Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


RODGERS, Jimmie (The Singing Brakeman)

(b James Charles Rodgers, 8 September 1897, Meridian MS; d 26 May 1933, NYC) Singer-songwriter, guitarist; the first country music star of lasting importance. (In his application to join a lodge in San Antonio '32, Rodgers listed his birthplace as Geiger AL, a small town near the MS border.) He worked on railroads, learned music from workmates and hoboes; black and white. First recorded for Ralph Peer in Bristol TN August 1927 (same day Peer first recorded the Carter family). He made 110 sides in less than five years, the last two days before death from TB. Worked vaudeville, tent show circuits; made The Singing Brakeman short film '29; did benefit concerts for dust bowl farmers with humorist Will Rogers '31; had radio show on KMAC (San Antonio TX) '32--33.

Emmett Miller (who recorded 'Lovesick Blues' '20s, big hit for Hank Williams '49) was said to have introduced yodelling to country music, others said it was Riley Puckett; calling himself a 'popular entertainer', Rodgers combined yodelling with twelve-bar blues; recorded sometimes solo, often with a small band, often with Hawaiian guitar: the guitar had been imported to Hawaii with Spanish and Portuguese cowboys in the mid-19th century; the Hawaiians invented slack tuning (called ki ho alu), also open- chord tunings; Joseph Kekeku was the first to fret the guitar with a comb instead of his fingers, inventing slide guitar; by '30s hot Hawaiian guitar had been popular in vaudeville and restaurants for a decade (King Bennie Nawahi played jazz and blues as well as hulas; compilation on Yazoo). By including it in his act (played by Joe Kaipo e.g. on 'Everybody Does It In Hawaii', 'Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues') Rodgers set the stage for the soon-ubiquitous steel guitar; in fact he defined the content of country music for decades to come, many songs co- written with sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams: repertoire including sentimental ballads ('Daddy And Home', 'My Old Pal'); hard times ('Waiting For A Train', 'TB Blues'); love ('Looking For A New Mama' and 'My Little Lady'); bravado and double entendre ('Pistol Packin' Papa'). 'In The Jailhouse Now' no. 1 hit for Webb Pierce '55; 'Muleskinner Blues', others have been covered many times.

He recorded 13 Blue Yodels, the first ('T for Texas') a million seller; many simply numbered, some also titled: 'Blue Yodel No. 4 (California Blues)'. 'Blue Yodel No. 9' made in Hollywood 16 July '30 had Louis Armstrong among sideman. He was not a good guitar player; his quirky sense of time caused trouble for others (Louis plays beautifully on 'Blue Yodel No. 9', but with unusual caution). Total sales were probably about 12m by 1950, but were phenomenal for the Depression era: poor people felt he was one of them, bought his records with other necessities. All have been reissued on haphazard series of RCA LPs and in Japanese boxed set, now complete on a series of Rounder CDs, and a superb five-CD set The Singing Brakeman on Bear Family with an excellent booklet. Among first elected to Country Music Hall of Fame '61; original talent influenced Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, many more. The definitive biography was Jimmie Rodgers by Nolan Porterfield '79.