Spotlight: Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie

Jimmie Rodgers in his most published studio portrait, circa 1927.

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.

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Victor 20864 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1927

Rodgers around 1927-’28, pictured in the Victor catalog.

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.

Victor 20877 – The Carter Family – 1927

In an effort to capitalize on the success of the popular “mountaineer songs” by the likes of Vernon Dalhart and Kelly Harrell, talent scout and record producer Ralph S. Peer arranged for the Victor Talking Machine Company to make a series of field trips in an effort to discover and record marketable new artists for the burgeoning “hillbilly” market.  Arriving in Bristol, Tennessee in late July of 1927, Peer got the word out about the sessions through local radio stations and newspapers, and soon musicians began coming to Bristol in droves to record for Victor.  Among the many noted artists who recorded in those sessions were Ernest Stoneman and Blind Alfred Reed.  It was in early August, however, when came the artists who were to make the biggest fame for themselves and for the Bristol sessions: the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.

The Carter Family in the late 1920s. Left to right: Sara, A.P., Maybelle.

The Carter Family around the time of the Bristol Sessions. Left to right: Maybelle, A.P., Sara.  Pictured in the Victor Catalog

When A.P. Carter of Maces Spring, Virginia—not far from Bristol—learned of the sessions, he persuaded his wife Sara and sister-in-law Maybelle to make the short journey from their home to audition for Ralph Peer.  Though the trio had made music together since their meeting, only A.P. had inclinations to try and make a career out of it.  There in Bristol, on the night of August 1, 1927, A.P., Sara, and Maybelle—as the “Carter Family”—recorded four songs: Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow”, “Little Log Cabin By the Sea”, “The Poor Orphan Child”, and “The Storms are On the Ocean”.  Their audition went well.  Peer was impressed by the Carters, and invited them to return the following morning to record again.  They obliged, this time cutting “”Single Girl, Married Girl” and “The Wandering Boy”.  In return for these recordings, they were paid fifty dollars per song, and half-a-cent royalties on each record sold.  Their second issued record, “Single Girl, Married Girl” and “The Storms are On the Ocean” on Victor 20937, made quite a hit, and the Carters’ path to success as recording stars thus opened.  The following May, they traveled to Camden, New Jersey to record again, anticipating the many sessions to come for Victor, Decca, and the American Record Corporation between then and the early 1940s.  Thus, the Carter Family’s decades long, multi-generation legacy as one of country music’s most legendary acts of all time began.

Victor 20877 was recorded on August 1 and 2, 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee by the Carter Family, Sara, Maybelle, and A.P.  Released on November 4, 1927, it was the first issued record, but not the first recorded sides, by the Carter Family.

Firstly the Carters sing “The Poor Orphan Child”, the third side recorded at the Carter Family’s first session.

The Poor Orphan Child, recorded August 1, 1927 by the Carter Family.

The Poor Orphan Child, recorded August 1, 1927 by the Carter Family.

On the “B” side, they sing the third title cut at their second session, “The Wandering Boy”.

The Wandering Boy, recorded August 2 , 1927 by the Carter Family.

The Wandering Boy, recorded August 2 , 1927 by the Carter Family.

Updated on June 1, 2018.

Victor 20971 – Blue Steele and his Orchestra – 1927

Blue Steele. From 1930 Victor catalog.

Blue Steele. From 1930 Victor catalog.

Perhaps the most commercially successful territory band of the 1920s was that of Blue Steele, who toured the southern United States in the 1920s and 1930s.  In addition to his success in music, Steele was also one of the more interesting characters of the 1920s territory band scene.

The man known as Blue Steele was born Eugene Staples on March 11, 1893 or 1897 in Arkansas.  According to legend, his nickname came from a metal plate he had in his head after being wounded in the Great War.  Perhaps caused by that injury, he was also known for his short temper and erratic behavior.  He started out playing trombone and mellophone in Watson’s Bell Hops, before starting his own band in 1925.  Although Steele filled his band with great musicians, because of his unstable personality and often poor treatment of his employees—he was known to have a habit of throwing punches right into the bells of his band members’ brass instruments—they tended not to stay with him for long, and we can thank Steele for bringing us a number of great talents by scaring them out of his band.  Quite a number of his musicians, including reed man and vocalist Kenny Sargent and guitarist, banjoist, and arranger Gene Gifford moved on to the Casa Loma Orchestra, a band known for their strict code of conduct, which may have been a welcome change from their prior engagement.  Nevertheless, Steele continued to lead successful bands well into the 1950s, despite becoming increasingly unstable as years passed; as legend has it, he murdered a tax agent in Atlanta “for no apparent reason.”  Blue Steele died July 7, 1971.

