Archive for the ‘Jimmie Rodgers’ Category

Repatriating Chemirocha (Jimmie Rodgers)

March 7, 2015


Many hundreds of recordings by an early generation of Kenyan musicians are currently being returned to the communities in which these songs were made in the 1950s by English ethnomusicologist, Hugh Tracey.

The repatriation of these recordings began in August, during a two-week pilot project in Kenya’s Rift Valley led by Prof Diane Thram, Director of the International Library of African Music (ILAM) in South Africa and the team from Ketebul Music, supported and funded by The Abubilla Music Foundation as part of the Singing Wells project.

In the summer of 2014, the Singing Wells Project embarked on a mission to repatriate the music of the Kipsigi People, recorded fifty years ago by Hugh Tracy. Working in association with ILAM and Ketebul Music, we uncovered the fascinating story behind the song Chemirocha.

See also here.

Peer and Rodgers

December 12, 2014


Thanks to Peter Feldman ( for this:

The following article was written by Ralph Peer ca. 1953:

The best things in life seem to occur by pure accident. We strive to accomplish something worthwhile; success finally comes to us, but usually from an unexpected source.

In 1927, after serving as an executive of Okeh Records for a number of years, I decided to go into business for myself as a music publisher. At that time a business alliance was started with the Victor Talking Machine Company which continued for many years. The arrangement was that I would select the artists and material and supervise the hillbilly recordings for Victor. My publishing firm would own the copyrights, and thus I would be compensated by the royalties resulting from the compositions which I would select for recording purposes.

During the spring of 1928 I made a survey of various Southern cities and determined to make initial recordings for Victor in Atlanta, Savannah, Bristol, Tenn., and Memphis. A recording crew of two men was assigned to me, and I set about the business of finding talent and repertoire.

In Bristol, the problem was not easy because of the relatively small population in that area. The local broadcasting stations, music stores, record dealers, etc., helped me as much as possible, but few candidates appeared. I then appealed to the editor of a local newspaper, explaining to him the great advantages to the community of my enterprise. He thought that I had a good idea and ran a half column on his front page. This worked like dynamite, and the very next day I was deluged with long-distance calls from the surrounding mountain region. Groups of singers who had not visited Bristol during their entire lifetime arrived by bus, horse and buggy, trains, or on foot.

Jimmie Rodgers telephoned from Asheville. He said that he was a singer with a string band. He had read the newspaper article and was quite sure that his group would be satisfactory. I told him to come on a certain day, and promised a try-out.

First Meeting
When I was alone with Jimmie in our recording studio (a very old warehouse which had not been in use for many years), I was elated when I heard him perform. It seemed to me that he had his own personal and peculiar style, and I thought that his yodel alone might spell success. Very definitely he was worth a trial. We ran into a snag almost immediately because, in order to earn a living in Asheville, he was singing mostly songs originated by New York publishers—the current hits. Actually, he had only one song of his own, “Soldier’s Sweetheart,” written several years before. When I told Jimmie what I needed to put him over as a recording artist, his perennial optimism bubbled over. If I would give him a week he could have a dozen songs ready for recording. I let him record his own song, and as a coupling his unique version of “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep.” This, I thought, would be a very good coupling, as “Soldier’s Sweetheart” was a straight ballad and the other side gave him a chance to display his ability as a yodeler. In spite of the lack of original repertoire, I considered Rodgers to be one of my best bets.

Wolf, Johnson, and Rodgers

September 18, 2014

Tommy Johnson


In Peter Guralnick’s interview with Howlin’ Wolf in “Feel Like Going Home,” the blues colossus claims that the yodeling of Jimmie Rodgers was the source of his hair-raising wail.

Wolf surely heard the Singing Brakeman during the late ’20s when, as a teenager, he lived and worked on the Dockery plantation in northwestern Mississippi. Yet Wolf’s trademark howl also owes a debt to Tommy Johnson, a tremendously influential, if today relatively unsung, blues singer whose lilting 1928 recording of “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” provided the blueprint for Wolf’s 1956 Chess single, “I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”, right down to its lupine moan. Play Johnson’s blues alongside Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” (a.k.a. “T For Texas”), and the similarities between the two records, released just months apart, render arguments about Wolf’s “real” source so much academic hairsplitting.

