|Birth name||James Charles Rodgers|
|Also known as||The Singing Brakeman
The Blue Yodeler
|Born||September 8, 1897|
or Pine Springs, Mississippi
or Geiger, Alabama
|Died||May 26, 1933|
|Associated acts||The Tenneva Ramblers
James Charles "Jimmie" Rodgers (September 8, 1897 – May 26, 1933) was the first great country music recording artist. Known as "The Singing Brakeman," Rodgers' records were widely popular and, together with those of the Carter Family, laid the foundations for the success of the country music business.
Especially in his famous "Blue Yodels," Rodgers' songs often followed the pattern of traditional 12-bar blues, although he also sang ballads, folk songs, upbeat Dixieland-style numbers, and even cowboy tunes. He is remembered most, however, for his songs about trains and life on the railroad. A highly original lyricist, his compositions provided country music with some of its most memorable verses.
The historic recordings of Rogers and the Carter Family in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927 popularized a white vernacular music that both paralleled and intersected African American blues and folk music in racially divided America. Both traditions would shape later popular music, notably in the ground-breaking recordings of Elvis Presley.
In his short six-year career, from 1927-1933, Rodgers became a major star, whose style strongly influenced many of the major country artists of the next generation. He was one of the first inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame and is generally recognized as the "Father of Country Music."
James Charles Rodgers was born on September 8, 1897, in Meridian, Mississippi, the youngest of three sons. His mother died when he was very young, and Rodgers spent the next few years living with various relatives in southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama. He eventually returned home to live with his father, Aaron Rodgers, a foreman on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, who had settled with a new wife in Meridian. He spent much of his early life accompanying his father on railroad jobs. 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.
My pocketbook is empty, my heart is full of pain
I'm a thousand miles away from home, waiting for a train
His father also found Jimmie his first job, working as a railroad waterboy. This is where he learned the cries and moans of the blues and was taught to pick and strum by the rail workers and the hobos. A few years later, he became brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, a position secured by his oldest brother, Walter, a conductor on the line running between Meridian and New Orleans. This was both a difficult and dangerous job, since in the days before air brakes, the brakeman had to stop the train by running on top of the moving train from car to car setting mechanical brakes on each one.
Rodgers continued working as a brakeman until 1924, when, at the age of 27, he contracted tuberculosis. The disease temporarily ended his railroad career, but it also gave him the chance to get back to his first love, entertainment. He organized a traveling road show and performed across the southeast until he was forced home after a cyclone destroyed his tent. He returned to railroad work as a brakeman on the east coast of Florida at Miami, but eventually his illness cost him his job. He relocated to Tucson, Arizona, and was employed as a switchman by the Southern Pacific. The job lasted less than a year, and the Rodgers family (which by then included wife, Carrie, and daughter, Anita) had settled back in Meridian by early 1927.
Sleep, baby, sleep; close your bright eyes
Listen while your daddy sings a sweet little lullaby
Rodgers decided to travel to Asheville, North Carolina, later that same year. On April 18, he and Otis Kuykendall performed for the first time on WWNC, Asheville’s first radio station. A few months later, Jimmie recruited a backing group from Tennessee called the Tenneva Ramblers and secured a weekly slot on the station as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers.
The Tenneva Ramblers originally hailed from Bristol, Tennessee, and in late July 1927, Rodgers’ band-mates got word that Ralph Peer, a representative of the Victor Talking Machine Company, was coming to Bristol to audition and record area musicians. Rodgers and the group arrived in Bristol on August 3. Later that same day, they auditioned for Peer in an empty warehouse. Peer agreed to record them the next day. That night, as the band discussed how they would be billed on the record, an argument ensued and the band broke up, so that Rodgers arrived at the recording session alone. On August 4, Rodgers completed his first session for Victor. It yielded two songs: “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” and the lullaby “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.” For the test recordings, Rodgers received $100.
