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Music / Jimmie Rodgers

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The Singing Brakeman
James Charles Rodgers (September 8, 1897 – May 26, 1933) is a legendary musician and has been titled "The Father of Country Music". He was particularly famous for yodeling in some of his songs. While he wasn’t exactly the poor orphan kid as he was depicted in his music, he did have an unprivileged childhood which would affect his music. He taught himself how to play guitar and learned to sing in church. After spending a dozen years working at the railroads, starting at age 14, he got tuberculosis and was too ill to continue work on the railroad. He used this time to focus on music and spent the next few years playing with amateur bar bands.

His big break came when he learned that Ralph Peer, a talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine Company, was hosting auditions in Bristol, Tennessee in what would become known as the Bristol Session. He performed the day after the Carter family, who would also become very influential country artists, and both got signed by Peer. Rogers recorded "Blue Yodel (T for Texas)" in 1927 and it turned him into a national star. He recorded many hits within the next 5 years, including 12 sequel songs to the Blue Yodel. 8 and 9 were particularly famous as they were collaborations with Louis Armstrong. Rodgers also starred in the 1929 film The Singing Brakeman.

His tuberculosis though took its toll in 1933 where he became increasingly ill. While recording a number of songs in New York, he collapsed on the street and died on May 26, 1933 at only 35 years old. Despite his short life, he had a profound impact on the development of country and rock music and earned nicknames such as Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman and the Father of Country Music. He left behind 110 records which have since set the emotional tone of future country music works and was the first inductee of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has also been inducted in the Songwriter Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame.

His music was even incorporated into the musical culture of the Kipsigis people of Kenya. During World War II, English Christian missionaries visited the Kipsigis lands, bringing along a wind-up record player and several Rodgers recordings. Less than a decade after the war, a British musicologist visited the region and made field recordings of traditional African songs. When he visited the Kipsigis, a local chief organized a group of singers to perform three songs for him. All of them prominently featured a character they called "Chemirocha"—their pronunciation of "Jimmie Rodgers". Interpretations of the name "Chemirocha" vary widely.

Tropes present in Jimmie Rodgers' work:

  • 12-Bar Blues: Most of the Blue Yodel songs used this structure.
  • The Alcoholic: The subject of A Drunkard's Child, as the title suggests, is about the orphan child of a man who began an alcoholic and a gambling addict who then abandoned his family.
  • Alliterative Title: One of his recordings is titled Pistol Packing Papa.
  • Cover Album: He was the subject of a tribute album called Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Tribute which featured artists like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Van Morrison doing covers of Rodger's songs.
  • The Gambling Addict: Mother, The Queen of My Heart involves a man who, against their mother's dying wishes, takes up gambling as a pastime and eventually bets all of his money in a card game. He does end up winning but gives them to a newsboy out of guilt.
    • A Drunkard's Child mentions a father who abandoned his wife and child after he took up gambling and drinking.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Any compilation album of his recordings is more or less one since all of his records consisted of an individual song.
  • Location Song: "My Little Old Home Down in New Orleans"
  • Murder Ballad: Frankie and Johnny which involves a wife murdering her unfaithful husband.
  • Rearrange the Song: In the mid-1950s, several of his original recordings were given new backing arrangements to update the sound, from late 1920s/early 1930s to a mid-1950s honky-tonk arrangement. Based on the success of Webb Pierce's "In the Jailhouse Now," RCA Records in 1955 released a "new" version of Rodgers' "In the Jailhouse Now" (an update of the original 1928 recording, with Hank Snow and his backing band, the Rainbow Ranch Boys, recording a new instrumental track), and it reached No. 7 on the Billboard country charts.
  • Sequel Song: Blue Yodel No. 1 (T is for Texas) was followed up by 12 other Blue Yodel records.
  • Something Blues: Rodgers had quite a few of these including "The Brakeman Blues" "Never No Mo' Blues" "Blue Yodel No. 4 (California Blues)" "Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues" and "Those Gambler's Blues"
  • "Somewhere" Song: In the Hills of Tennessee where Jimmie claims he will find his paradise lost.
  • Train Song: "Waiting for a Train" and many of his other songs are about trains. Granted, he worked on a railway before becoming a professional musician
  • Working on the Chain Gang: I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now is about a person who was wrongfully convicted of a crime and had to work on a chain gang but whom is now free.