May 26, 1933 – James Charles “Jimmie” Rodgers was born on September 8, 1897 near Meridian, Mississippi. His work is often categorized as a country music from the early 20th century, as he was known most widely for his rhythmic yodeling. But his work was much, much more than that. Among the first country music superstars and pioneers, Rodgers was also known as “The Singing Brakeman”, “The Blue Yodeler”, and “The Father of Country Music”. Unfortunately this qualification does very little to support Rodgers’ reputation as a cross over musical giant of early American music.
The Jimmie Rodgers’ music tradition “crosses over several lines of blues, rock and country and we could have added gospel as well. Some of this diversity may not win applause from staunched rockers but it would be sadly inconsistent with Jimmie Rodgers’ openness to multiple influences not to mention him here. While the Blue Yodeler did have a huge “hillbilly” following, his musical appeal was not limited to the sons of Appalachia.
At the time of his death from a pulmonary hemorrhage on May 26, 1933 at age 35, Rodgers accounted for fully 10% of RCA Victor’s sales in a drastically depressed record market.
Rodgers’ affinity for entertaining came at an early age, and the lure of the road was irresistible to him. By age 13, he had twice organized and begun traveling shows, only to be brought home by his father. His father found Rodgers his first job working on the railroad as a water boy. Here he was further taught to pick and strum by rail workers and hobos. As a water boy, he would have been exposed to the work chants of the African American railroad workers known as gandy dancers. A few years later, he became a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, a position formerly secured by his oldest brother, Walter, a conductor on the line running between Meridian and New Orleans.
In 1924 at age 27, Rodgers contracted tuberculosis. The disease temporarily ended his railroad career, but at the same time gave him the chance to get back to the entertainment industry. He organized a traveling road show and performed across the Southeastern United States until, once again, he was forced home after a cyclone destroyed his tent. He returned to railroad work as a brakeman in Miami, Florida, but eventually his illness cost him his job. He relocated to Tucson, Arizona, and was employed as a switchman by the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept the job for less than a year, and the Rodgers family (which by then included wife Carrie and daughter Anita) settled back in Meridian in early 1927.
Later that year he moved to Asheville, North Carolina to pursue his dream of music and from there, in the next 3 years, he became the superstar of the Depression Era music scene.
Following is an outtake of the partnership with his songwriting sister-in law Elsie McWilliams, that catapulted him into the stratosphere of the early Americana song traditions.
No one would deny the sincerity and authenticity of the folk and country music legend Jimmie Rodgers, whose recordings were about as far from commercially concocted drivel as one could possibly get. In an examination of his important collaborations, inevitably, the subject of this little old lady from Mississippi comes up. She wrote, co-wrote, or provided the raw material for many of his most famous songs and it proves true the old adage about not being able to go wrong with good ingredients. And unlike any number of phony baloney songwriters cynically hawking their creations around the gang of Nashville publishers, she wrote songs just to help out her brother in law, who wasn’t feeling so well at the time, was under a lot of pressure, and just might not come up with enough new songs on his own for his next recording sessions.
Elsie McWilliams was the daughter of a reverend and grew up on a farm, learning music from a very early age. She graduated from high school in Meridian in 1917 and then began teaching school herself until she got married. Just as music had been a regular part of her home as a child, she and her husband provided the same kind of environment for the family they began raising, including phonograph records and involvement in church music activities. Her sister Carrie met Jimmie Rodgers in 1920 when he was working for the railroads and they were married even before Elsie had a chance to meet him. Elsie dabbled a bit in piano by playing in some of the ensembles her new brother-in-law got together around the area, but tended to limit her involvement because of her religious upbringing.
Even though Rodgers was not in the best of health, he was still doing a great deal for work related to both his music and the railroad job, his family traveling along with him. It didn’t take too long until he cut the sides for Victor which would become the first of his many smash hits. His voice became a familiar sound on the radio. Just as this excitement was building, Elsie McWilliams received a letter from Jimmie Rodgers in which he pleaded with her to come up with some original ballads, which he spelled “ballards” for future record dates.
