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  • Blue YodelerJimmie Rodgers
  • Bland Simpson (bio)

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Figure 1.

It was in Johnson City, Tennessee, in April 1926, that a man seeing Jimmie Rodgers in a return engagement said to his girlfriend, "That blue yodeler's come back to town again." The nickname stuck. Photograph courtesy of Wilson Library's Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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James Charles Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1897. His mother, Eliza, died when he was four years old. After that, he was off riding the rods with his father, a foreman on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. By the time he reached fourteen, Jimmie Rodgers was carrying water for the black men who worked for his father. Jimmie had quit school and was now a fulltime railroad man himself.

The black railroaders liked him. They taught him the guitar and the banjo. They taught him work songs, field hollers, chants. Jimmie Rodgers took what he'd learned and won a talent show back in Meridian singing "Bill Bailey."

After the Great War, Jimmie married a Meridian girl, and Mr. and Mrs. Rodgers had a little girl, Carrie Anita. Within two years Carrie Anita had a sister, June. Jimmie joined a medicine show to support his family, playing banjo in blackface all across Kentucky and Tennessee. He played picnics and political rallies. Jimmie Rodgers made a little money for the first time in his life.

The money burned a hole clean through his pocket. He put his hard-earned cash into his very own Jimmie Rodgers Hawaiian Tent Show and hit the road. In December 1923, a gale-force wind ripped his tent show to shreds. He sent word home of the disaster, but by way of reply came even worse news: his baby June had died.

He hocked his banjo to get fare back to Meridian for Christmas and the baby's funeral.

Jimmie Rodgers went back to work on the railroad. He went out west riding the rods, out to the high country of Utah and Colorado. Then he took sick, bad sick. A doctor told him he was broke down with TB. He'd have to quit railroading—for good.

Jimmie nearly died.

When he pulled through, he went back into music. He and his sister-in-law formed a Meridian dance- and popular-tunes band, but it bored him. He had a better notion he would play tunes he really liked in his own style—part hillbilly, part black railroader. And he had something else special, a kind of yodel unlike the Swiss style, which had been the nation's craze years before, a yodel married to the blues. Of his yodels, Jimmie said, "They're just curlicues I make with my throat."

It was in Johnson City, Tennessee, in April 1926, that a man seeing Jimmie Rodgers in a return engagement concert said to his girlfriend, "That blue yodeler's come back to town again!" The nickname stuck. Jimmie and his wife and child moved to Asheville, looking for better weather, a healthier climate, and work. Jimmie Rodgers and his hillbilly orchestra worked steady, playing over the radio station WWNC right up to the day the station fired them.

Jimmie Rodgers got a job as a city detective.

That's what the Blue Yodeler was doing when he and his wife heard that Victor's Ralph Peer was set up with portable recording equipment in Bristol, Tennessee-Virginia, [End Page 93] and that he was advertising for country music talents to come in and make records for him. Jimmie Rodgers was out of Asheville and up to Bristol like a shot.

Jimmie yodeled "Sleep, Baby, Sleep." Ralph Peer liked it and recorded the Mississippi boy just a few days after the Carter Family had recorded in Bristol.

The Bristol sessions came out in October of 1927.

The Blue Yodeler's first royalty came out to $27.

But Jimmie Rodgers had always liked show business. He always wanted to make it big. Forty days after the release of the Bristol material, Jimmie made his way to New York City just so he could...


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