It is tempting to believe that the blues, having been conceived in cotton fields by slaves singing to relieve the stress of working, was only performed by blacks and that the music belongs entirely to their race. And most American readers would guffaw at the thought of a white country singer influencing the blues, jazz and rap. Even more preposterous would be the idea of a yodeler also being a blues performer. “If American music is unique, it is largely due to its bedrock foundation in blues and gospel music, two forms of music that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century,” writes Professor Charles F. McGovern of William and Mary College. He goes on to name all the genres blues and gospel influenced. What he did not write was that country music, which came before both, had its own deep and lasting influence on the blues, jazz and rap.
A singer who was neither black nor was confined to the blues was the late, great Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933), who was called America’s Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman, and the Father of Country Music. Arguably the most significant force in American music history, Rodgers has heavily influenced country, blues, folk, jazz, Hawaiian, rock, pop, Americana, western swing, jazz, and bluegrass music. Born in Meridian, Mississippi, 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. His father found Rodgers his first job working on the railroad as a water boy. Here he was further taught to pick and strum by rail workers and hobos. As a water boy, he would have been exposed to the work chants of the African American railroad workers known as gandy dancers. A few years later, he became a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad, a position formerly secured by his oldest brother, Walter, who had been promoted to conductor on the line running between Meridian and New Orleans,” states Wikipedia.
On the Bluegrass Today blog, Daniel Mullins observed that “Jimmie’s Texas Blues” is a quintessential example of some of Rodgers’ best aspects. “This song hasn’t been as popular through the years as some of his others, but it still has all the earmarks of a Rodgers song. Even though you probably haven’t heard it before, you can still tell it is a Jimmie Rodgers song, the sign of a real artist. Jerry Lee Lewis once said that there were only four stylists in all of popular music: Hank Williams, Al Jolson, himself, and Jimmie Rodgers,” wrote Mullins.
“Jimmie’s Texas Blues” is a great example of why he is also known as a “bluesman.” The lyrics of this song say it all, particularly as Jimmie uses a yodel as both a transition and an exclamation point.
The way I been treated,
some time I wish I was dead;
The way I been treated, some time I wish I was dead;
‘Cause I ain’t got no place
To lay my weary head.
When I want you, woman, I
always find you gone;
Ev’rytime I want you, always find you gone;
(You’re always gone…)
Listen here, good mama,
I’m gonna put your air brakes on.
Some like Chicago, some
love Memphis, Tennessee;
Some like Chicago, some love Memphis, Tennessee.
(Ask sweet mama…)
Give me sweet Dallas, Texas,
Where the women think the world of me.
[SPOKEN] Hey, hey, hey…
You may have your troubles,
I’m having my troubles, too;
You may have your troubles, I’m having my troubles, too;
Yes, I know how it feels
When you’re feeling so doggone blue.
(Have mercy, Lord…)
I’m not singin’ the blues,
I’m tellin’ you the hard luck I’ve had;
I’m not singin’ blues, I’m tellin’ you the hard luck I’ve had.
(Baby, I’ve had it, too…)
The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feeling bad.
Rodgers was immortalized by being the first singer inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and was posthumously entered into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2013. The 2009 book Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Hero Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century tracks Rodgers’ influence through a broad range of musical genres, internationally. Recording artists of all musical stripes have played versions of Rodgers’ hit songs and the blues is no exception. Rodgers was one of the biggest stars of American music between 1927 and 1933, arguably doing more to popularize blues than any other performer of his time.
Jimmie Rodgers influenced many later blues artists such as Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy and Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf. “My man that I dug, that I really dug, that I got my yodel from, was Jimmie Rodgers. See, he yodeled, and I turned it into something more of a howl,” proclaimed the legendary Howlin’ Wolf.
By 1932, the sickly Singing Brakeman was clearly running out of track. “His next-to-last recordings were made in August 1932 in Camden [New Jersey], and tuberculosis clearly was getting the better of him. He had given up touring by that time, but did have a weekly radio show in San Antonio, Texas, where he had relocated when ‘T for Texas’ (a.k.a. ‘Blue Yodel Number 1’) became a hit. Earnings from his recordings enabled Rodgers to build a great house for his family in Kerrville, Texas, a location chosen partly for health reasons,” states his biography on jimmierodgers.com.
The end of the track came the following year (1933). You can almost hear that famous yodel when you enter the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian, which contains his famous guitar and many other paraphernalia about the singer who changed American music forever.