“His is the music of America. He sang the songs of the people he loved, of a young nation growing strong. His was an America of glistening rails, thundering boxcars, and rain-swept night, of lonesome prairies, great mountains and a high blue sky. He sang of the bayous and the cornfields, the wheated plains, of the little towns, the cities, and of the winding rivers of America.” The gravestone inscription of Jimmie Rodgers reflects his position as the architect of what’s now known as roots music. He died today in 1933.
James Charles Rodgers aka Jimmie Rodgers died aged 35 from lung failure – a legacy of an earlier bout of tuberculosis. Nicknamed “The Father of Country Music” and “The Singing Brakeman” (due to working on railroads), Rodgers mixed blues, cowboy and rural music to create what became accepted as country music.
Jimmie was in the right place at the right time in August 1927, when the Victor Talking Machine Company were recording artists in Bristol, Tennessee and he successfully auditioned – as did the Carter Family.
Gaining modest success with his renditions of “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” and “The Soldier’s Sweetheart”, a further Victor session was then scheduled – this time in Camden, New Jersey. That included “Blue Yodel no.1″ aka “T for Texas”, later a massive hit and incorporating his trademark (and much-imitated) yodel.
That song propelled Rodgers to star status, aided by constant touring, exposure of his distinctive vocal stylings on radio shows and even a movie release. However ailing health saw him performing only on a radio show in his adopted home of San Antonio, Texas by 1932.
What proved to be his final recording session saw Rodgers journey to New York in May 1933. That commitment was concluded by a solo rendition of “Years Ago” but within 36 hours he’d passed away. The influence of Rodgers on many forms of American music would become evident after his death, with folk, blues and country artists covering material he’d recorded.
Bob Dylan would later release a Rodgers tribute album featuring the likes of Bono, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. Contributing a version of “Blue Eyed Jane”, Dylan commented of Jimmie that, “his is the voice in the wilderness of your head”.
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And here’s some footage of JR in action: