Jimmie Rodgers in The Singing Brakeman

Imahe of Jimmie Rodgers I do enjoy working at a university, for on a regular basis new cultural gems come my way. I’ve been working with Gary Stanton on his “Memory and Culture in American Vernacular Music,” and through this course I came upon Jimmie Rodgers, also known as “the father of country.” A quick search on YouTube delivered a short film featuring Rodgers titled The Singing Brakeman (1929). Since I starting watching The Singing Brakeman early yesterday morning, I’ve been transfixed by this guy’s style.

I’m sure those folks who know something about the history of music are yawning by now, but this musician and film wer a wild discovery for me. Watching him perform “The Blue Yodel” (also known as “T is for Texas”) immediately made me think how much his style embodied the best of both Robert Johnson and Hank Williams –not a light combination of 20th century musical legends. More than that, he yodels. The guy yodels like there is no tomorrow and it’s beautifully tortured. In this short nine minute film he sits sheepishly in front of the camera with his guitar, throwing in some brilliantly subtle riffs, and making just about everything else on the screen disappear but his sound.

The film features three tunes, “Waitin’ for a Train,” “Daddy and Home,” and “Blue Yodel.” They’re all good, but “The Blue Yodel” is an absolutely amazing tune.  I have to republish the lyrics below because it reads like a blues song of the highest order, and the yodels and his guitar licks bring it to the next level in my mind —not to mention his pronunciation of Georgia as “Georgie.” Here’s the video of “Blue Yodel”:

What I particularly like about this nine minute film is the way it depicts Jimmie Rodgers as a railroad worker stopping in for a cup of coffee and belting out three amazing songs while waiting for his train. Rodgers came from a family of railroad workers, and was one himself before contracting tuberculosis. What’s more, he’s one of the earlier popular music stars (although he had a rather short career) during a historical moment when mass media was exploding; distribution of his music could be mediated more widely than ever before given the popularity of film, the emergence of radio, and high quality recordings. The film kind of captures this transitional space, a Mississippi country boy waiting for his coffee framed for an entire nation in a short film that is staged, but not all that unreal. He’s not a celebrity in the sense we might understand it now, but rather a local musician reaching the world at large. Makes me think (hope?) that in our moment the opposite trend might be at work. As celebrity fades the re-emergence of the local musicians occurs, especially given the means of capturing and distributing media have changed so radically that the role of the musician as global pop star is finally seen as more of a manipulated marketing product of the artificial forces of capital than the capturing and fostering of a talent.

Lyrcis for “The Blue Yodel, No. 1”

You’ll notice these lyrics are different than the those he sings in the video, and there were several different versions of this tune, suggesting a kind of constantly riffing and improvisation. A fluid, arbitrary process of interpretation.

I said T for Texas
T for Tennessee
Oh, yeah, I said T for Texas
T for Tennessee
Said, T for old Thelma
The gal who made a wreck out of me

Well, if you don’t want me momma
You sure don’t have to start
Ah, if you don’t want me momma
You sure don’t have to start
‘Cause I can get more women
Than a passenger train car

Yeah, I said T for Texas
T for Tennessee
Whoa, T for Texas
T for Tennessee
I said, T for old Thelma
The gal who made a wreck out of me

I’m gonna buy me a pistol
Just as long as I am tall
I’m going to buy me a pistol
Just as long as I am tall
I’m gonna shoot down old mean Thelma
Just to watch her jump and fall

I said T for Texas
T for Tennessee
I said T for Texas
T for Tennessee
T for old Thelma
The gal who made a wreck out of me

Gonna buy me a shotgun
With a great long shiny barrel, oh yeah
I’m gonna buy me a shotgun
With a great long shiny barrel
Gonna shoot down that rounder
That stole away my girl

I’m going where the water
Tastes like cherry wine
Yeah, I’m going where the water
Tastes like cherry wine
‘Cause the water down here in Georgia
Tastes like turpentine

I said T for Texas
T for Tennessee
Oh I said, T for Texas
T for Tennessee
I said T for old Thelma
The gal who made a wreck out of me
Oh yeah, women make a fool out of me

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8 Responses to Jimmie Rodgers in The Singing Brakeman

  1. The Blue Yodler was a force that has a reverberating influence…you can find him in today’s modern country music as well as Jewel. The only thing missing is the “true folk” aspect of the music.

    Yesterday was his birthday.

  2. Brian says:

    Wow, thanks for this post! He really is something special. In addition to Robert Johnson and Hank Williams, I’d throw Woody Guthrie in as a cultural coordinate as well.

    Merle Haggard did a record of Rodgers’ songs back in 1969, it’s a fantastic selection of music, and helps give a sense of just how influential he was on later country and folk music Here’s a sample:


  3. Brad says:

    You would write about this guy & this song right when I am in the middle of a Felice Bros. kick, wouldn’t you? I knew you would, somehow. The Felice boys do a killer version of T for Texas:
    I can’t get enough of this stuff, thanks Jim!

  4. Reverend says:

    How trippy his birthday was yesterday, something wild about that coincidence to me. Also, the “true folk” point is a good one, and the class is really a folklore approach to music and local traditions. I really wouldn’t know how to define or classify “folk” music, but Brian’s suggestion of Woodie Guthrie may bridge that gap.

    Speaking of which, I have to say I have very little, if any exposure to Woodie Guthrie, I think I have to remedy that. For I know enough about him and his legacy to warrant me getting off my ass and listening. I think we need to talk about Guthrie, for I am trying to get deeper into music so I don’t feel so divested from so many of the greatest moments in culture. Also, the Merle Haggard stuff is wonderful, the yodel is strikingly powerful for me in this music. Figured you could help me out here, I love it when you make me look smarter.

    Ok, the Felice Bros song is amazing, and so much of the music you have been posting on your blog, and your struggle through the folk tradition (am I right labeling it as such) was an impetus for posting this. Moreover, if you aren’t in Gary Stanton’s class already, I highly, highly recommend taking it, auditing it, or just talking to him.

    He is a wealth of information on this stuff, and so very cool. I can spend hours in his office talking about all kinds of cool folklore stuff from Xeroxlore to black mariners to music. And the music stuff is great, because it is his real passion. And as a bonus, he relies heavily on WFMU archives in his course, what could be cooler?

  5. Purvis Huff says:

    One of my earliest memory was my grandmother owned an old “crank-up record players then called a ‘victroler”. One selection was Jimmy Rogers’ “Singing Brakeman”.

  6. Jo says:

    I’m writing a ‘sources required’ research paper for my English 12 class on Jimmie, and this really helped a lot. It’s great!

  7. I don’t know is this is so or not but in the 1960s when I first heard his music someone mentioned that when he did a tour in Hawaii he added a slack key guitar layer to his band and it influenced the rise of dobro and pedal steel in country music bands.

    I never saw a film of him playing, thanks—may it always be peach pickin’ time in Georgia

  8. Suzie Katsock says:

    Does anyone know who the two women were in the singing brakeman video?

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