Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), known as "The Mississippi Blue Yodeler" and "The Singing Brakeman,"was the first nationally-known country music star. He influenced many later performers from Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb to Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard. Rodgers was the first musician to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Born in Meridian, Mississippi, on September 8, 1897, Rodgers grew up in hard times. He was the third son of Aaron Rodgers, a maintenance-of-way railroad foreman for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. His mother died when he was four and Rodgers went to live with his mother's sister, a former teacher who had degrees in music and English. She introduced him to many kinds of music, including vaudeville, pop, and dance hall ditties. He was a wild boy and, when he returned to his father in 1912, he hung out in pool halls and seedy bars, though never got into serious trouble.
At the age of 12, he sang "Steamboat Bill" at a talent contest and won. It was his first taste of fame and he decided to start his own traveling show. His father tracked him down and brought him home, but Rodgers ran away again to join a medicine show-a traveling combination of entertainment and live commercials for mostly-useless and often dangerous medical remedies. By the time his father tracked him down again, Rodgers had had enough of life on the road. When his father gave him the choice of going to school or working on the railroad, Rodgers chose the railroad. He taught himself to play banjo, ukelele, and guitar and learned train songs, barroom ballads, slave songs, and blues tunes from the other railway men.
Rodgers worked as a brakeman for the New Orleans & Northeastern railroad for the next ten years, traveling along the south and west coasts. This was how he earned his nickname, "The Singing Brakeman."
In May, 1917, he married Sandra Kelly, whom he had known for only a few weeks. By the fall, they were already separated, even though she was pregnant. Two years later they officially were divorced and Rodgers met Carrie Williamson, a high-school student and preacher's daughter. They married in April, 1920, while she was still in school.
Soon after the marriage, Rodgers was laid off by the railroad and the couple entered some hard times. Rodgers took odd jobs and sang whenever he could. He was on the road performing when he received word that their second daughter, who was only six weeks old, had died of diphtheria.
In 1923, Rodgers contracted pneumonia and the following year was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Despite his doctor's advice, he left the hospital and formed a trio with fiddler Slim Rozell and his sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams. Rodgers had taught himself to play and sing, and was not able to read or write music; he relied on McWilliams for help. The two collaborated on writing the songs that Americans would be singing throughout the late 1920s and 1930s.
Rodgers sang with the trio, performed comedy skits in medicine shows, and continued to work for the railroad. Because he believed that a warm, dry climate would help his tuberculosis, he moved his family to Tucson, Arizona, and continued to sing there. The railroad, saying his performing interfered with his job, fired him.
Rodgers and his family then moved to Meridian, Mississippi, where they lived with Carrie's parents before moving again, this time to Asheville, North Carolina, in 1927. Although Rodgers planned to take another railroad job, his tuberculosis had advanced to the point where he was unable to do the work, and he took odd jobs as a janitor and cab driver, sang on a local radio station and took whatever other singing jobs he could find.
Recorded with RCA Victor
Rodgers moved to Johnson City, Tennessee, where he joined a string band called the Tenneva Ramblers. This group was a trio before Rodgers arrived but he convinced them to let him be the lead performer because he already had a regular radio show back in Asheville. The group performed regularly on the radio and at local concerts.
Ralph Peer, a talent scout for RCA Victor records, came to Bristol, Tennessee, to record country and string bands. These recording sessions were the first time anyone had made an effort to record white rural music, known as "hillbilly music," for nationwide sale. The recordings, including those of Rodgers and the Carter Family, encouraged the beginnings of the country music industry.
Rodgers heard about the auditions and convinced the band to travel to Bristol. On the night before the audition, they had a heated argument about whose name should be billed first and the Tenneva Ramblers broke away from Rodgers, telling him to sing on his own. According to a biography on the Jimmierodgers.com, website, Rodgers said, "All right… I'll just sing one myself," and went to the audition anyway. He wanted to sing his signature song, "T for Texas," but Peer rejected that and instead recorded two songs, "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep." For these recordings, he was paid $100.
The record was released in October 1927. Although it wasn't a hit, Victor Records agreed to record more of Rodgers' songs. In November 1927, he recorded four songs, including "T for Texas," which was retitled "Blue Yodel," a song that gave Rodgers another nickname. "Blue Yodel," one of a very few early country records that sold over a million copies, led to success for Rodgers. He would eventually record 14 variations of "Blue Yodel," which Tom Piazza described in http://www.sony.music as "Loosely strung outlaw blues lyrics, sung in a sly, jaunty manner, alternated with Rodgers' trademark yodel in a unique overlay of the Southern rounder and the Western cowboy, literally and symbolically representing a blending of the streams of white and black rural music."
Other singers of the Appalachian mountain music known as "Old Time Music" stayed within their traditional folk-music boundaries. But Rodgers blended country, gospel, jazz, blues, pop, cowboy, and folk and wrote most of his own best-loved songs. He also brought his distinctive yodeling style into his music. A biography in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame remarks, "Although Rodgers wasn't the first to yodel on records, his style was distinct from all the others. His yodel wasn't merely sugar-coating on the song, it was as important as the lyric, mournful and plaintive or happy and carefree, depending on a song's emotional content." He sometimes sang to his guitar only, but on other songs he had a full jazz band, including horns-very different from the traditional mountain string band.
