Don´t The Singing Brakeman Look Good? – A Blazing Star – Jimmie Rodgers.

“Jimmie Rodgers of course is one of the guiding lights of the Twentieth Century whose way with song has always been an inspiration to those of us who have followed the path. A blazing star whose sound was and remains the raw essence of individuality in a sea of conformity, par excellence with no equal.”
(Bob Dylan in his liner notes to “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers – A tribute”)

James Charles Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi, the 8th of September 1897. (Actually, some thinks he was born in Alabama where his grandparents lived, but others insists he was born in Pine Springs outside Meridian.) Already at thirteen, he arranged traveling shows, a born entertainer, but was brought home by his father. Aaron Rodgers, Jimmies father, worked by the railroad and found Jimmie his first job, as a “water boy”, the same kind of water boy he later is singing of in “Mule Skinner Blues” (“Well, hey hey, little water boy, Won’t you bring your water ’round? Hey hey.”) The young Jimmie listened to the songs of the hobos and railway workers while bringing water. Some years later he was hired as a brakeman, a job he kept until he in 1924 was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The real TB Blues, that is, four years later described in the song “T B Blues”.

“When it rained down sorrow
It rained all over me
When it rained down sorrow
It rained all over me

‘Cause my body rattles
Like a train on that old S.P.
I’ve got the T.B. blues”

The strange irony is that the tuberculosis was the direct reason that gave Jimmie Rodgers more time to sing and play guitar. As Bob Dylan says: “Behind every beautiful thing, there´s been some kind of pain.” This surely was true about what was going to be Jimmie Rodgers, at the time, unparalleled career. At first he started to do traveling shows again, before returning temporarily to a job as a brakeman, before the illness made it impossible. Then he worked a few months as a switchman, taking care of his wife and daughter, Carrie and Anita. When he couldn´t keep the job anymore, the little family settled back in Meridian in early 1927. Jimmie then got him and a group he recruited a weekly slot in Asheville´s first radio station, WWNC, as “The Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers”.

Then, the 4th of August in 1927, Jimmie Rodgers, made his first recording for Victor. He came to Bristol the day before, after seeing the advertisement from Victor´s then talent scout, Ralph Peer, and was rehearsing with the group from the radio show. Ralph Peer was satisfied, but the night before the recording Jimmie and the group had a disagreement, and the result was that Jimmie met up for the recording alone, making his first two sides, “The Soldier´s Sweetheart” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep”, making $100.

Ralph Peer would be one of the most important talent scouts and record producers of all times, and has a very interesting story of his own, impressingly told in all its detail in the Barry Mazor´s great book “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music”. The same day he recorded Jimmie Rodgers, he also made the first recordings of another important record selling unit, the groundbreaking Carter Family.

The first record was released in October and had a limited success, but Jimmie now was determined to make it as an artist. In November he left for New York, arranging another recording with Ralph Peer. The recordings included his first trademark song, “The Blue Yodel”, the first in a row, this one should be equally known as “T For Texas”, one of his most covered songs. The song was co-written with Elsie McWilliams, his sister-in-law, and she would be the writer or co-writer of more than forty of Jimmie Rodgers´recorded songs.

The song has been covered by a long string of great artists. One of the newest is a great version with Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett, but as different artists as Johnny Cash and Lynyrd Skynyrd made memorable versions.

Waylon Jennings also made a great version.

As the song still is covered, ninety years later, it made Jimmie Rodgers a fabulous success, the song selling more than half a million records the next two years. From this day he recorded whenever he wanted, Peer and Victor happily let him, and he sold out shows all over the country.

The same year, 1928, he recorded the beautiful “Treasures Untold”, a song also covered in touching versions by many artists, as Doc & Merle Watson, Lefty Frizzell and Loudon Wainwright III.

Another gem from this year was “In The Jailhouse Now”, another successful release, originally by Whistler and His Jug Band, but mostly associated with Jimmie Rodgers.

“He’s in the jailhouse now
He’s in the jailhouse now
Well I told him once or twice
To stop playin’ cards and a-shootin’ dice
He’s in the jailhouse now”

One of the most popular versions was Webb Pierce´s.

Many years later Leon Russell covered the song in his Hank Wilson disguise.

Steve Earle, familiar with the jailhouse himself, recorded a rocky version of the song as a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, as it was included on many tribute albums through the years.

The Coen Brothers Movie “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou” was a great revival for bluegrass and oldtime music. The movie also included a version of “In The Jailhouse Now”.

“My Carolina Sunshine Girl” is one of my personal favorites of Jimmie´s.