Furthermore, “I am too tired and too busy trying to make ends meet to do much about it myself…” he wrote her. What songwriter wouldn’t have responded to such an urgent request? She got into her notebook and pulled out one she had been working on about a friend’s dismal experience in the navy. The song would be called “The Sailor’s Plea” and is a great combination of the heavily sentimental, moralistic country & western song-story and churchy gospel chord changes. She sent this ditty off to Rodgers and received word not to send anything else, she was instead to head north where she could teach songs to him directly while she shuttled back and forth between radio broadcasts in Washington and new Victor sessions in New York City and Camden, NJ. She gathered up all the old ballads she could find from stacks of her mother’s decaying sheet music and packed them up along with her own verses, most of which she had already set to music herself.
What happened when they finally started getting together was described later as being like a song factory of some sort. The results of their work were snatched up by a public that couldn’t seem to get enough of Jimmie Rodgers, despite the fact that even his record label thought he would be a one-hit wonder. Part of the appeal was that a listener never knew what the next record he did would be like. On one record he might be preaching to the audience from some experienced pulpit of wisdom, but on the next the audience would find him locked up in the jailhouse. The next song might be a train song.
Rodgers found a great partner in his sister-in-law for such song maneuvering because her tastes were eclectic and musical interests and capabilities broad. The practice sessions were difficult, as the singer often had to take breaks for serious coughing spells. During this intense atmosphere, McWilliams began to tell the publishers that she wanted no credit or royalties for the songs, she was doing her work only for Rodgers, her sister, and their daughter. The publishers insisted she take credit, a wise move, as her contribution to what Rodgers created was enormous based on the evidence of these songs. There were benefits to her in the end, including some payments that she donated to charity, a quite valuable guitar given to her gratis by the Gibson company, now on display in Meridian’s Jimmie Rodgers Museum, and most important in her opinion, the opportunity to travel to some interesting places. Other famous Rodgers songs that she was involved in writing include “My Old Pal,” “Mississippi Moon,” “Daddy and Home,” “Waiting for a Train,” “Yodeling Cowboy,” and the mighty “Hobo’s Last Ride,” many listeners’ favorite Rodgers song. McWilliams became part of the touring party that accompanied Rodgers as he went around from concert to concert, now making as much as 1000 dollars a week, big money for a country artist in the late ’20s and still more than most punk rock sidemen made on tour in early 2001.
Being on tour was a bit of an eye-opener for the staunchly Methodist woman, and her experiences including being dragged into a burlesque show by Rodgers and his rowdy friends in New Orleans.
The last songs of theirs on which she is credited as a co-writer were cut in 1931, and according to interviews with McWilliams, the actual partnership came to an end in 1929. Now Rodgers himself had more time to write material and was receiving more submissions from other writers than he could process, since everyone wanted Jimmie Rodgers to cut their song.
It was time for Elsie McWilliams to fade back into her home and family, a development she couldn’t have minded much having never had any great desire for commercial success. Nonetheless, a list of her songwriting credits could easily whale the tar out of many songwriting teams. Material she created completely aside from the relationship with Rodgers was recorded by country great Ernest Tubb and Bill Bruner. Tubb, who had a close relationship with Rodger’s widow, also recorded several songs she wrote about the death of Jimmie Rodgers, including the “Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers,” which an individual with a weak stomach might find verges on the morbid. Of course, the Rodgers songs she helped write remained her gold mine, whether she wanted it that way or not. In that capacity, she can make a claim that any songwriter would love to, mainly that her works have been sung by the likes of Doc Watson, the Carter Family, the Blasters, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, and Bob Wills, to name just a few.
Jimmie Rodgers’ Legacy
Rodgers’ legacy and influence is definitely not limited to country music.
• When the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was established in 1961, Rodgers was one of the first three (the others were music publisher and songwriter Fred Rose and singer-songwriter Hank Williams) to be inducted.
• Rodgers was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and, as an early influence, to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
• “Blue Yodel No. 9” was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame‘s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
• Rodgers was ranked No. 33 on CMT’s 40 Greatest Men of Country Music in 2003.
Since 1953, Meridian’s Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival has been held annually during May to honor the anniversary of Rodgers’ death. The first festival was on May 26, 1953.
A song collected by ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey in 1950 from the Kipsigis tribe, titled “Chemirocha”, was written in honor of Jimmie Rodgers. According to legend, tribe members were exposed to Rodgers’ music through British soldiers during World War II. Impressed by his yodeling, they envisioned Rodgers as “a faun, half-man and half-antelope.”
