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 happened to be 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. One seller claimed that it sold a total of 2,757 copies, but I have no idea how they came up with that number and whether or not it’s accurate, though those numbers don’t sound out of line.
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. Takes “2” and “3” of this song exist, this one is the latter.
My Good Gal’s Gone, recorded June 16, 1931 by Jimmie Rodgers.
On the “B” side, Jimmie’s 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 a while, later dropping the “d” from his name to become Jesse Rogers by the end of the 1930s.
Leave Me Alone, Sweet Mama, recorded January 28, 1935 by Jesse Rodgers.
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 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.
Eighty-three years ago today, the end came for Jimmie Rodgers. On May 17, 1933, Jimmie traveled to New York City for what turned out to be his final recording session, during which he had to lie down in-between songs. He cut his last recordings on the 24th, and returned to his room in the Taft Hotel. On May 26, 1933, only two days after waxing his final song, “Years Ago”, Jimmie Rodgers finally succumbed to his tuberculosis, and died in his hotel room of a pulmonary hemorrhage at the age of 35. He had fought T.B. since 1924. At the time of his death, he represented a large percentage of Victor’s total sales deep in the Great Depression. America’s Blue Yodeler left behind a legacy of more than a hundred recorded songs, later going down in history as the Father of Country Music.
After Jimmie’s passing, a wave of tributes ensued, including a number of songs by WLS artist Bradley Kincaid, and these tearjerkers by Gene Autry.
Melotone M 12733 was recorded June 22, 1933, less than one month after Jimmie Rodgers’ death, in New York City by Gene Autry. Both songs were penned by Bob Miller.
First, Autry sings a reasonably accurate account of Jimmie Rodger’s life on “The Life of Jimmie Rodgers”.
The Life of Jimmie Rodgers. recorded June 22, 1933 by Gene Autry.
On the flip, he sings a heartfelt tribute to Jimmie on “The Death of Jimmie Rodgers”.
The Death of Jimmie Rodgers, recorded June 22, 1933 by Gene Autry.
On this day, the twenty-fourth of May, in the year of 1933, America’s Blue Yodeler cut his last records. With the nation in the grip of the Great Depression in 1933, the economic state prohibited Victor from continuing to make field trips to record in the South, so Jimmie had to travel to the studios in New York. By ’33, Jimmie was not in good health; tuberculosis had gotten the better of him, and cross country travel would do his health no favors. During his final sessions, he had to lie down and rest in-between takes, and relied on studio musicians for accompaniment on many of his final recordings. Only two days after making his final recordings, Jimmie Rodgers expired in his room at the Taft Hotel of a pulmonary hemorrhage.
Montgomery M-4415 was recorded May 18 and May 24, 1933 in New York City. The latter of which turned out to be Jimmie’s final session. It was originally issued on Bluebird B-5281, this issue was pressed from those masters and sold through the Montgomery Ward catalog. Despite his failing health, Jimmie maintained a strong voice for most of these sides, and accompanies himself on guitar on both.
Jimmie Rodgers’ famous series of “Blue Yodels” began in 1927 with “T for Texas”, and concluded here with the thirteenth song in the series, the fittingly titled “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel”, or “The Women Make a Fool Out of Me”.
Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel, recorded May 18, 1933 by Jimmie Rodgers.
In 1927, Jimmie Rodgers began his recording career in Bristol, Tennessee with “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”. In 1933, he concluded that career with “Years Ago”.
Years Ago, recorded May 24, 1933 by Jimmie Rodgers.
Today I present a record that stands out particularly in the annals of history, one of the best of the one-hundred-and-some-odd songs recorded by America’s Blue Yodeler, Mr. Jimmie Rodgers: the very first recording of the classic country song “Mule Skinner Blues”.
An advertisement for Victor 23503 from a 1930 Victor promotional flyer.
I must say that this record is something of a “holy grail” to me, it’s one I sought for a long, long time, and words cannot describe the feeling of finally having it in my grasp. I searched for what at least seemed like ages, until a nice copy finally appeared on eBay. I managed to win the auction, and after what seemed like an eternity, this one was delivered, albeit packed woefully inadequately. Thankfully, by what I can only describe as the grace of God, it made it into my possession safely in that LP mailer without the slightest damage, and boy is it a thing to behold.
Victor 23503 was recorded on July 10 and 11, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and issued on February 6, 1931 in Victor’s 23500 series for “Old Familiar Tunes.” As designated by the small “o” above Nipper’s nose near the top of the label, this copy was pressed at the Victor plant in Oakland, California. Several days later, while still in Hollywood, Jimmie recorded with Louis Armstrong, who was at the time appearing at Frank Sebastian’s New Cotton Club in Los Angeles. Jimmie was in exceptionally fine form at these Hollywood sessions, and they turned out to be quite productive.
In the latter of the two sessions, Jimmie cut his renowned “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)” in only one take, just after recording his railroad tune “The Mystery of Number Five” (Victor 23518), the only two sides he recorded that day. Rodgers’ opening line, “Good mornin’, captain. Good mornin’, shine,” appeared two years earlier in Tom Dickson’s “Labor Blues” (Okeh 8570), though the rest of the song bears no resemblance to Rodgers’ Blue Yodel, lyrically or melodically. Whether Rodgers picked up the verse from Dickson’s song or elsewhere, I couldn’t say. This recording stands out as one of a relative few that Rodgers made during the later phase of his career to feature self-accompaniment on his own guitar (fewer than half of his recordings feature his own accompaniment, and the bulk of those were made prior to 1930), and his playing is at his finest, with a rare guitar solo midway through.
Around 1940, the song was resurrected by Grand Ole Opry players Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff (separately), and many times subsequently. In 1955, Rodgers’ recording—along with a number of his other sides—was overdubbed with Hank Snow’s band and reissued in an effort to keep the music “up-to-date.”
This was the song that introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers, and has always been one of my favorites—if not my very favorite—as well as one of Jimmie’s most enduring songs. I was first familiar with Dolly Parton’s 1970 recording, which was one of my favorites as a boy—when I first heard Jimmie yodeling it, boy, it was a whole other world! Not only did it spark my love for Rodgers’ music, but it was a major factor in starting me down the road of collecting 78 records. I could listen to it a million times and never tire.
Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues), recorded July 11, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.
On the “B” side, “Jimmie’s Mean Mama Blues”, recorded the previous day, Jimmie is accompanied by an outstandingly hot Hollywood-based five piece jazz band led by pianist Bob Sawyer, who co-wrote the tune with one Walter O’Neal. Another Rodgers classic, this tune was later covered by Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys in 1936, sung by Tommy Duncan. I love how the band stops playing during Jimmie’s first yodel, leaving just him and his guitar. We previously sampled Sawyer’s work with Carlyle Stevenson’s band five years prior to this.
Jimmie’s Mean Mama Blues, recorded July 10, 1930 by Jimmie Rodgers.
Updated with improved audio on June 20, 2017, and on July 10, 2017.