I’m told that my paternal grandfather (whom I don’t remember; he died before I was two years old) was a great fan of Jimmie Rodgers, arguably the first country music solo superstar. Papaw was of that generation that owned all Rodgers’s records on those plate-like old 78s. Papaw was a bit of a binge drinker, and in his cups liked to sing Rodgers’s songs; he could sing them exactly like his idol.
James Charles “Jimmie” Rodgers (1897-1933) was not only the biggest selling solo artist of his time; he was also the first country singer cut down in his prime, by the most remorseless of all diseases of the time. A native of Meridian, Mississippi, he had the entertainment bug early on and by the time he was thirteen years old had already twice organized and performed in his own traveling music shows, only to be taken home by his father, a foreman on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. Aaron Rodgers got his youngest son his first job on the railroad; Jimmie began at the very bottom, as a waterboy. There were compensations; he learned to play guitar and sing blues from black rail workers and hoboes. Eventually Jimmie worked his way up to brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, a job he lost when he contracted the dread disease–tuberculosis–that would finally kill him.
At first, when he had to leave the railroad, Jimmie got back into his great love, entertainment; he had his own traveling tent show (again) until a cyclone destroyed his tent. He was forced to go back to work as a brakeman, this time in Miami, but his illness soon cost him that job. During this period he had married; he and his wife Carrie had one child, a daughter whom they named Anita. After Miami, the little family relocated to Tucson, Arizona, presumbly hoping the drier climate would help his lungs. A job as a switchman on the fabled Southern Pacific Railroad ended when his illness worsened. That time, he left the railroad for good, returning to his hometown of Meridian in 1927.
In April of that year, he began performing with a group from the Tennessee side of Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia, the Tenneva Ramblers, at radio station WWNC in Asheville, North Carolina. In July, the group traveled to Bristol after hearing that Victor Records (later RCA Victor) talent scout Ralph Peer was seeking to record new talent. The night before their session, the band had a brawl that ended in them breaking up–a very early instance of a group ending their association because of “creative differences,” no doubt–and Jimmie was recorded as a solo act on August 4, 1927. He made two recordings that day: “Soldier’s Sweetheart,” a sentimental World War I piece, and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.” Also recorded by Peer that day was country’s first supergroup, now known as the Original Carter Family.
Rodgers’s records sold moderately well, and he recorded again in November of the same year in Camden, New Jersey. That session produced the first of the famous series known as the “Blue Yodels,” “Blue Yodel #1 (T for Texas).” That record sold half a million copies–a gigantic success.
Rodgers’s yodels are relatively simple compared to, say, Swiss yodeling and the kind done later by Patsy Montana, Roy Rogers and others. He would sing a verse, then vocalize a series of notes and syllables that have been compared to the moaning whistle of a freight train. Rodgers himself once called them “curlicues I can make with my throat”. I think he used them much as other musicians would use instrumental fills; he seldom had any accompaniment other than his own guitar.
There were thirteen in the series of “Blue Yodels”; the most famous were the aforementioned #1, #8 (“Mule Skinner Blues” released in 1931 and, after it was recorded by Bill Monroe, a standard in the bluegrass repertoire), #9 (“Standin’ On the Corner”, 1931, with instrumental accompaniment from Louis Armstrong and Armstrong’s wife, Lillian Hardin) and “Jimmie Rodgers’s Last Blue Yodel (The Women Make a Fool Out of Me”), recorded on May 18, 1933, but not released until after his death.
By 1932, it was apparent that the TB he had battled most of his adult life was finally killing him. He gave up touring and relocated to San Antonio, Texas, where he had a weekly radio show and a home he called "Blue Yodeler's Paradise." In May 1933, already dying, he went to New York City to record his last songs, completing the sessions on May 24 and dying two days later in his hotel room of a pulmonary hemorrhage.
Many of Rodgers's one hundred recorded songs were about trains and the men who worked around them, rode on them and died on them. One of his earliest was "Ben Dewberry's Final Run," about a engineer who dies in a wreck. My favorites are "Hobo Bill's Last Ride," a ballad about a hobo dying in a freight car; "Hobo's Meditation," a philosophical piece speculating about what heaven will be like for a hobo; and "Waitin' For a Train," about a hobo kicked off a train in Texas.
Rodgers greatly influenced such later singers as Hank Williams Sr., who began his sliding-note vocals because he couldn't yodel; Ernest Tubb, who could yodel until he had his tonsils out (!); and Hank Snow, who sang Rodgers's songs with a passion and precision the Singing Brakeman would have been proud of–but Snow didn't yodel, either. Bill Monroe transformed the blue yodel from its genially lazy "ah dee oh lady de ooda lay dee" to something infinitely faster; a Monroe yodel leaves most singers gasping.
Rodgers, along with Hank Williams Sr. and Williams's producer/mentor Fred Rose, was one of the three first members inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence in 1997.
Rodgers is, of all country singers, the one most associated with train songs, and his are still amazing to listen to; they are brilliantly written and performed, and preserve a way of life long gone.