Both Gene Autry and then future Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis (author of “You Are My Sunshine”) began their careers as Jimmie Rodgers copyists and Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell later did tribute albums. In 1997 Bob Dylan put together a tribute compilation of major artists covering Rodgers’ songs, “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, A Tribute”. The artists included Bono, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Jerry Garcia, Dickey Betts, Dwight Yoakam, Aaron Neville, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and others.
Dylan had earlier once remarked, “The songs were different than the norm. They had more of an individual nature and an elevated conscience… I was drawn to their power.”
In 1969, country singer Merle Haggard released Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings The Great Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers. Haggard also covered “No Hard Times” and “T.B. Blues” on his best-selling live albums “Okie From Muskogee” (1969) and “Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970). “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” was covered by Lynyrd Skynyrd (sometimes announced as “(Gimme A) T For Texas (T For Tennessee)” later on) on their live album One More from the Road. Frontman Ronnie van Zandt has also been quoted from a concert of July 13, 1977 intermission in Asbury Park, New Jersey as saying that they’ve “always been interested in old country music” like Jimmie Rodgers and Merle Haggard before launching into playing “T For Texas”. Lynyrd Skynyrd has also named both Haggard and Rodgers in their song “Railroad Song” (“I’m going to ride this train, Lord, until I find out, what Jimmie Rodgers and The Hag was all about”) Tompall Glaser has also covered a version that was included on country music’s first million-selling album, Wanted! The Outlaws.
Fellow Meridian, MS native Steve Forbert’s tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers, Any Old Time, was nominated for a 2004 Grammy in the best traditional folk category.
On May 24, 1978, the United States Postal Service issued a 13-cent commemorative stamp honoring Rodgers, the first in its long-running Performing Arts Series. The stamp was designed by Jim Sharpe (who did several others in this series), who depicted him with brakeman’s outfit and guitar, giving his “two thumbs up”, along with a locomotive in silhouette in the background.
The 2009 book “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century” tracks Rodgers influence through a broad range of musical genres, internationally. He was influential to Ozark poet Frank Stanford, who composed a series of “blue yodel” poems, and a number of later blues artists. Rodgers was one of the biggest stars of American music between 1927 and 1933 (the Depression Era), arguably doing more to popularize blues than any other performer of his time. Rodgers influenced many later blues artists, among them Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, and Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf. Jimmie Rodgers was Wolf’s childhood idol. Wolf tried to emulate Rodgers’s yodel, but found that his efforts sounded more like a growl or a howl. “I couldn’t do no yodelin’,” Barry Gifford quoted him as saying in Rolling Stone, “so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.”
Rodgers’ influence can also be heard in artists including Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, and Mississippi John Hurt, whose “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me” is based on Rodgers’ hit “Waiting on a Train”. Elvis Presley has also been quoted as mentioning Jimmie Rodgers as an important influence and stating that he was a big fan. Jerry Lee Lewis listed Rodgers as a major stylist and covered many of his songs. Moon Mullican, Tommy Duncan and many other western swing singers also were influenced by him. Gene Autry’s earlier material largely copied Rodgers’ blues records. Johnny Cash (who also covered Rodgers’ “In The Jailhouse Now”) tries to emulate Rodgers’ signature yodel on a duet of “Hey, Porter” with Marty Stuart on his 1982 album Busy Bee Cafe with Earl Scruggs on banjo, but Cash admits, after coughing, that he can’t yodel “like Jimmie Rodgers used to”.
The 1982 film, Honkytonk Man, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood was loosely based on Rodgers’ life.
In “Cleaning Windows,” Van Morrison sings about listening to Rodgers, but this is more likely to refer to Jimmy Rogers, the blues singer, as Morrison is singing about other blues singers in the same song, and does not mention any other Country and Western singers.
In the book, Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, the song “T.B. Blues” is presented as one of the first truly autobiographical songs.
On May 28, 2010, Slim Bryant, the last surviving singer to have made a recording with Rodgers, died at the age of 101. They recorded Bryant’s song “Mother, the Queen of My Heart” in 1932. The Union, a collaborative album between Elton John and Leon Russell, featured a song entitled “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream”, which was a tribute to Rodgers.
In May 2010, a second marker, on the Mississippi Country Music Trail, was erected near Rodgers’ gravesite, marking his role as The Father of Country Music.
In 2013, Rodgers was posthumously inducted to the Blues Hall of Fame.