Jimmie Rodgers might not have been the first country musician to make a record – that was Eck Robertson. But with his Blue Yodels he was country music’s first superstar.
When I finally, belatedly, discovered there was more to country music than rhinestones and cowboy hats, I delved into the music’s history and began to realise that, before it became associated with rednecks, it started out as the white man’s blues.
And the man who started it all a century ago was Jimmie Rodgers – country music’s first superstar.
Famed for his distinctive yodel (which he developed after seeing some Swiss singers in a church) he used his voice like an instrument in its own right, capable of conjuring emotions from hearbreak to joy. It earned him the nickname The Blue Yodeller, though he was also known as The Singing Brakeman, in reference to the railroads where he had worked since he was a boy of 14.
Born in Mississippi in 1897, Rodgers was a child prodigy who won a talent show at the age of 12 and ran off to join a medicine show. His father, a railroad man himself, tracked the boy down and put him to work on the tracks as a water boy, and then a brakeman.
He spent ten years on the trains, travelling throughout the South and West Coasts, picking up musical influences all along the way from hoboes (guitar picking) and black railroad workers (work chants), and performing in passing medicine shows whenever he could.
His colourful yarns about rounders and gamblers, bounders and ramblers, were an instant hit with audiences accustomed to traditional folk and hillbilly songs with their traditional subjects of romance and rural life.
Rodgers’s songs could be mournful and plaintive or happy and carefree, and he was equally at home accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar or singing in front of a traditional jazz band.
Whatever he sang, he sang it from his own experience (Train Whistle Blues, In The Jailhouse Now and 13 numbered Blue Yodels) and his emotional honesty shone through. None more so than his song TB Blues.
After a decade on the rails he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, at the age of 27 but defied doctors’ advice and returned to the railroads, and to the minstrel shows, where he would also perform comedy routines in blackface.
But the disease soon made it impossible for him to carry on working on the trains and he took other work to support his young family, performing whenever and wherever he could.
After being spotted by Ralph Peer, a talent scout from New York who visited the South to make field recordings, he recorded his first songs in 1927 at the now-famous Bristol Sessions in Tennessee – arguably the earliest country music recordings.
Within two years Rodgers had become a major star (his 1930 recording of Blue Yodel No.9 features Louis Armstrong on trumpet) but his worsening health and the privations of the Great Depression meant he was unable to reap the benefits he might have enjoyed in another era.
By 1933, clearly close to death, he recorded a final session in New York in order to provide financial support for his family. A nurse needed to accompany him to the studio and he had to rest in a cot between songs, which he recorded one at a time. Two days later he died.
Aptly, and as he would surely have wished, his body, placed in a pearl grey coffin, was transported the one thousand miles to his hometown of Meridian in the specially converted baggage car of a train, which blew its whistle for the entire journey.
There’s not much footage of Rodgers performing. This is a rare exception.