Jimmie Rodgers: From Vaudeville to Country Music

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Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Jimmie Rodgers is one of the most important figures in country music history. He’s often called the “Father of Country Music,” and his influence can still be heard in the music of today. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at Rodgers’ life and career, from his early days as a vaudeville performer to his later years as a country music pioneer.

Early life and influences

Jimmie Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on September 8, 1897, the first of three children of James Charles Rodgers and Eliza Jane Fitzgerald. His father was a railroader and his mother worked as a nurse. Rodgers began singing and Yamato at an early age and was exposed to a wide variety of music. He cites Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and Emmett Millard as some of his influences.

Rodgers’ family and childhood

Jimmie Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on September 8, 1897, the first of five children of James Charles Rodgers and Eliza Melton Rodgers. Eliza had moved with her family from Hurtsboro, Alabama, in 1892 after her father Jacob died. In 1900 the family was living in The Bottoms, a poor neighborhood of Meridian. Jimmie’s father James worked as a train fireman while also leasing land for farming and running a general store.Eliza Rodgers died of unidentified causes in 1903, when Jimmie was six years old. After her death, her children were split up among relatives. Jimmie went to live with his Aunt Callie Brogden in Smithville, Mississippi; his two brothers Reuben and Ralph went to live with their maternal grandparents in Hurtsboro; and his two sisters Carrie and Cynthia were sent to live with an uncle and aunt elsewhere

Rodgers’ exposure to music

Jimmie Rodgers was exposed to music from an early age, as his father, a brakeman on the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, would sing while working, and his mother would sing at home. He also heard black laborers singing while working on the railroad. Rodgers’ affinity for music was evident early on; he would often harmonize with the workers while they worked, and he also began playing the mandolin at age six. By the time he was twelve years old, he had begun performing regularly with local minstrel and medicine show troupes.

Start in show business

Jimmie Rodgers began his musical journey as part of a vaudeville troupe. He played the guitar and banjo and sang as part of group performances. It was during this time that Rodgers honed his musical skills and stage presence. He soon attracted the attention of talent scouts and was offered a recording contract.

Rodgers’ time as a brakeman

Jimmie Rodgers’ iconic yodeling style was influenced by his time working as a brakeman on the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. Rodgers would often sing to while away the long hours on the job, and his colleagues would yodel back to him in encouragement. This call-and-response style of singing eventually made its way into Rodgers’ own performances, and helped to create the “blue yodel” sound that would come to define his music.

Rodgers on the vaudeville circuit

Jimmie Rodgers worked hard for years touring on the vaudeville circuit. He played guitar and banjo and sang songs to entertain the audiences. He was often billed as “The Yodeling brakeman” or “The Singingrailroad man”. Rodgers’s style of yodeling was unique and influenced many other singers who came after him. In 1927, Rodgers made his first recordings for Victor Records. These recordings were very popular and made him a star. He became known as “The Father of Country Music”.

Transition to country music

Rodgers became interested in show business while working on the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad. He began performing in talent shows and local vaudeville venues, and soon made his way to Memphis, Tennessee. There, he secured a job as a brakeman on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. While working on the railroad, Rodgers heard the music of country artists such as Gid Tanner and Riley Puckett. He was inspired by their music and decided to transition to country music.

The recording of “Blue Yodel”

In 1927, Rodgers’ friend and mentor Ashley recorded two of his songs, “Blue Yodel” and “T For Texas”, which Ashley sold to the Victor Talking Machine Company. A month later, on August 4, 1927, Rodgers recorded “Blue Yodel” himself in New York. It was released in October and became a huge success, selling over a million copies. It is considered to be the first country music record to achieve widespread popularity. The success of “Blue Yodel” led to a recording contract with Victor and a series of successful recordings over the next few years.

Rodgers’ impact on country music

In the 1920s, country music was a largely regional phenomenon, popular in the rural South and parts of the Midwest. But all that changed with the arrival of Jimmie Rodgers, the “singing brakeman” from Meridian, Mississippi. With his gentle voice and intimate style of songwriting, Rodgers quickly found success in the burgeoning country music industry. He became known as the “Blue Yodeler,” and his records sold in the millions. Rodgers’ influence can be heard in the work of nearly every major country artist that followed him, from Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb to Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson. Today, his songs are as popular as ever, serving as a timeless reminder of the power of country music.

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