This week Highway 61 is rebroadcasting a show featuring Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) of Meridian, aka the “father of country music” and the originator of the “blue yodel.” The show was originally aired in April of 2007 in tandem with the dedication of a Mississippi Blues Trail marker in Meridian, “Jimmie Rodgers and the Blues.” We’re gearing up for a new season of Highway 61, and will be back next week with a new show featuring harmonica great Big Walter Horton.
Rodgers was one of the biggest stars of American music during his era–he recorded between 1927 and 1933–and it’s arguable that he did more to popularize blues than any other performer of his time. It’s also probably the case that Rodgers influenced blues artists more than any other single white musician in the history of the blues–you can hear his influence in artists including Tommy Johnson, the Mississippi Sheiks, and Mississippi John Hurt, whose Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me is based on Rodgers’ hit Waiting On A Train. And Howlin’ Wolf explained that his howl derived from a failed attempt to imitate Rodgers’ signature yodels.
As a boy Rodgers performed with minstrel troupes, and later, while working as a brakeman on a railway line between Meridian and New Orleans, he got to know and perform with many blues artists. Rodgers made his first recordings for the RCA label in Bristol, Tennessee at the same sessions that the Carter Family debuted on wax, and he quickly became a national favorite. Rodgers toured with another folksy legend, humorist Will Rogers, and was captured on screen in a short film in which he performs three songs, including his Blue Yodel #1, aka “T for Texas.”
Rodgers collaborated with a variety of African American artists on record, including guitarist Clifford Gibson and the jug band of Clifford Hayes. And on July 16, 1930 Rodgers recorded Blue Yodel #9 (aka “Standin’ on the Corner”) together with trumpeter Louis Armstrong and Armstrong’s pianist wife Lil. In 1970 Johnny Cash featured Louis Armstrong on his TV program, and recreated the song as a tribute to Rodgers.
Rodgers died of tuberculosis in May of 1933 at just 35, but his music continued to influence both blues artists and country musicians for many years. Both Gene Autry and future Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis (author of You Are My Sunshine) began their careers as Jimmie Rodgers copyists, and Merle Haggard and George Jones later did tribute albums. And in 1997 Bob Dylan put together a compilation of artists covering Rodgers’ songs.