Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi and You”

Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers

JJimmie Rodgers (1897 – 1933) was born in Meridian, Mississippi, and was a restless rebel from the start. By the age of 13, he had demonstrated a marked affinity for entertainment, twice organizing traveling shows, and twice brought back home by his father. A foreman for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, his father soon had Jimmie working as a water boy for the railroad, a position that allowed him to be exposed to the work songs of African-American workers who laid and maintained the tracks. He also learned to play the guitar from the hobos who rode the freight trains across America. Rodgers eventually worked as a brakeman and was later known as “The Singing Brakeman”, showing up for shows in full railroad overalls and brakeman’s cap.

In 1924, Rodgers was diagnosed with tuberculosis, an incurable disease at the time. The doctors prescribed rest but, even though the disease ended his railroad career, Rodgers was restless and he got back into the entertainment industry, organizing traveling shows that played throughout the Southeastern United States. Then, in 1927, a miracle happened.

The Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) developed a portable recording machine (it weighed more than 300 pounds!) and went down to Bristol Tennessee in 1927 to record the music of everyday Americans. The Southern United States was poor, rural but rich in tradition, compared to the North which was urban and industrial. The recordings, known as the Bristol Sessions, yielded music from very diverse cultures – Cajun, Mexican, Hawaiian, Appalachian, Native American and Blues, music which existed without the knowledge of the rest of the country.

The two huge stars to come out of the Bristol Sessions were The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. They were unique in their own way – Rodgers was a born entertainer who lived for his fans while the Carter Family played songs that endure to this day. The Carter Family also endeared themselves to their public by being like everybody else – for example, in the middle of the Great Depression, they charged 15 cents for their concerts but widows and orphans always got in free.

Although commercial recordings of American music began in 1922, it was almost impossible to generate any revenue from record sales because radio had become virtually universal. Certainly, the economy and the Great Depression ended many prospects at a career in the music business. Nevertheless, Rodgers’ 1927 recordings were very successful, yielding two songs for which he was paid $100, a lot of money in those days. From this small step forward, Rodgers built a career that captured the hearts of America. He was the first American artist to rise to prominence through his recordings. His concert performances were equally popular and featured a mix of musical influences, from the blues he had heard from railroad workers, to yodeling, which he had first heard from a troupe of Swiss entertainers. His yodeling became so popular that Rodgers wrote 13 numbered “blue yodels”, the most famous being “Blue Yodel No 1” (T for Texas), “Blue Yodel No 8 (Mule Skinner Blues) and “Blue Yodel No 9 (Standin’ on the Corner) which was recorded in 1930 with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Armstrong’s wife Lil on piano. Pretty soon, people had also nicknamed Rodgers “The Blue Yodeler.” His blue yodels were later recorded by the likes of Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Bill Munroe, Waylon Jennings and Jerry Garcia.

Rodgers’ next-to-last recordings in 1932 were made in Camden Studios, New Jersey, from where I chose his mournful ballad, “Miss the Mississippi and You.” By this time, tuberculosis clearly was getting the better of him. It was not in Rodgers’ make-up to stay still, though, and his constant touring and recording schedule only hurt his chances of recovery. During this final recording session in New York City, he was so weakened from years of fighting his ailment that he had a nurse accompanying him. Rodgers was coughing up blood and needed to rest on a cot between songs. Jimmie Rodgers died in 1933, two days after his last recording, leaving a wife and a young daughter in mourning. Another of his daughters, June, died in 1923 at the age of 6 months. Jimmie Rodgers was 35 years old at the time of his death and he accounted for fully 10% of RCA Victor’s record sales, in a market drastically reduced by the Great Depression.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin

 

Miss The Mississippi And You

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