Jimmie Rodgers at age 19.
Courtesy, Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum
Jimmie with his father, Aaron
Rodgers. Courtesy, Country Music Hall of Fame® and
Jimmie Rodgers in a movie still from
“The Singing Brakeman,” a short film made in 1929 by
Columbia-Victor Gems. Courtesy, Country Music Hall
of Fame® and Museum
Jimmie Rodgers in one of his
publicity poses, with his Weymann “Jimmie Rodgers
Special” guitar. Courtesy, Country Music Hall of
Fame® and Museum
Jimmie Rodgers with fellow musician
Clayton McMichen in Tupelo, Mississippi, in December
1929. Courtesy, Country Music Hall of Fame® and
Jimmie Rodgers: The Father of
By Ted Ownby
Mississippi is properly famous as the
home of the blues and of the first star of rock and
roll. It is also the home of Jimmie Rodgers, described
by many as “The Father of Country Music.” Rodgers had
two other nicknames during his career, 'The Singing
Brakeman,' which referred to his work on trains, and
'America's Blue Yodeler,' which described one of his
distinctive contributions to country music.
Publicity photographs also portrayed
Rodgers as a guitar-playing cowboy and as a sharply
dressed man-on-the-town. These various images of a
musician who worked on trains, identified with cowboys,
sang the blues, yodeled, and knew his way around modern
towns and cities help illustrate the range of Rodgers's
Jimmie Rodgers was born James
Charles Rodgers outside Meridian, Mississippi, on
September 8, 1897. Since his father, Aaron Rodgers,
worked on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, Jimmie Rodgers
grew up traveling, especially after his mother, Eliza
Rodgers, died when Jimmie was only five or six. From age
fourteen until he was twenty-eight, he worked, sometimes
irregularly, as a brakeman or flagman on railroads that
took him through much of the South and Southwest.
Always interested in making music and seeing if he
could make a living from it, Rodgers pursued music as a
career only after he had to give up railroad work
because of health problems. He contracted tuberculosis
and discovered that railroad work made it hard for him
to breathe. In 1924 Rodgers started singing in traveling
shows, vaudeville shows, medicine shows, and various
other productions. In 1927 he first performed on the
radio in Asheville, North Carolina, and recorded his
first songs in Bristol, Virginia. Although he made
records for only six years, between 1927 and his death
from tuberculosis in 1933, Rodgers recorded more than
His songs were
about three minutes in length, and almost all featured
Rodgers playing the guitar. Some songs had bands
accompanying the singer, and others consisted entirely
of Rodgers playing and singing. Part of Rodgers's
uniqueness lay in the variety of his music and part lay
in his appealing voice which almost everyone liked.
Country music, sometimes called hillbilly music, emerged
in the early 20th century as a self-consciously
traditional, nostalgic music of rural white people in
the American South, stretching from Appalachia to Texas.
The term 'country music' distinguished it from music
associated with city people, whether that meant
classical music and opera, or Broadway shows and the
music of professional songwriters who wrote on so-called
Tin Pan Alley in New York.
Many early country musicians knew a
wide range of songs, but they adopted a rustic pose to
satisfy a broad audience who wanted simple songs about
simple life, especially the life on isolated
mountaintops, on the free range of Texas, or, perhaps
less often, the life on independent small farms. Many
early country musicians tended to play, record, and
identify themselves with the area from Nashville,
Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia, to the mountain areas of
eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, and to the western parts
of the Carolinas and Virginia.
As a Mississippi native and as
someone willing to play almost any form of music,
Rodgers did not fit the mold of early country music. He
did not idealize farm life, and rarely sang about
mountains. Rather, through his music he portrayed
himself as more of a man of the world. While most of his
records were marketed as country or hillbilly music, he
learned a great deal from the styles of Tin Pan Alley
songs, the blues, and jazz. He performed a few songs
with fellow country stars the Carter Family from
Virginia, but he also made a recording with Louisiana
jazz legend Louis Armstrong. In fact, jazz tubas and
clarinets occasionally added surprising twists to
Rodgers’s songs. A Hawaiian-themed song included
ukuleles, and some Rodgers songs sounded more like
fast-moving vaudeville tunes than conventional country
Rodgers's most notable musical
innovation was a series of songs he called Blue Yodels.
In his short career he recorded thirteen Blue Yodels.
All are in the blues AAB format (saying a line twice and
then following with a concluding line). His popular
song, 'T for Texas,' also called 'Blue Yodel No. 1,'
began with 'T for Texas, T for Tennessee/T for Texas, T
for Tennessee/T for Thelma, that woman made a fool out
of me.' Blue Yodels were blues songs in style, sound,
and lyrics. They generally told of serious trouble,
sometimes of violence between men and women, and they
rarely had nostalgic or happy endings. The narrator of
'T for Texas' planned 'to shoot poor Thelma/Just to see
her jump and fall.'