I also love Steve Forbert´s version of the song – Steve also made a whole album of Jimmie Rodgers songs, one of the most interesting tribute albums. Here with a great live version.

The album doesn´t exist on Spotify, but you can find it on Tidal: Any Old Time.

“Waiting For A Train” was recorded in 1928, but released in 1929, and should be the most covered of all his songs.

“All around the water tank, waiting for a train
A thousand miles away from home, sleeping in the rain
I walked up to a brakeman just to give him a line of talk
He said “If you got money, boy, I’ll see that you don’t walk
I haven’t got a nickel, not a penny can I show
“Get off, get off, you railroad bum” and slammed the boxcar door”

The Flatlanders is one of many bands and artists that have made great versions of the song.

So has David Allan Coe.

Jorma Kaukonen included a fabulous version of the song on his wonderful “Blue Country Heart” album.

And, of course, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, had to include the song on their brand new album, “Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad”. It would be a crime to make such an album without a Jimmie Rodgers. The train has been one of the most important metaphors in both blues and country music through the last hundred years and to this day. This isn´t only because of Jimmie Rodgers, of course, but still, his importance can´t be overestimated.

From August 1927 to October 1928 Jimmie Rodgers had recorded songs that alone could have made him “The Father of Country Music”, but there was still more to come. But let´s go back to Bob Dylan´s liner notes for his own tribute project to Jimmie:

“Though he is claimed as The Father of Country Music, the title is limiting and deceiving in light of today’s country music and he wouldn’t have understood it. In his time, he was better known as “The Singing Brakeman” or “Blue Yodeler” and hence in some circles, he has come to be known as the “Man Who Started It All” which is more to the truth for 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. Indeed, he sings not only among his bawdy, upbeat blues and railroading songs, but also Tin Pan Alley trash and crooner lullabies as well. He makes everything unmistakably his own and does it with piercing charm. Jerry Lee Lewis once said that there are only four stylists – Jimmie, Al Jolson, Hank Williams and himself. Jerry Lee doesn’t give out compliments lightly. If we look back far enough, Jimmie may very well be the “man who started it all” for we have no antecedent to compare him. His refined style, an amalgamation of sources unknown, is too cryptic to pin down. His is a thousand and one voices yet singularly his own.”

You don´t have to be a detective to see that many of Dylan´s observations also would be a fitting description of Dylan himself. “His is a thousand and one voices yet singularly his own.” “An amalgamation of sources unknown.” Jimmie Rodgers was obviously part of the compass for Dylan´s ship, and a great inspiration in so many ways. His strong description of the uniqueness of Jimmie Rodgers rings true through the ages.

In 1929 Jimmie continued to record a long string of great songs, among them “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues”, strengthen his success and popularity.

The much underrated Laurie Lewis is one of the artists that have made beautiful cover versions of this song. The same did Hank Snow.

Another cool blues song was “Train Whistle Blues” – not exactly blues, not exactly country, but both, such as so many of Jimmie Rodgers songs:

“When a woman gets the blues she hangs her little head and cries
When a woman gets the blues she hangs her little head and cries
But when a man gets the blues he grabs a train and rides
Every time I see that lonesome railroad train
Every time I see that lonesome railroad train
It makes me wish I was going home again
Look a-yonder coming, coming down that railroad track
Look a-yonder coming, coming down that railroad track
With the black smoke rolling, rolling from that old smoke stack
I got the blues so bad till the whole round world look blue
I got the blues so bad till the whole round world looks blue
I ain’t got a dime, I don’t know what to do
I’m weary now, I want to leave this town
I’m weary now and I want to leave this town
I can’t find a job, I’m tired of hanging around”

In my opinion there is one cover version of this song that give the other a knock-out – Merle Haggard´s from one of the greatest tribute albums of all time – “Same Train, A Different Time”.

Do yourself a favor – listen to the whole album. It´s a classic!

In 1929 Jimmie Rodgers also recorded his version of “Frankie And Johnny”, also known in a version called “Frankie” or “Frankie And Albert”. Mississippi John Hurt´s version from 1928 was the one Bob Dylan based his cover version upon.

The Blue Yodel was something of a trademark for Jimmie Rodgers, as the yodeling itself, and he recorded thirteen in the series of blue yodels. All very popular. Number 9, recorded in 1930 was special because of it´s backing, with Louis Armstrong on trumpet, and his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano. This is interesting in many ways, both showing the lack of border control between musicians and genres and the mutually respect between the two giants in different fields.

Johnny Cash invited Louis Armstrong to his TV show, both to talk about the fact that Louis recorded with “the father of country music” and to play the song once more. A touching tribute to Jimmie´s legacy.

