- Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler
Nolan Porterfield rightly states that his “book has played some part in keeping [Rodgers’s] memory alive and in documenting the extent of his influence on contemporary forms of American music” (p. ix). Originally published by University of Illinois Press in 1979, this recent edition includes a new preface by the author. Other purposes Porterfield mentions for writing this book include “curiosity,” “obsession,” “to clear the muddle of myth and rumor,” “the pleasures of research,” and to “be able to distill some pithy, trenchant conclusion and at last explain, if only to myself, the grand phenomenon that was Jimmie Rodgers” (p. 360). On the last reason mentioned, Porterfield writes: “I was wrong, of course. When it was time for an end, I was still writing beginnings” (p. 361). Perhaps that is why the book has been revisited by the author and readers for thirty years.
Porterfield’s biography presents Jimmie Rodgers’s life in a chronological fashion. Chapters cover periods from a few months, such as “June–August, 1928,” to several years. Of the “thirty-five years, eight months, and eighteen days of Jimmie Rodgers’ life” (p. 361), his first [End Page 379] twenty-nine years (through January 1927) are covered in the first 63 of 460 total pages. Given that Rodgers died in May 1933, the book places emphasis on his most successful years. A separate chapter prior to appendix 1 contains a discography with such information as composer, copyright holder, and sales figures. Appendix 2 contains a chronology of “Jimmie Rodgers’ Personal Appearances” (p. 432), including cities, venues, and brief notes about other performers, accompaniment, etc. The design of “the present edition is substantially the same as the original” (p. ix). So, if you own an earlier edition, check the preface for the changes.
The three chapters taking us through Rodgers’s first twenty-nine years are aptly summarized in the following paragraph:
[P]recious little to show for his nearly three decades of hard-scrabbling: one failed marriage; another he could and did walk away from anytime; a dozen or so jobs, none of which he’d succeeded at; at least three attempts to run his own business, also failures; a couple of battered stringed instruments; numerous debts; and a disease that would eventually kill him, long before his time. A friend summed it up: “About all he had was the clothes on his back, a warped-neck guitar, and that cough in his lungs.”(pp. 62–3)
While the remaining chapters center on certain major themes developed in those preceding, such as family, health, and life on the railroad, other recurring topics are developed. These topics involve Rodgers’s recording sessions, interaction with pioneer music publisher Ralph Peer, touring, and effects of the economy, including the Great Depression, and new technology, such as radio and movies, on the other life events.
Information about the life and songs of Jimmie Rodgers is pertinent to folklore research because of the subject matter and Porterfield’s methodologies. He captures the oral history of Rodgers’s life through personal interviews with Rodgers’s first wife, Stella (p. 44), with his most frequent songwriting partner, Elsie McWilliams (pp. 143, 210), as well as cousins, such as Mrs. Pearl Bozeman Harris (p. 359). The text also contains interviews with Bill Bruner, a man who stood in for Rodgers at some performances (p. 174), and Bennie Hess, who owns unreleased recordings of Rodgers (p. 190). Citations at the end of each chapter document Porterfield’s extensive interviews, often conducted on multiple occasions with the same individuals.
Also of interest, the book contains historical information about Rodgers’s recording of numerous songs, such as “Take Me Back Again” (p. 56), a “railroad ballad . . . ‘The Wreck of the Virginian’” (p. 106), the compiling or reworking of “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” from “Where the River Shannon Flows” (pp. 110–1), a “railroad tragedy song” entitled “Ben Dewberry...