Most people who know anything about American popular music know something about Jimmie Rodgers. They may know he’s sometimes called “the Father of Country Music,” or “the Singing Brakeman.” That he died young of tuberculosis. That he yodeled a lot. And they’ve probably heard one or more of his songs: “In the Jailhouse Now,” “I’m Lonely and Blue,” “Peach Pickin’ Time Down in Georgia,” “The Southern Cannonball,” “Prairie Lullaby,” “Miss the Mississippi and You.”
But few people realize that Jimmie Rodgers was every bit as crucial in the history of pop and the American music business as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan.
Dylan himself did his bit to draw attention to Rodgers’ legacy in 1997 by launching his custom label, Egyptian Records, with The Songs of Bob Dylan: A Tribute featuring current rock, pop, folk and country artists from Van Morrison to Dwight Yoakam.
I’ve been a fan of Jimmie Rodgers since I found one of his records among my dad’s collection at the age of 13. But I knew little about the man, beyond what I’d read on the back of the album (an RCA reissue that collected about 20 Rodgers sides on one LP, one of several such LPs released in the ’60s), or in press releases a few years ago when Rounder released a seven-CD box set of Rodgers’s collected works.
So it was with joy that I discovered Nolan Porterfield’s book Jimmie Rodgers, The life and times of America’s blue yodeler. This is a truly comprehensive look at just that: the man’s life and times. Porterfield, the acknowledged authority on Rodgers who produced the Rounder compilation and wrote its liner notes, has created in this book an invaluable document of Rodgers and his place in entertainment history.
Not only that, but it’s a darn good read.
A bare outline of Rodgers’s life for those unfamiliar with him:
He was born in rural Mississippi in 1897 to a railroad worker and his frail wife, who died when Jimmie was about 5. He followed his father into railroad work, but was always fascinated by the entertainment business. When jobs in his field became more and more scarce after World War I, and as his health began to fail from tuberculosis, he leaned more and more toward singing.
He was self-tutored at both singing and playing guitar and banjo, picking up everything he knew from the radio, records, and the touring vaudeville, circus and medicine-show acts of the day, as well as his fellow railroad workers and hobos. His tastes were eclectic, ranging from the popular ballads of the day, to rags and jazz and the hillbilly music that surrounded him in his youth.
As the Roaring ’20s wound down and Jimmie’s health deteriorated, he spent more and more time touring with small hometown groups, playing on radio stations and at Ozark resorts. His destiny and that of the nascent recording industry collided in the person of Ralph Peer, who was traveling throughout the American South recording acts for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Peer recorded two songs by Rodgers in August 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, and the ball was rolling.
Success wasn’t immediate, but nearly so. Within a couple of years, Rodgers was a household name, selling hundreds of thousands of records for Victor and touring from coast to coast. The Great Depression and Jimmie’s TB intervened; the economic crash reduced his sales if not his popularity, and he died in May 1933 in New York, a few hours after making his 110th recording for Victor.
Rodgers’s material spanned the gamut of the popular styles of the day: sentimental Tin Pan Alley ballads, soldier songs, hillbilly tunes, railroad songs, and of course blues. Except there was no “of course” about it at the time; here was a white man singing black music, 50 years before Elvis.
And then there’s that yodel. Incredibly for a man whose lungs were being destroyed by tuberculosis, he had a clear, natural yodel that even today astounds anyone who’s ever tried to do it themselves. It started as a gimmick but became Rodgers’ trademark.
Porterfield tells this story in detail, and also tells the parallel story of the birth and growth of the record industry. Where necessary, he dips into demography, economics, and sociology to place Rodgers and his career in historical context.
The author draws together numerous authoritative sources, including Rodgers’s wife and other family members as well as other entertainers, to give perspective on the Singing Brakeman’s importance in the history of pop music.
“The basis for his popularity was simply Rodgers’s broad appeal to so many diverse audiences,” Porterfield writes in the book’s concluding chapter.
He made it possible for cowboy or country singers to get employment on radio stations. He was responsible for the sale of more guitars than any other man. He made the value of country songs and records into a commercial product that since then has been recognized as an important part of the music industry.
Aside from finally compiling all the known facts about Jimmie Rodgers in one place and dispelling a number of myths, perhaps the most valuable of this book’s contributions is the chapter on Rodgers’s recordings and discography. It is detailed and very well organized. Two appendices detail Rodgers’s live performances, and list all 13 of Rodgers’s songs known by the “Blue Yodel” title, giving recording and release dates and variant titles for each. Each chapter is annotated with footnotes of quote sources. There are a number of photographs of Rodgers, his family and fellow performers.
Porterfield’s writing is authoritative but folksy — at times just a little too folksy for my taste. He occasionally comes across as an avuncular uncle entertaining the family on the front porch after Sunday dinner. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not my favorite style. But I’m willing to forgive the eccentricity because like that uncle, his tale is so interesting, and he knows his facts.
This book is invaluable for any fan of Jimmie Rodgers and all students of American popular music. It won’t necessarily make him any new fans, but Rodgers’s music is quite capable of handling that chore itself.
(University of Illinois Press, 1979)