The recordings were released on October 7, 1927, to modest success. In November, Rodgers headed to New York City, in an effort to arrange another session. Peer agreed to record him again, and the two met in Philadelphia before traveling to Camden, New Jersey, to the Victor studios. Songs recorded at this session, included “Blue Yodel,” better known as “T for Texas.” In the next two years, this recording sold nearly half a million copies and propelled Rodgers into stardom, selling out shows whenever and wherever he played.
I'm going where the water tastes like cherry wine
Because this Georgia water tastes like turpentine
In 1929, as Rodgers' popularity increased and his tuberculosis became worse, he and his wife moved to Kerrville, Texas, seeking a drier climate. He built a $25,000 two-story brick mansion in Kerrville that he called his "Blue Yodeler's Paradise." However, Kerrville was too quiet for Jimmie, and by the autumn of 1930, he had moved into a permanent suite at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio.
In the next few years, Rodgers was very busy. He did a movie short for Columbia Pictures, The Singing Brakeman, and made various recordings across the country. He toured with humorist Will Rogers as part of a Red Cross tour across the Midwest. In July 16, 1930, he recorded “Blue Yodel No. 9,” with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, whose wife, Lillian, played piano on the recording.
By the time of Rodgers' sessions in August 1932, it was clear that tuberculosis was getting the better of him. He had given up touring by that time but performed on his weekly radio show in San Antonio.
My good gal's trying to make a fool out of me
Trying to make me believe I ain't got that old T.B.
In May 1933, Rodgers traveled again to New York City for a group of sessions beginning May 17. He started these sessions recording alone and completed four songs on the first day. When he returned to the studio after a day’s rest, he had to record sitting down and soon retreated to his hotel in hopes of regaining enough energy to finish the songs he had been rehearsing. Other reports indicate that he needed to rest on a cot between sessions in order to gather strength.
The recording engineer hired two session musicians to back Rodgers when he came back to the studio a few days later. Together they recorded a few songs, including “Mississippi Delta Blues.” For his last song of the session, however, Rodgers chose to perform alone, and as a matching bookend to his career, recorded “Years Ago,” by himself.
Jimmie Rodgers died two days later on May 26, 1933. He was 35 years old.
Although traditionally known as the first great country artist, Rodgers can also be seen as a white blues singer, singing traditional blues lyrics and accompanying himself on guitar. Many of his recordings are also done in Dixieland jazz style, complete with accompaniment by trumpets and clarinets.
More than a dozen of Rodgers' songs bear the generic title "Blue Yodel" with a number, following the classic 12-bar blues pattern, followed by Rodgers' trademark "blue yodel" turn-around at the end. Rodgers' yodeling consisted of vocalized falsetto country-blues licks that in other performers might have been provided by a lead instrument. The first, "Blue Yodel #1," is better known from its refrain, "T for Texas, T for Tennessee," while "Blue Yodel # 8" is usually known as "Muleskinner Blues."
Rodgers' songs, most of which he wrote himself, were typically either sentimental songs about home, family, and sweethearts, or takes on the lives of hoboes, "rounders," and his beloved railroads and railroaders, on his own hard life and happy marriage. Many had an autobiographical element, ranging from his feelings for his infant child ("Sleep Baby, Sleep") to hoboing in Texas ("Waiting for a Train").
His voice had a haunting quality, and his yodels were unexpectedly complex in tone. His performance style is unique and immediately identifiable.
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 (Bob Dylan).
Rodgers' influence on the later country music tradition is hard to overstate. Many important country stars of the 40s and 50s site him as a major influence, particularly those in the genre of honky tonk country music. Among those in whom his influence is particularly strong are Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Snow. Country stars from Bill Monroe to Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard have covered his songs.
When the Country Music Hall of Fame was established in 1961, Rodgers was one of the first three to be inducted, together with Fred Rose and Hank Williams. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and, as an early influence, to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. His "Blue Yodel #9," featuring Louis Armstrong on trumpet, was selected as one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
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 depicted him with brakeman's outfit and guitar, giving his "two thumbs up," along with a locomotive in silhouette in the background.
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