Their shared twelve-bar, AAB format (swap out lines from one record and see if they don’t fit perfectly into the other) is obvious enough. So is the way the two Mississippians draw on the same storehouse of verses and lyric fragments that virtually all of their blues and songster contemporaries did.

Not only that, but in something of a reversal of roles, “Blue Yodel” finds Rodgers playing an outlaw akin to Stackalee, an anti-hero more popular with black than white audiences, while in “Cool Drink”, Johnson adopts the persona of a freight-hopping rounder much like the one who frequents many of Rodgers’ train songs. What’s truly uncanny, though, is the resemblance between Johnson’s crying, field holler-inspired falsetto and Rodgers’ blue yodel, singular devices that each man tacked onto the end of vocal lines to heighten their emotional impact.

Of course Rodgers’ more measured diction, something of a cross between the parlor singing of Vernon Dalhart and the blackface minstrelsy of Emmett Miller, evinces fewer of the hallmarks of African-derived singing — the coarse, dirty timbres, say — employed by Johnson. Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” also sounds jauntier than the blues man’s heavier, more percussive “Cool Drink”, although Johnson’s music is quite lyrical, even country-sounding, compared to the brooding, declamatory style of his Delta counterparts.

Indeed, as accompanied by Ishman Bracey and Charlie McCoy on mandolin and guitar, Johnson’s music fairly resembles that of black string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, who not only played hillbilly material at white dances, but recorded tunes based on those of the Singing Brakeman and other country and pop acts as well. In other words, despite their differences, “Blue Yodel” and “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” display an undeniable affinity, most notably between Rodgers’ and Johnson’s vocal contortions and melodicism — their manifest theatricality, too.

None of which should be surprising, given that Rodgers and Johnson grew up a few miles from one another in Central Mississippi, and were born just a year apart. Each almost certainly would have heard the other’s records, even if establishing direct influence at this point is impossible.

What we do know for sure is that, after 1928, the two singers’ careers diverged sharply. Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel” sold more than a million copies, making him a celebrity and affording him the chance to leave behind a sizable body of work before his death from tuberculosis in 1934. Johnson, by contrast, worked just one more session, even though he was a star of the magnitude of his running buddies and fellow Delta heavy hitters Charley Patton and Son House. He continued to perform publicly for nearly three decades, until he died of complications related to chronic alcoholism in 1956.

Today, the legacies of Rodgers and Johnson are more discreet than ever, but oh for the chance to have tagged along with either of them, if only to learn what, if anything, they heard and stole from each other.

“The Voice in the Wilderness of Your Head”

June 20, 2014

JIMMIE RODGERS: “The Voice in the Wilderness of Your Head”

excerpt from Imogen Smith (

American popular culture has had few better days than July 16, 1930, when Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, went to the Victor Studio in Hollywood and recorded “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ on the Corner),” backed by none other than Louis Armstrong. Actually, “backed” is the wrong word; the recording is a duet, and you can hear Armstrong respond with delight to Rodgers’s vocals, and Rodgers drink up the fire of Armstrong’s trumpet. Satchmo went uncredited on the record, however, and his presence was only suspected until Nolan Porterfield finally tracked down hard evidence while researching his 2007 biography of Rodgers.

Jimmie Rodgers fully deserves his title as the “father of country music,” but it fails to capture his real nature as a one-man melting pot for country, blues, jazz and pop. His music was both urban and rural, blissfully indifferent to categories imposed later. He was accompanied at different times by fiddles and banjos, growling clarinets, jug bands, tubas, blues pickers, Hawaiian steel guitars and ukuleles, as well as his own rudimentary but effective guitar riffs. On “Blue Yodel No. 9,” his twanging, clarion voice—sharp and resonant as a locomotive’s bell—weaves dazzlingly with Armstrong’s bright, hard, leaping trumpet.