Jerry Garcia also made several versions of this song.

In 1930 Jimmie also recorded one of the songs where he actually didn´t yodel at all, “My Blue Eyed Jane”.

This was also the song that Bob Dylan chose as his contribution to his own tribute project to Jimmie Rodgers in 1992. Dylan even established his own label for the project, Egyptian. Here in an alternate take to the one released, a duet with Emmylou Harris.

Dylan also performed a delightful live version of the song. How many of the audience who really know the origin of the song is hard to say.

Jimmie also recorded the beautiful “The One Rose” in 1930.

Johnny Cash included a touching version of an aging man singing the song in his “American Recordings”.

One of the greatest country balladeers of all time, Jerry Lee Lewis, early pointed out that Jimmie Rodgers was one of the few original stylists of them all. He also played several of Jimmie´s songs through the years, among them “The One Rose”.

“Mule Skinner Blues”, or “Blue Yodel #8” was recorded and released in 1931. It should be one of his most covered songs of them all.

The most funky cover version of this song, obviously must be Van Morrison´s.

Dolly Parton also made a well-known version of the song, as did Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music.

In 1931 Rodgers recorded “Let Me Be Your Sidetrack”, a twelve bar blues reminiscent of a Blind Willie McTell song, but Jimmie´s yodel betrays him, as does the flirty lyrics.

“Let me be sidetrack til your mainline comes
Let me be sidetrack til your mainline comes
Cause I can do more switching than your mainline’s ever done”

The string of great songs continues in 1931, among many others he is recording “Peach Picking Time In Georgia”, released in 1932.

In 1997 Willie Nelson and Beck sings a great version of the song at Farm Aid.

“Miss The Mississippi And You” is another highlight in Jimmie´s production, recorded and released in 1932. The song is from the next-to-last-recordings of Jimmie Rodgers, and the tuberculosis makes Jimmie´s life more and more demanding. He has stopped the exhausting touring, but still makes radio shows. He built a big house for his family in Texas.

Emmylou Harris made a beautiful cover of the song on her album “Roses In The Snow” in 1980.

On “Tell Tale Signs”, one of Bob Dylan´s Bootleg Series releases, his tender version of the song are lifted from the “David Bromberg Sessions” in 1992.

In May 1933 Jimmie makes his last recordings. He was so weak he had to rest on a bed between takes and songs. One of the songs is “Dreaming With Tears In My Eyes”, later covered by Bono from U2.

The thirteenth of the blue yodels, named “Jimmie Rodgers Last Blue Yodel” were one of the last recordings.

In his last recording, “Years Ago”, Jimmie Rodgers fittingly is looking back, alone with his guitar, as his recording career started, yodeling for the very last time.

The song was recorded on the 24th of May in 1933, to the day eight years before Bob Dylan was born, one of many artists that would carry the torch after Jimmie Rodgers. Jimmie Rodgers died the 26th of May in 1933, only 35 years old, leaving behind him one of the most important collection of songs in the history of music, an everlasting well that still runs fresh and inspires new artists for many years to come, both directly and through all the songs and artists that stands on Jimmie´s shoulders in their music, singing and songwriting.

As Bob Dylan concludes in his liner notes to “The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers – A Tribute”:

“The artists on this compilation as diverse as ever, all have one thing in common – all have been amazed, moved and enormously affected by Jimmie like no other. Why? Because Jimmie was alive in a way that others were not and are not. His message is all between the lines and he delivers it like nectar that can drill through steel. He gets somehow into the mystery of life and death without saying too much, has some kind of uncanny ability to translate it – he’s like the smell of flowers. He stood over there far apart, this is so obvious. No supporting actor in a melodrama or a screw in a machine, not a team player, no old liner or stick in the mud, he is the ringmaster general and is as in the Warren Smith ballad, the man who “…held your hand and sang you a song”. What more could he do?

We love the man and we love what he did in the short time he was here and we know that he rose above insurmountable odds in giving of himself with Herculean effort to achieve it, that he worked against time with a disease that was a quick assignment to the cemetery. We don’t salute ourselves in making this record but we point you back there so you can feel it for yourself and see how far off the path we’ve come. Times change and don’t change. The nature of humanity has stayed the same. Jimmie is at the heart of it all with a seriousness and humor that is befuddling, notwithstanding that infamous blue yodel that defies the rational and conjecturing mind. His is the voice in the wilderness of your head…only in turning up the volume can we determine our own destiny.”

Now, ain´t that a recommendation?

Johnny Borgan

2 thoughts on “Don´t The Singing Brakeman Look Good? – A Blazing Star – Jimmie Rodgers.

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