Blacks, Whites, and Blues

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“Blacks, Whites, and Blues,” by Tony Russell (Stein and Day, 1970)

The man whose efforts crystallized the blue yodel, and the white blues form, and ensured its future in country music was Jimmie Rodgers.  Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1897, the son of an M&O gang foreman.  Rodgers’ musical environment has often been described; how he fetched water for the black gandy dancers in the Meridian yards; how he heard their songs and slang, and was taught the banjo by them.  Rodgers’ career on the tracks was curtailed by tuberculosis in 1925, and he took up, full time, the musical life which he had for some years enjoyed as an amateur.

The blue yodels were a foundation upon which countless white country singers built.  David Evans has suggested, very reasonably, that the blue yodel synthesized Swiss (yodelling) and African (falsetto) traditions; the falsetto “leap” was established among blacks since the days of the field holler — consider Vera Hall’s “Wild Ox Moan” — and (Jimmy) Rodgers, hearing it, thought it analogous to the yodel and inserted both into his blues.

“The identifying characteristics of the ‘blue yodel,'” John Greenway has written,” are (1) the slight situational pattern, that of a ’rounder’ boasting of his prowess as a lover, but ever in fear of the ‘creeper,’ evidence of whose presence he reacts to either with threats against the sinning parties or with the declaration that he can get another woman easily enough; and (2) the prosodic pattern, the articulation of Negro maverick stanzas dealing with violence and promiscuity, often with double meaning, and followed by a yodel refrain.”

Jimmy Rodgers sings “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel,” recorded May 18, 1933, NYC:

Jimmie Rodgers

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