Racially integrated recordings were not uncommon at the time, though black and white musicians couldn’t perform together publicly, and when the great guitarist Eddie Lang (an Italian-American, born Salvatore Massaro) recorded with black artists like Lonnie Johnson for the Okeh label (producer of “race records”), he was credited as “Blind Willie Dunn.” Fortunately, microphones were blind. Piedmont bluesman John Jackson recounted how he cried all night when he learned that Jimmie Rodgers was dead, and was shocked the next morning when he saw the obituary and realized his idol was white. Rodgers himself defined country music as “the white man’s blues.”

Some time in the late 1940’s, the Kipsigis tribe of Kenya first heard recorded music courtesy of a windup gramophone. They were particularly taken with the performer they called “Chemirocha,” and wrote their own songs in tribute, inviting him to come and dance with them. Such a recording can be heard online; it sounds too good to be true, but all evidence points to it being legit. Alas, Rodgers could not accept the invitation, since he had died of tuberculosis in 1933, aged 35, in the Taft Hotel in Manhattan. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 1924, and he told us exactly how it felt in his macabre, angry lament, “T.B. Blues”:

When it rained down sorrow, it rained all over me,

                        ‘Cause my body rattles like a train on that old S.P.

According to the veddy British announcer who introduces the ethnographic recording, the Kipsigis women insisted that Chemirocha was “no ordinary creature” but in fact a faun, half-man, half-antelope. It’s a fitting image, somehow. Bob Dylan, who produced a tribute album, called Rodgers “the voice in the wilderness of your head.” He seems a kind of American Pan, a deathless goat-hoofed spirit of cultural fertility, a ghost capering across the fields of American music.

See also here, here, and here.


Jimmie Rodgers (#2)

July 31, 2013


from “Jimmie Rodgers Died for Your Sins,” by Tom Piazza, and

In the last three weeks of Jimmie Rodgers’ life, he traveled by train, in the company of a private nurse, from San Antonio to Galveston, and then by boat to New York City for an epic series of recording sessions, so that his wife and daughter would have a backlog of material to help out financially after he was gone. He stayed at the Hotel Taft and took the time to look at a few songs by a couple of young songwriters, whom he received while in bed, propped up on pillows.

At the Victor recording studio on East 24th Street, a cot was set up where Rodgers could lie down and regain his strength between takes. The first day, May 17, 1933, he recorded four tracks, an amazing effort under the circumstances; they included “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now,” a composition by one of the young songwriters who visited him at his hotel.

The next day he recorded three tracks, including the beautiful “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes” and a track released as “Jimmie Rodgers’s Last Blue Yodel,” sometimes known as “The Women Make a Fool Out of Me.” Rodgers skipped a day and went back in on May 20, but he was only able to record two songs before quitting.

He rested for three days. On May 24 the Victor people had set up a session with two other guitarists, and Rodgers, hanging on by a thread, recorded three songs with them. Then, solo, he recorded his last song, “Fifteen Years Ago Today,” sometimes issued as “Years Ago.”

The next day his nurse took him for a tour of Coney Island. He suffered a terrible attack of coughing and spasms and had to be brought back to the hotel, and in the deep morning hours of May 26 he died.

At the recent  Mississippi Picnic  at New York’s Central Park the “Singing Brakeman’s'”  iconic guitar was  played for the first time in 80 years to record music.

Rodger’s custom-ordered 1927 Martin 000-45, has his name in pearl inlay on the neck and “Thanks” written upside down on the back. After his death, Rodgers’ widow loaned the 000-45 to Ernest Tubb, who played it for forty years. It was later donated to the Jimmie Rodgers Museum, in Meridian, Mississippi, where it is kept in a safe behind glass.

Tribute artist Britt Gully received permission to use the guitar for recording a tribute CD and played the guitar at a Rodgers tribute at the event.

“This guitar is magical,” Gully said. “There was never a time when playing it that I did not realize what I was playing, and who played it before me.”