Victor 20971 was recorded August 26, 1927 in Savannah, Georgia, the first, and probably most successful record by Blue Steele and his Orchestra.  The personnel includes Frank Krisher and Frank Martinez on trumpets, Blue Steele on trombone and mellophone, Sunny Clapp on trombone, Kenny Sargent on clarinet, alto and baritone sax, Roger Sanford on alto sax, Pete Schmidt on tenor sax, Ted Delmarter on banjo and/or guitar, Sol Lewis on piano, Marvin Longfellow on tuba, and Tom Summers on drums.  The session was supervised by Ralph Peer.

The first side of this disk features a waltz, but all you pep-purists never fear, for it’s a good waltz, in fact it’s the first recording of Sunny Clapp’s “Girl of My Dreams, I Love You”.  Kenny Sargent sings the vocal on this side.

Girl of My Dreams, I Love You

Girl of My Dreams, I Love You, recorded August 26, 1927 by Blue Steele and his Orchestra.

On the reverse, they play a peppy tune, “Sugar Babe, I’m Leavin’!”.  In my opinion, this is just about the zenith of music, pretty much perfection.  A vocal trio consisting of Sargent, Pete Schmidt and Steele himself sings on this side.  It’s bandleader Steele that completes this side with his interjection of, “and that’s Sugar Babe.”

Sugar Babe, I'm Leavin'!

Sugar Babe, I’m Leavin’!, recorded August 26, 1927 by Blue Steele and his Orchestra.

Victor 21142 – Jimmie Rodgers – 1927

On this day, September eighth, in the year of our Lord 1897, the Father of Country Music, America’s Blue Yodeler, the great Jimmie Rodgers was born. Rodgers began recording at Victor’s legendary Bristol sessions, and became one of America’s most popular singing stars throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, until his tragic demise from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-five.

James Charles Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi or Geiger, Alabama, after his mother died when he was a child, the young Jimmie spent much of his youth with various relatives before returning to live with his father, a railroad man.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Jimmie began working as a water boy, and later a brakeman for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, though his first love was entertainment.  Working on the railroad, Jimmie Rodgers learned the ways of music from the likes of gandy dancers and hobos.  After tuberculosis put his railroad work on hiatus, Rodgers turned to entertaining, and organized various groups and shows on vaudeville and radio.

In 1927, Ralph Peer headed a recording field trip for Victor records in Bristol, Tennessee, and on August 4 of that year, from 2:00 to 4:30 in the afternoon, Rodgers recorded his first sides, Sleep, Baby, Sleep and The Soldier’s Sweetheart.  After his first record’s moderate success, Jimmie Rodgers traveled north to record further sides and held his second session in Camden, New Jersey.  Achieving great success with his records over the next few years, Rodgers became one of the nations most popular artists, earning nicknames such as “America’s Blue Yodeler” and “The Singing Brakeman”, and later “The Father of Country Music.”  He was also one of the first artists to popularize country music, after Vernon Dalhart.  Ultimately, his tuberculosis caught up with him, and a mere two days after his final recording session, Jimmie Rodgers died in the Taft Hotel in New York City.

Victor 21142, from Jimmie Rodgers’ second recording session, was recorded November 30, 1927 at Victor’s Camden, New Jersey studio and issued in May of 1928.  The record was a hit, and remained in Victor’s catalog for many years, well into the 45 RPM era.

On the first side, Jimmie sings his first of thirteen “Blue Yodels”, this one simply titled “Blue Yodel” here, but also frequently known by the title “T for Texas”.

Blue Yodel, recorded November 30, 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers.

On the flip, Rodgers sings Kelly Harrell’s “Away Out on the Mountain”, which features some of his more elaborate yodeling.

Away Out On the Mountain, recorded November 30, 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers.

Updated with improved audio on November 30, 2018.