Two of the greatest contributors to American culture were born in Mississippi in the same month and year, September 1897.
America’s first music superstar
Before Elvis, before Muddy Waters, before B. B. King, Marty Stuart, Bobbi Gentry, Jimmy Buffett, John Lee Hooker, Sam Mosley and even a little before Robert Johnson, there was Jimmie Rodgers.
Yet all the above – and dozens of other country and blues and rock musicians – owe something to the “Father of Country Music.” That title is slightly off-key, because the contribution of Jimmie Rogers to blues and rock and roll are equally important.
Born in Meridian, September 8, 1897, Jimmie Rodgers became the most popular musician in the United States before he died in New York City at age 35, on May 25, 1933.
Saturday morning, November 6, Britt Gully, another accomplished Mississippi musician, told the Jimmie Rodgers story to an attentive audience at the Union County Heritage Museum. Gully was the featured performer at the museum’s annual Heritage Pioneer days.
Gully, a singer, guitarist, and storyteller, from Cow Creek in Kemper County, sang Jimmie Rodgers songs and treated his audience to many anecdotes about the “Singing Brakeman’s” brief, but remarkable life. (See Gully’s performance on link below post.)
Jimmie Rodgers early life
Rodger’s mother died when he was six or seven years old. Jimmie was raised by his father, a railroad maintenance foreman, and several other relatives in Mississippi and west Alabama.
Rodgers had organized a couple of traveling music shows by the time he was 13 years old. His father wanted him to have a “real” job, so put him to work as a water boy on the Mobile and Ohio railroad. Rodgers continued writing songs and singing, learning from hobo musicians and the chants and songs of the African-American railroad laborers to whom he was carrying water.
After a few years, he became a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. During that time on the 196 miles of track of the NO&NE, he was exposed to the blues and other jazz varieties already thriving in the Big Easy.
Illness focused Rodgers on his music
Then, at age 24, Rodgers was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which interrupted his railroad career. His illness was, perhaps, a godsend to the development of modern American music. He had been intensely interested in music since childhood, learning all he could from many sources. While he briefly returned to railroad work (for less than a year), Jimmie Rodgers started devoting all of his time and energy to writing lyrics and music and playing his songs.
Jimmie Rodgers sang on the radio for the first time on April 18, 1927, on radio station WWNC in Ashville, North Carolina. That exposure led to a recording session with the Victor Talking Machine Company. His first recording session earned him $100. Railroad brakemen were earning $5.35 per day in 1927, so that was pretty good money for four hours of work.
Rodgers next recorded “T for Texas,” also known as “Blue Yodel Number 1,” at the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey. He claimed to have learned to yodel from group of Swiss yodelers he heard somewhere at a church.
During the next two years, “Blue Yodel Number 1” sold half a million copies. The early Victor Talking Machine record players sold for $200, the equivalent of about $3,200 today, so were available only to the affluent. Thus, half a million records in two years is an astonishing number. Jimmie Rodgers was simply the first American music superstar.
His career benefitted from the early development of radio.
“Blue Yodel Number 2,” “If You Ever Had the Blues,” “Blue Yodel Number 3, “Evening Sun Yodel,” and “Blue Yodel Number 4,” “California Blues” were released in1928 and did extremely well. Rodgers played to sold out audiences everywhere he went.
Tuberculosis takes its toll
While he continued work, his pace slowed as the tuberculosis worsened. In 1931 he recorded and released his haunting “TB Blues.”
But he continued working. He took a train to New York in May of 1933 for still another recording session. He was so weak he had to rest on a cot in the studio between attempts at singing and playing guitar. He recorded those last song alone, with no backup musicians. He died of a pulmonary hemorrhage at the Taft Hotel on the east side of Seventh Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets in Manhattan. His body was placed in a pearl grey casket, and he took his last train ride back to Meridian. He is buried there in Oak Grove Cemetery.
Some music historians call Jimmie Rodgers the Father of Rock & Roll
His music is still performed every day by country and blues and rock and roll musicians around the world. While it is difficult to overstate the impact of Jimmie Rodgers on American music, one recording may hint at his importance.
Many assume that rock and roll was invented by Alan Freed, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry et al. in the 1950s. However, many knowledgeable music historians argue that the first rock and roll recording was made in Los Angeles on July 16, 1930. It featured Jimmie Rodgers on vocals and guitar (country), Louis Armstrong on trumpet (jazz) and Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis’s second wife, on stride piano (blues). Well, that pretty much describes rock and roll. The recording by Jimmie, Satchmo and Lil of “Blue Yodel Number 9” is the first of several links to Jimmie Rodgers music you can find at the end of this article.
Heritage Pioneer Days at Union County Heritage Museum
Britt Gully grew up listening to Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, etc. in Kemper County, the next county north of Lauderdale County, of which Meridian is the county seat.
Gully has been playing music most of his life and, for the last ten years, has concentrated on the music of Jimmie Rodgers. He’s an excellent guitarist, singer and yodeler, a great storyteller and a first-rate Mississippian.
Other events during Friday of Heritage Pioneer Days at the museum included demonstrations by leather crafters, blacksmiths and other traditional artisans. There were games for children, who enjoyed hand-made wooden toys, such as their great-great grandparents might have played with a hundred years ago.
If you’ve been wondering, another Mississippian whose contributions to American culture are beyond counting, was William Cuthbert Faulkner. He was born in New Albany on September 25, 1897, 17 days after Jimmie Rodgers was born 148 miles away at Meridian.
Heritage Pioneer Days at Union County Museum, 2021
Jimmie Rodgers with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Lillian “Lil” Hardin Armstrong on stride piano, Blue Yodel #9, Standin’ on the Corner, recorded July 16, 1930, in Los Angeles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EA9Y9FkxJZo
Blue Yodel Number 3,” “Evening Sun Yodel,” 1928. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QVLFzpmLKY
Bob Dylan singing Blue Yodel #8, Mule Skinner Blues. 1962. Dylan on vocals, harmonica and guitar.
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