Rodgers' songs spoke to Americans, many of whom had endured hard times. Fans responded to his humble background, honest singing and playing, and his drive to overcome poverty and illness. In addition, his songs were simple and easy to understand. As Tom Piazza wrote, "His career was a meeting point for images and folk material from the American South and West, from black and white traditions, and it offered clues to ways in which that material could be blended into the mainstream of popular music.… His songs… evoked both the expansive frontier spirit and the longing, backward glance toward home. Along with the Carter Family and others, he was both a preserver and a popularizer of a precious body of expression."
First Country Music Star
Rodgers moved his family to Washington, D.C. He began singing on a weekly radio show as the "Singing Brakeman." Rodgers recorded more songs, including the four hits "Way Out on the Mountain," "Blue Yodel No. 4," "Waiting for a Train" and "In the Jailhouse Now." Ralph Peer and Rodgers experimented with the accompaniment, sometimes recording him with unlikely combinations such as a jazz band that included Louis Armstrong, jug bands, orchestras, and a Hawaiian combo.
By 1929, Rodgers was a star. He made a short film, titled The Singing Brakeman, recorded more songs, and made national tours. Although he was financially successful, all the money in the world couldn't stop the progress of his tuberculosis. He worked hard anyway, perhaps knowing that he would die young and wanting to make more money for his family's future. He recorded more songs, toured with Will Rogers on a Red Cross fund-raising mission to help farmers affected by a long drought in the southern states and built a home for his family in Kerrville, Texas.
Rodgers was deeply affected by the decline in the American economy. The Great Depression brought concert bookings and record sales to a virtual halt. Despite these difficulties, he continued to record new songs. In the six short years of his career, he recorded 127 songs.
In 1932, Rodgers recorded with the original Carter Family, but was so ill by then that he could barely lift his guitar. Mother Maybelle Carter played and sang for him. "I had to play like him, you know, so everybody would think it was him. But it was me," she said, according to the Jimmie Rodgers Home Page.
Rodgers knew his health was rapidly declining and, according to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, told his wife Carrie, "I want to die with my shoes on." He kept performing wherever he could, at vaudeville shows and radio programs. At one radio program in San Antonio, Texas, he collapsed from exhaustion and ended up in the hospital. Knowing death was near, he called Peer and told him to set up one more recording session in New York City in May of 1933. In this, his last recording session, tuberculosis had left him so weak and ill that a cot had to be set up in the studio so he could rest in between songs. In eight days, he recorded twelve songs.
Rodgers slipped into a coma and died of a massive lung hemorrhage in New York City on May 26, 1933. He was 35 years old. His body was taken to Meridian by train in a converted baggage car. The train's engineer blew its whistle throughout the journey. In Meridian, hundreds of country music fans were waiting. His body lay in state for several days to allow the fans to pay tribute to their beloved idol.
A brass plaque dedicated to Rodgers in the Country Music Hall of Fame records that "Jimmie Rodgers' name stands foremost in the country music field as the man who started it all." His influence can still be heard in today's country singers, rock and rollers and blues greats like Blind Boy Fuller and Peetie Wheatstraw. Fans can visit the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial and Museum in Meridian, Mississippi, and attend the Jimmie Rodgers Festival, which is held in Kerrville, Texas, each year.
Bob Dylan wrote in the liner notes to a 1997 tribute album: "Jimmie Rodgers, of course, is one of the guiding lights of the twentieth century, whose way with song has always been an inspiration to those of us who have followed the path. … He was a performer of force without precedent with a sound as lonesome and mystical as it was dynamic. He gives hope to the vanquished and humility to the mighty."
Further Reading on Jimmie Rodgers
"Jimmie Rodgers," Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, http://www.rockhall.com/induct/rodgjimm.html (February 23, 1999).
"Jimmie Rodgers: 1993 Inductee, John Herbert Orr Pioneer Award," Alabama Music Hall of Fame, http://www.alamhof.org/rodgersj.htm (February 23, 1999).
"Jimmie Rodgers: Biography," http://jimmierodgers.com/Main/Biography/biography.html (February 23, 1999).
"Jimmie Rodgers: Biography," Sony Music, http://www.conymusic.com/artists/JimmieR…s/TheSongsOfJimmieRodgers/biography.html (February 23, 1999).
"Jimmie Rodgers' Biography," http://www.ping.be/ml-cmb/jrbio.htm (February 23, 1999).
"Jimmie Rodgers: The Father of Country Music," Discover Texas, http://www.discover-texas.com/jimmie/ (February 23, 1999).
"Jimmie Rodgers-'The Singing Brakeman'," http://www.ils.unc>.edu/dolma/rodgers.html (February 23, 1999).
"Songs of Jimmie Rodgers Resonate Still," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stlnet.com/pdnews/jrodgers/ (February 23, 1999).