Yodeling came from various sources,
perhaps from cowboy songs or from the songs of travelers
in the Swiss Alps. Rodgers was not the first musician to
sing 'Yo de lay hee-ho' between verses of his songs, but
he made it such a trademark that some people assume
country music had always included yodeling.
It is difficult
to interpret the lyrics of popular songs as if musicians
simply sang about their own experiences and ideas.
Popular singers, then as now, tend to combine lyrics
about their own experiences with notions of what
audiences would like to hear. In some ways they are like
autobiographers telling their own stories, while in
other ways they are more like actors, playing different
roles to entertain their audiences.
Rodgers co-wrote many of his songs,
sometimes by reworking older songs, and often by writing
a tune while another writer supplied the words.
Sometimes he sang popular songs in his own musical
style, but sometimes he was clearly singing about
himself. For instance, he sang, 'I had to quit
railroading/It didn't agree at all.' In another song, he
asked, 'Will there be any freight trains in heaven?' And
when he sang 'TB Blues,' and 'My Time Ain't Long,' his
audience knew he was singing about his own illness.
Three themes dominated the lyrics of Rodgers’s songs.
One was movement. His songs frequently discussed moving
by trains or horses. Sometimes movement led back home,
but sometimes it did not. A second theme was a
sentimental picture of home life. Songs about love and
longing for mothers and fathers were common, and Rodgers
sang many tunes such as 'Daddy and Home' and 'Down the
Old Road to Home.' A song called 'A Drunkard’s Child'
began with the child on the road, the mother dead, and
the father drunk, all because 'Daddy went to drinking.'
Through the third theme, he performed numerous songs
about failed love. Sometimes love failed because men or
women left, or because they cheated, or even because
they committed crimes and went to jail. People in
Rodgers's songs often spent time on chain gangs, or in
the jailhouse, and they spent their time there lamenting
the bad decisions that kept them away from the people
Throughout his travels and his illness, Rodgers kept up
an image of a smiling, likable individual. He built up a
large body of fans both through his likable stage
performances and his numerous records. Along with the
serious topics of many of his songs—illness, separation,
violence, poverty, troubles of many kinds—he could be
playful. In one of his early popular songs, 'Peach
Picking Time Down in Georgia,' he began with the image
of everyone working hard, picking crops in different
parts of the South, but ended by 'pickin'” an attractive
woman, with whom he hoped to pick a wedding ring. The
multiple uses of 'pickin'' was even more amusing because
the term also referred to a guitarist 'pickin' his
instrument. Partly because of his ability to make play
out of trouble, Rodgers became, in the words of
historian Bill Malone, 'the first country singing star.'
Two features of Mississippi life were especially
important for Rodgers, who sang songs such as
'Mississippi Moon' and 'Mississippi Delta Blues.' First,
working on trains gave him numerous stories about, and
insights into, traveling people. In his songs, he
empathized with people on the move, in large part
because whether as a railroad worker or a traveling
musician, he was one of them. This empathy was
especially important in the 1930s during the Great
Depression, when so many people had to travel in search
of work. Songs like 'Hobo’s Meditation' portrayed sad
men riding the trains from the point of view of a
sympathetic narrator who hopes their eventual
destination of heaven would have no insulting people or
'tough cops.' Second, as a Mississippian, Rodgers grew
up hearing more African-American music than most early
country musicians were likely to have heard. The Blue
Yodels were unique among country songs in part because
they followed the style of the blues.
Texas and tuberculosis
Like many blues
musicians who moved to Chicago, and like Elvis Presley
who moved to Tennessee, Rodgers spent his later years
away from Mississippi. As a singer, Rodgers usually
identified himself as a Texan. He spent his last few
years in Texas because he believed the climate of
southern Texas was especially healthy and because he
enjoyed the image of a cowboy.
Rodgers knew his death was coming, and sang about it.
Tuberculosis was a common killer in the early 20th
century, and he was declining physically as he took a
train to New York for what proved to be his final
recording session for RCA Victor in 1933. At age 35, he
was so weak that he had to rest on a cot between songs.
He died at the Taft Hotel in New York on May 26, 1933,
the night after the session, planning to make more
Jimmie Rodgers was extraordinarily popular in his short
lifetime, and remains popular with generations of music
fans. Numerous musicians have remade Rodgers's songs,
especially 'T for Texas' and 'In the Jailhouse Now,' and
his influence has been wide. He was the first performer
inducted into the
Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 and in 1976, the
Memorial Museum opened in his home town of Meridian.
Ted Ownby, Ph.D., is professor of
history and southern studies at the University of
Mississippi. He is the author of American Dreams in
Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty and Culture, 1830-1998
and of Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and
Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920.
Posted July 2004
Malone, Bill C.
Country Music U.S.A. Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1985.
Malone, Bill C. Don't Get above
Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working
Class. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Porterfield, Nolan. Jimmie
Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Ivey, William. Notes to This is
Jimmie Rodgers. RCA Records, VPS-6091(e), 1973.