Meeting Jimmie Rodgers

November 3, 2012


MEETING JIMMIE RODGERS by Barry Mazor, (Oxford Univ. Press), 376 pp, softbound.

Here’s a great book that we somehow missed when it originally came out in hard cover in 2009. It’s rather distressing that a book of this qual- ity did not come to our attention earlier, and that tells us it’s likely that a lot of others with an interest in early country music and/or this great artist may have missed this as well. Make no mistake, though we may take him for granted now, Rodgers was a giant in American music—pop as well as country (the book has a long but accurate sub-title: “How America’s original roots music hero changed the pop sounds of a century”.

Nolan Porterfield years ago wrote what has been the best biography to date on Rodgers, but Barry Mazor has added much de- tail to the life, musical career and influence of “the Singing Brake- man” or “America’s Blue Yo- deler” (take your choice). This book is loaded with all sorts of interesting facts and knowledge- able commentary, with the 15 chapters giving extensive coverage of Rodgers’ huge influence as well as his early years and things that influenced him. Mazor discusses Rodgers’ con- temporaries like the Carter Family, Gene Autry and Jimmie Davis, then country stars of the 1940s and 50s like Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard.

He shows the effect that Rodgers had on Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan among many others, and even comments on the Blue Yodeler’s unlikely influence on woman singers (Rose Maddox, Dolly Parton and then Rhonda Vincent all tackled “MULESKINNER BLUES!”). A couple of the many interesting highlights are references to Jimmie’s popularity in foreign countries (his 78s came out ex- tensively in Australia and Great Britain, and even in Japan, India and Africa), and the interesting account of how a devoted early Rodgers collector (Jim Evans) started a fan club which led eventually to Rodgers’ songs being re-released starting in the 1950s, after a dry spell of some 20 years of unavail- ability. At the end of each chapter there are listings of pertinent books and music to check out. This is a superb study of a great artist, packed with all sorts of detail—HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!. $ 18.00

Blacks, Whites, and Blues

June 3, 2012


“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

“Chemirocha (Jimmie Rodgers)”

April 13, 2012

Jonathan Ward of Excavated Shellac gives the background of the 1950 Kenyan recording of “Chemirocha” by a tribe that, after hearing Jimmie Rodgers’ music, were fascinated by his voice and created a legend around him, calling him Chemirocha: Chemi (Jimmie) Rocha (Rodgers).

I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of readers  were familiar with the incredible Kenyan recording of “Chemirocha,” which was captured by the South African ethnographer and recordist Hugh Tracey on his 1950 expedition across East Africa. If ever there was an early recording from Africa that could be described as infamous, “Chemirocha” is it. Decades ago, that recording was issued by Tracey on his long out-of-print Music of Africa LP collection (#2: Kenya), then later by John Storm Roberts on his groundbreaking and long out-of-print Nairobi Sound LP, and later, sounding clear as a bell, on the recent Sharp Wood CD Kenyan Songs and Strings.

“Chemirocha” is deservedly infamous because of it’s backstory. Tracey arrived in Kapkatet, Kenya, inland from the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, to record the music of the Kipsigis. The Kipsigis were then known (and it seems still are) as a pastoral people whose livelihood, on the whole, depended on cattle, tea, and millet. Their language, interestingly, is not a Bantu language, and is part of the Nilotic language group, centered around southern Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda (Luo is also a Nilotic language). Anyway, Tracey discovered on his apparently rainy visit that the Kipsigis had heard numerous recordings by American country music star Jimmie Rodgers – likely purchased and/or brought to Kenya by the British, as Jimmie Rodgers discs were reissued in Britain on the Zonophone label. The Kipsigis, after hearing Rodgers’ music, were fascinated by his voice, which they deemed magical, and created a legend around him, calling him Chemirocha: Chemi (Jimmie) Rocha (Rodgers). According to the Kipsigis, Chemirocha, because of his prowess as a singer and player, had to have been half-man, half-antelope. The younger Kipsigis invented songs about him. This well known and beautiful version of “Chemirocha” can be heard, introduced by Hugh Tracey himself, here.

Read entire article here.

Jimmie Rodgers