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 eagerly present to you valued readers a record that stands out particularly in the annals of history (as well as in my collection), one of the unquestionably 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.
Before delving into its history, I must digress to say that this record is something of a “holy grail” to me, it’s one I sought for a long, long time, and no tongue can tell the joy 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 thin LP mailer without the slightest damage—and boy is it a thing to behold.
Victor 23503 was recorded on the tenth and eleventh of July, 1930 in Hollywood, California, and released 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 labels, 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 appearing at the time 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, resulting in a total of fourteen sides cut between thirtieth of June and the sixteenth of July—plus the unusual and unreleased test recording of an Amos ‘n’ Andy style comedy sketch with one I.N. Bronson, titled “The Pullman Porters”.
In the latter of the two sessions, after warming up with the railroad ballad “The Mystery of Number Five” (Victor 23518), Jimmie cut the eight installment in his series of thirteen “Blue Yodel” songs, “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)”, in only one take (though second and third takes were recorded, the first was released), with those being the only two sides he recorded that day. It was originally slated to be released as the ninth Blue Yodel song, with another being the eighth, but that recording was deemed inferior and held back until after Rodgers’ passing, at which time it was released as “Blue Yodel Number Eleven”.
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. The song was resurrected at the beginning of the next decade by Grand Ole Opry players Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff (separately), which in turn inspired many times subsequent covers. 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.” While remarkably tastefully executed, the re-do cut down Rodgers’ guitar solo significantly, supposedly because Chet Atkins—who led the band—could not figure it out. In later years, the song has been covered by numerous others in many different genres, such as the Fendermen’s rockabilly version.
In addition to being one of Jimmie’s most enduring songs, this number holds a special place in my heart as the song that introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers, and it has always been one of my favorites—if not my very favorite. 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, and May 31, 2019.
Cliff Carlisle was born in Taylorsville, Kentucky in 1903 one of quite a number of singers that started out as something of a copyist of Jimmie Rodgers, and in fact recorded with him on steel guitar in one 1931 session. He started out recording in 1930 with guitarist and vocalist Wilber Ball for the Starr Piano Company (Gennett) in Richmond, Indiana. After Ball left the act in 1934, Cliff began playing with his younger brother Bill Carlisle, who eventually eclipsed Cliff in popularity. The two brothers continued recording, both together and separately, well into the 1950s, when Cliff retired. Cliff Carlisle died in 1983 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Champion 16212 was recorded February 13, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana, and features Wilber Ball on second guitar. According to the sales figures presented by the Old Time Herald, this record sold 1,461 copies, not a whole lot by any means, but a pretty decent seller by 1931 Champion standards.
One of Cliff’s standards, which he recorded on more than one occasion (this one being the first), “The Brakeman’s Reply” has quite a twist ending; you’ll have to listen…
The Brakeman’s Reply, recorded February 13, 1931 by Cliff Carlisle.
“Box Car Blues” is a perfect example of the kind of rip-roaring steel guitar and hollering yodeling at which Cliff Carlisle so excelled. Just listen to that guitar!
Box Car Blues, recorded February 13, 1931 by Cliff Carlisle.
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.
Around this time of the year, the weather starts to heat up, and on trees all around the South (and California), the peaches begin to ripen, so I figure what better time to listen to this classic by the Father of Country Music, Mr. Jimmie Rodgers.
Victor number 23781, issued in their special 23500 series intended for rural audiences, was recorded late in Jimmie Rodgers’ career on August 15 and 29, 1932 in Camden, New Jersey. It was issued in April of 1933, a mere two months before Rodgers’ untimely death. I had the fortune of finding this great record in the backroom of one of my favorite record stores down in Austin.
First up, Jimmie sings “Peach Picking Time Down in Georgia”, recorded on the earlier date, accompanied by members of Clayton McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats, including the great McMichen on fiddle, who shares composer’s credit for the tune, on fiddle, Oddie McWinders picking the banjo, and Hoyt “Slim” Bryant filling in for the ailing Rodgers on guitar.
Peach Picking Time Down in Georgia, recorded August 15, 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers.
Next, Jimmie sings the waltzy, western themed “Prairie Lullaby”, recorded on the later date, again with Slim Bryant on guitar, and an unknown accompaniment on two violins, clarinet, and piano. This could be classified as one of Jimmie’s efforts to tailor his music to the tastes of the popular music consumer of 1932, still makes for fine listening.
Prairie Lullaby, recorded August 29, 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers.
Updated on January 1, 2017, and with improved audio on July 6, 2017.