victor 23696 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1932

A rare snapshot of Jimmie Rodgers in the early 1930s, atop a ’31 Chrysler and holding a puppy.

As Jimmie Rodgers’ successful recording career entered its fifth year, he was at the height of his fame, and times had never been better—or worse—for the Blue Yodeler.

In 1932, Jimmie Rodgers was living in Texas, “a state he dearly loved.”  He had moved into his custom built brick manor in Kerrville in 1929 to help ease his tuberculosis with the fresh hill country air, but left for a modest home at 142 Montclair Avenue in San Antonio only three years later, where he hosted a weekly radio program on KMAC.  Progressively declining health had forced him to curtail his touring schedule, but staying put just wasn’t in his nature, and he continued to motor around the region in his blue Cadillac.  At the same time, the record industry—which had made Rodgers a star five years earlier—was too in ill health; the Great Depression, combined with the emerging medium of radio, had record sales dropping fast.  By the time the industry hit bottom, Jimmie Rodgers was Victor’s best-selling record artist, hence the Depression-era adage that a typical Southerner’s shopping list was “pound of butter, a slab of bacon, a sack of flour, and the new Jimmie Rodgers record.”  In spite of the circumstances against his favor, Rodgers kept up his recording schedule during 1932, producing a total of twenty-one sides over course of the year.  In February, he was in Dallas to cut seven sides at the Jefferson Hotel, accompanied first by a hillbilly band including future western swinger Bill Boyd on such tracks as “Hobo’s Meditation”, and then by a Hawaiian quartet with his longtime collaborators Billy and Weldon Burkes.  On the thirty-first of July, he departed for Camden, New Jersey for a productive session with Clayton McMichen, Slim Bryant, and Oddie McWinders, that resulted in such memorable numbers as “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia” and “Whippin’ That Old T. B.”.  Afterward, he traveled on to New York for an audition with NBC, which resulted in a pilot on WEAF but did not materialize further, and another session that produced four sides, including “Miss the Mississippi and You”.  With talks of a tour of England with McMichen—as Carson Robison had done earlier the same year—Jimmie had big plans, and didn’t intend on stopping, but the dire state of the economy and direr yet state of his health put a damper on such lofty ambitions.

Victor 23696 was recorded on February 6 and 4, 1932, respectively, at the Jefferson Hotel in Dallas, Texas.  It was issued on August 12 of that year, and sold only 7,746 copies—not bad for Depression-era sales, but still, not too many for their best-selling artist.

First, Jimmie sings another installment in his famous series, “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Back Yard)”, and a blues song it truly is.  Previously on Old Time Blues, we’ve heard Jimmie’s first, second, eighth, ninth, and last Blue Yodels.  Maybe we’ll eventually get them all on here.

Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ In My Back Yard), recorded February 6, 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the flip, Jimmie croons a tune about the moon in June predicting the country music styles yet to come in the decade, such as might have appealed to a common Depression-era record buyer’s sensibilities—and it does appeal to my own Depression-era sensibilities—”Mississippi Moon”.  He is accompanied by a Hawaiian style string band made up of Billy Burkes on steel guitar, and Weldon Burkes and Fred Koone on guitars.

Mississippi Moon, recorded February 4, 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Montgomery Ward M-7085 – Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers/Bolick Bros. – 1936

In the city of New York, on the twenty-sixth of May, 1933, the famous Singing Brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers, met his untimely end at the age of only thirty-five.  Suffering a fatal pulmonary hemorrhage in his room in the Taft Hotel, he had finally succumbed to the T.B. that had dogged him since 1924.  He had completed his final recording session only two days earlier.

Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers, pictured in the 1937 Bluebird catalog.

In the wake of Jimmie Rodgers’ demise, the spirit of great Blue Yodeler was eulogized in a considerable volume of tribute songs.  Among them, cowboy star and former Rodgers cover artist Gene Autry made a two part record honoring his late inspiration, future Texas governor and senator W. Lee O’Daniel penned another one that was recorded by his Light Crust Doughboys, but surely the most heartfelt of all the tributes was by Rodgers’ own widow, Mrs. Carrie Williamson Rodgers.

It was three years after her husband’s death when she first entered a recording studio, one operated by the same company for whom her husband had made so many records—RCA Victor—set up temporarily in a hotel in San Antonio, the city Rodgers had called home in the last years of his life.  She brought with her a burgeoning young radio singer, one of the legion of devotees of her late husband, whom she had befriended after he contacted her for an autographed picture of the famed singer; his name was Ernest Tubb.  He made six sides at those sessions, his first; she made only one.  Her lone recording was a touching original composition dedicated to Jimmie, with Tubb backing on Rodgers’ famous custom Martin 000-45 guitar, emblazoned with “Jimmie Rodgers” in pearl lettering inlaid across the fretboard, and “Blue Yodel” on the headstock.  The following year, Mrs. Rodgers returned to the microphone with Tubb—and his buddy Merwyn Buffington—accompanying to make one more side: “My Rainbow Trail Keeps Winding On”, only tangentially related to Jimmie.  She bookended her scant recording career many years later, all the way in 1956, when she met with the reunited original Carter Family at the site of the famous Bristol Sessions, where Jimmie and the Carters made their first records, to record “Mrs. Jimmy [sic] Rodgers Visits the Carter Family”, a sequel to 1931’s “Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family”.  Carrie remained in San Antonio for the rest of her years, and never remarried.  She died there from complications of colon cancer on November 28, 1961, at the age of fifty-nine.

Montgomery Ward M-7085, a split release, was recorded in two separate sessions: the first side on October 26, 1936, in San Antonio, Texas, and the second on the thirteenth of the same month and year in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Side “A” was also issued on Bluebird B-6698, backed with Jimmie Rodgers and Sara Carter duetting on “Why There’s a Tear in My Eye”, and a year or so later on another Montgomery Ward, M-7279, backed with Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers’ only other song.  Side “B” was also released on Bluebird B-6808 with another side by the same artists.

Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers, by her own admission, was no singer, but she succeeded nonetheless in delivering a heartrending performance on her tribute to her late husband: “We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall”.  Whatever she may have lacked in ability, she made up for with sincerity.  Carrie is accompanied, as the label states, “on Jimmie Rodgers’ own guitar,” played by the Blue Yodeler’s posthumous protégé Ernest Tubb.

We Miss Him When the Evening Shadows Fall, recorded October 26, 1936 by Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers.

On the reverse, the Bolick Brothers—Earl, on guitar, and Bill, on mandolin—better known as the proto-bluegrass duo the Blue Sky Boys, deliver an inspirational message in the gospel song “I Believe It”.

I Believe It, recorded October 13, 1936 by the Bolick Bros.

Never-Before-Seen Footage of Jimmie Rodgers Discovered?

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.

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Victor 23580 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1930/1931

Jimmie Rodgers gussied up in a tuxedo, with his signature “Blue Yodel” Martin guitar, circa 1930.

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.

Blue Yodel Number 9, recorded July 16, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.

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 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.

Looking for a New Mama, recorded June 15, 1931 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Vocalion 02605 – W. Lee O’Daniel and his Light Crust Doughboys – 1933

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).

Memories of Jimmy [sic] Rodgers, recorded October 11, 1933 by the Light Crust Doughboys.

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.

I Want Somebody to Cry Over Me, recorded October 10, 1933 by the Light Crust Doughboys.