Known as the “Singing Brakeman” and “America’s Blue Yodeler”, James Charles Rodgers, better known as Jimmie Rodgers, was a pioneering country music star. He has been regarded as the Father of Country Music, combining elements from different genres, including jazz, folk music and work chants.
Born on September 8, 1987, the son of a railroad section foreman, Jimmie was attracted to music from a young age. At 13, he won an amateur talent show and soon after ran away to join a traveling medicine show. His father found him and brought Rodgers back to work on the railroad. During the early 1900s, he worked as everything from a call boy to a brakeman to a baggage master.
In 1924, he developed tuberculosis – a disease that would plague him throughout his life and lead to his death – he abandoned railroad work and devoted himself to music. He wouldn’t, however, find success until 1927 working a regular, unpaid spot on an Asheville, North Carolina, radio station.
His luck turned again, when he learned that Ralph Peer, an agent for Victor Talking Machine Company, was doing field recordings. There was a positive response to his release, and he wound up recording again for Peer, leading to the release of “Blue Yodel (T for Texas), which became his first big hit.
Rodgers would spend the next five years traveling across the nation, appearing in a movie and recording with famous stars, including the Carter Family, Bill Boyd and Louis Armstrong.
The Depression mainly put a stop to his career, and his health started failing. Rodgers would die on May 26, 1933.
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Jimmie Rodgers (1897 – 1933) is widely known as the “father of country music,” but blues was a prominent element of his music. The influence of his famous “blue yodels” can be heard in the music of Mississippi blues artists including Howlin’ Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt, Tommy Johnson, and the Mississippi Sheiks. His many songs include the autobiographical “T.B. Blues,” which addressed the tuberculosis that eventually took his life.
Jimmie Rodgers and The Blues Meridian native Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) was the first major star of country music and introduced the blues to a far wider audience than any other artist of his time, black or white. He was not the first white performer to interpret the blues, but he was the most popular, establishing the blues as a foundation of country music.
More than a third of Rodgers’s recordings were blues, which he encountered as a young man while working as a railway brakeman and traveling musician. In 1927 he recorded the song “Blue Yodel” that sold over a million copies and earned Rodgers the nickname “The Blue Yodeler.” His distinctive style mixed blues, European yodeling, and African American falsetto singing traditions. Before Rodgers, several African Americans, notably Charles Anderson, had specialized in yodeling, and in 1923 blues singers Bessie Smith and Sara Martin recorded Clarence Williams’s song, “Yodeling Blues.”
Although most of Rodgers’s songs were original, some of his most popular were versions of blues classics. “Frankie and Johnnie” was an African American ballad about a murder in St. Louis in 1899, and blues artists including Jim Jackson from Hernando, Mississippi, had made earlier recordings of “In the Jailhouse Now.” Rodgers employed African American musicians in the studio, including Louis Armstrong, who, along with his pianist wife Lil, backed Rodgers on “Blue Yodel No. 9.” Other sessions featured blues guitarist Clifford Gibson and the Louisville Jug Band.
In early 1929 Rodgers toured Mississippi with a vaudeville show that included blues singer Eva Thomas. Bluesmen who claimed to have met, traveled, or performed with Rodgers included Hammie Nixon, Rubin Lacy, and Houston Stackhouse, who recalled that he and Robert Nighthawk accompanied Rodgers in a show at the Edwards Hotel in Jackson (c. 1931). Rodgers’s influence on African American musicians from Mississippi is evident in recordings by the Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson, Furry Lewis, Scott Dunbar, and Mississippi John Hurt, whose song “Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me” was based on Rodgers’s “Waiting For A Train.” Howlin’ Wolf attributed his distinctive singing style to Rodgers, explaining, “I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.”
If you don’t want me mama,
you sure don’t have to stall
If you don’t want me mama,
you sure don’t have to stall.
‘Cause I can get more women
than a passenger train can haul
Oh-da-lay-ee-oh, lay-ee-ay, lay-ee
“Blue Yodel” Jimmie Rodgers
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