JIMMIE RODGERS DIED 80 YEARS AGO
Here's my entry on Rodgers in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia:
Rodgers, Jimmie [1897 - 1933]
Jimmie Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi on September 8, 1897, disproving General Sherman’s post-march announcement of the 1860s that ‘Meridian no longer exists!’ Rodgers, looking in his publicity pictures like a cross between Bing Crosby and Stan Laurel, was ‘the father of country music’ yet was mesmerised by the blues, a genre to which he contributed and with which he became familiar from working alongside black railroad labourers. Hence his other appellation, ‘the Singing Brakeman’.
(The railroad line, and even the train, still runs through Meridian, which is built on a rise. The track crosses a wide street that climbs to tall, elderly buildings, some of which must have gone up during Jimmie’s childhood.)
Rodgers, the inventor of the Blue Yodel, had a short life and a brief career. He had already contracted tuberculosis and had to give up his dayjob by the time he was discovered and first recorded by Ralph Peer in 1927, and his last session was 36 hours before his death, which was in New York on May 26, 1933. In the five and a half years in which he recorded he cut 110 sides. You can get them all on a 6-CD set.
At least he enjoyed stardom while he lived, as well as posthumously. Recognised in his own lifetime as having initiated an important idiom, it has proved enduring since. His records were astoundingly popular, selling in huge numbers, and he became the first rural artist to match the commercial success of Northern popular singers.
His fame in segregated Mississippi sometimes had surprising results. At the huge and wanky King Edward Hotel in downtown Jackson, Rodgers, hearing marvellous Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey on the street, brought them up to the hotel roof to perform for his own audience. This black ragamuffin act, plucked off the street, bemused the supper-club crowd, but Rodgers knew talent when he heard it.
This is what Bob Dylan said of him in the Biograph interview of 1985: ‘The most inspiring type of entertainer for me has always been somebody like Jimmie Rodgers, somebody who could do it alone and was totally original. He was combining elements of blues and hillbilly sounds before anyone else had thought of it. He recorded at the same time as Blind Willie McTell but he wasn’t just another white boy singing black. That was his great genius and he was there first...he played on the same stage with big bands, girly choruses and follies burlesque and he sang in a plaintive voice and style and he’s outlasted them all.’
As early as May 1960, and again that fall, Dylan was recorded performing Rodgers’ ‘Blue Yodel No. 8 (Muleskinner’s Blues)’ in Minneapolis, and ‘Southern Cannonball’ in East Orange, New Jersey in February or March 1961. The Rodgers influence on the young Dylan was perhaps not wholly beneficial. The repulsively maudlin ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’ (written by West Texas farm boy Waldo O’Neal, and, at his sister’s urging, submitted cold to Rodgers in 1928) influenced Dylan’s deservedly obscure ‘Only A Hobo’. Both lyrics make the same crude attempt at rhetoric, in protest-singer-saintly style: ‘just another railroad bum...’, whines Rodgers; ‘Only a hobo...’, whines Dylan. As Rodgers sings it, though, the melody for ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’ shares quite a bit with that of ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’, which is, in turn, the song behind Dylan’s own ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ - in which altogether more complex issues of saintliness, and guilt, come in for a fine, detached scrutiny, light-years ahead of either ‘Only A Hobo’ or ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’.
Dylan and Johnny Cash’s duets, recorded in Nashville on February 19, 1969, included ‘Blue Yodel No.1’ and ‘Blue Yodel No.5’, and it may have been from their presence in ‘Blue Yodel No.12’, recorded a week before Rodgers’ last session, that Dylan took the essentially commonstock couplet ‘I got that achin’ heart disease / It works just like a cancer, it’s killin’ me by degrees’ and re-processed it into his own line ‘Horseplay and disease are killin’ me by degrees’ on ‘Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat)?’ on Street Legal.
Mules’ years later, Dylan went into the studios in Chicago in June 1992 and recorded, among other things (see Bromberg, David) Rodgers’ ‘Miss The Mississippi and You’. It is one of only four tracks from that session to have circulated. In Memphis, two years later, he recorded Rodgers’ ‘My Blue-Eyed Jane’ for a tribute album that was, reportedly, a project Dylan initiated. We first heard a tantalising snatch of one take on the CD-ROM Highway 61 Interactive in 1995, its woodsmoke guitars making it sound almost like an outtake from New Morning; a second complete take circulated among collectors in 1996, on which shared vocals by Emmylou Harris had been overdubbed in the interim; and then later that year a third version, with Dylan’s vocal re-recorded and Harris’ removed, supplanted both, and saw release on what turned out to be the first release on Dylan’s own Egyptian Records label, in the collection finally issued as The Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers - A Tribute.
More recently still, Dylan pays Rodgers the further tribute of impersonating him, in jest, on a re-recording of a Slow Train Coming song with Mavis Staples (see the entry ‘Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking’ [2003 version]); and in 2004, in Chronicles Volume One, Dylan returns us to the beginning of Rodgers’ impact upon him, which he says was back in Hibbing, in the days before his earliest performances of the material:
‘One of the reasons I liked going there [to Echo Helstrom's house], besides puppy love, was that they had Jimmie Rodgers records, old 78s in the house. I used to sit there mesmerized, listening to the Blue Yodeler, singing, “I’m a Tennessee hustler, I don’t have to work.” I didn’t want to have to work, either.’
[Jimmie Rodgers: complete recorded works, from ‘The Soldier’s Sweetheart’, Bristol TN, 4 Aug 1927, to ‘Years Ago’, NY, 24 May 1933, on The Singing Brakeman, Bear Family BCD 15540-FH, Germany, 1992. Bob Dylan: ‘Miss the Mississippi and You’, Chicago, 4-21 Jun 1992, unreleased; ‘My Blue-Eyed Jane’, Memphis, 9 May 1994, vocals re-recorded unknown location early May 1997, The Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers - A Tribute, Various Artists, Egyptian/Columbia Records 485189 2, NY, 1997. Bob Dylan: Chronicles Volume One, 2004, p.59. The book on Rodgers is Nolan Porterfield’s Jimmie Rodgers: the Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler, Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1979.]