The Singing Brakeman


Times change and don’t change. The nature of humanity has stayed the same. Jimmie is at the heart of it all with a seriousness and a humor that is befuddling….His is the voice in the wilderness of your head.
Bob Dylan

“After 100 years of abuse on the Mississippi River, we had a big flood [in 1927] and then it dried up and we had a dust bowl and all of these different types of gutsy music seemed to all come from the South in that period of time.”
Merle Haggard

Mississippi Delta Blues

Rodgers grew up poor in Mississippi where he was early on exposed to the blues.  When he started working on the railroad, his blues education continued, prompting him to pen what music historians call some of the earliest country songs — in actuality blues songs written and played by a white man.

[Hewas the original kid with a guitar…  [drawing not] on folk ballads so much as jazz, blues, Hawaiian music, and vaudeville.

My Blue Eyed Jane

In place of Appalachian music’s piety and grim resignation, Rodgers music was populated by good-time pals one step ahead of the law, but still ready to shed a tear for mother and home.  He sang with an insouciant, almost insolent drawl, and his sentimental parlor ballads were offset by rowdier songs, such as In the Jailhouse Now, Waiting For a Train, Travelin’ Blues, and T for Texas.

Blue Yodel No. 9 – ft. Louis Armstrong

“Jimmie was hung up somewhere between dixieland jazz and country but there wasn’t no such country yet so he became the father of country blues & country jazz, playing the little riffs on the guitar and singing 12-bar blues and writing ballads that was story songs and gave roots to what we now know as modern country music.”
Merle Haggard

Rodgers created the “blue yodel” to make his music more distinctive, leading to one of his nicknames, the Blue Yodeler.  Rodgers had a knack for landing nicknames; he was also called the Singing Brakeman and the Father of Country Music.

The Brakeman’s Blues

Although Jimmie Rodgers died of tuberculosis in 1933, he had already made his mark by writing a number of prototype country songs with strong blues overtones.  Rodgers confirmed that the blues, even in its earliest stages, could be explored successfully by white songwriters and performers.

“He had a short career, six years, something like that and recorded something like 110-112 songs and it was just absolutely for the most part all masterpieces, be hard to choose which one was the best.”
Merle Haggard

Travelin’ Blues – Merle Haggard

Many of the biggest country stars of the 1940s and 1950s, notably Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Snow began as Rodgers disciples and recorded his songs Jimmie Rodgers’ influence on Hank [Williams] was less direct.  Rodgers brought the barroom culture to country music, and inasmuch as Hank’s music came from the honky-tonk, he was a Rodgers’ disciple.  Hank learned to yodel like Rodgers but usually did no more than break occasionally into falsetto, and he probably learned that from blues singers.

“He resonated with people I think because he did something extremely hard, extremely good and there was a lot of people that could do it almost good — but most of them got bogged down somewhere but he didn’t.  His sense of timing was unmatched and his pitch was the same way.”
Merle Haggard

Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia – Willie Nelson

I knew the music of immortals like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams.  I loved them all, just as later I would love Lefty Frizzell.  These were figures carved out on the Mount Rushmore of country music.  Each had an individual sound and an intimate voice that contributed to my own developing voice.”
Willie Nelson

He’s the Robert Johnson of white blues.  That’s what he was.”
Merle Haggard

[Excerpts taken from Lovesick Blues by Paul Hemphill and A Century of Blues by Robert Santelli, Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues]

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