Rodgers Remembrance Vol IV: My Old Pal

| May 24, 2012 | 1 Comment

This week we are going to remember the life and times of America’s Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman, and the Father of Country Music: the late, great Jimmie Rodgers. On Saturday, May 26, Jimmie Rodgers will have been gone 79 years.

Arguably the most significant man in American music, he has heavily influenced country, blues, folk, jazz, Hawaiian, rock, pop, Americana, western swing, jazz, and bluegrass music. To celebrate the life and times of Jimmie Rodgers, I will be highlighting a Jimmie Rodgers’ song each day and showcasing a popular bluegrass version or two of each song.

My Old Pal — Elsie McWilliams/Jimmie Rodgers

I’m thinking of you tonight, old Pal
And wishing that you were here
I’m dreaming of the times and the days gone by
When you filled my heart with cheer

I remember the nights when all alone
We sang Sweet Adeline
No other face can take your place
In my heart, old Pal of mine

[Yodel]

The old pals are always the best, you see
New friends you can find ev’ry day
But they can’t fill their place or ever be
Like the old pals of yesterday

I’m wondering just where you are tonight
And if you ever think of me
It would make my weary heart so light, Sweetheart
Your face again to see

But in my checked life I find
Nothing comes right it seems
Still you’ll always be a pal of mine
Though it may be only in dreams

[Yodel]

The old pals are always the best, you see
New friends you can find ev’ry day
But they can’t fill their place or ever be
Like the old pals of yesterday

 

My Old Pal is one of many songs in Jimmie Rodgers’ career written by his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams. Elsie wrote roughly thirty-nine songs for Rodgers, although she is only given credit for nineteen. She helped Jimmie with such songs as My Rough And Rowdy Ways, Everybody Does It In My Hawaii, Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues, You And My Old Guitar, Daddy And Home, Nobody Knows But Me, Never No Mo’ Blues, Blue Yodel No. 7, and more.

Rodgers had a relentless tour schedule. When he wasn’t on the road touring, Ralph Peer (of Victor Records and the famous Bristol Sessions) had Jimmie in the studio recording new songs. The key word there is new. Ralph, essentially, wanted only new material. This left quite a strain on Jimmie, so he turned to his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, for help.

Jimmie noticed that Elsie had a knack for songwriting, after reading some poetry and children’s church songs she had written. He decided to have Elsie help him keep up the demand for new material. While Jimmie was on the road touring, Elsie would work on writing songs for her brother-in-law. When Jimmie would return, he would tweak them a bit to fit his style more. Many of these tunes ended up being some of his most successful.

While only accredited with nineteen of these songs, Elsie co-wrote nearly thirty-nine. Her reasoning for not taking co-writing credit on these other songs was that Jimmie needed the songs and the money, particularly due to Jimmie’s tuberculosis. Elsie reflects on this:

“I didn’t want a penny for those songs, you understand, if there was any money coming, I wanted him to have it. He was sick and broke and I loved ‘em both so very much.

He kept after me to sign a contract, but I wouldn’t, I didn’t want any of his money. But he kept after me anyway, so I finally agreed to accept 1/25th of a percent [.04%]… I nearly fainted when I got my first royalty check, it was for $256.56 dollars. I signed it right over to the church.”

Just for fun, here’s our math lesson of the day:

When calculating inflation over the past eight decades, that same $256.56 would be worth $3,234.78 today. Also, if $256.56 is .04% of the earnings, the total royalties would have equaled $641,400. $641,400 then is the equivalent of $8,086,953.88 now! (I can hear the songwriters’ jaws hitting the floor right now!)

Of Jimmie’s 111 issued recordings, Elsie McWilliams wrote 39 of them- roughly 35%. Many of Elsie’s songs have become some of Jimmie’s most popular. One of these is My Old Pal.

This one of those songs to which everyone can relate. We all know what it’s like to have and lose friends. Whether they were friends of a romantic nature or not, friends are friends, and losing them hurts. My Old Pal does a great job at connecting this experience to the listener, making it very relatable. We’ve all been in those shoes before, and after listening to My Old Pal, you’ll want to pick up and phone and call the “Old Pal” in your life. Elsie put it best when she wrote the chorus.

The old pals are always the best, you see
New friends you can find ev’ry day
But they can’t fill their place or ever be
Like the old pals of yesterday

Although this is a popular Jimmie Rodgers song, much of its acclaim came after Jimmie’s passing. Both Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard recorded tribute albums to The Father of Country Music which included My Old Pal. These stellar albums brought about a new awareness for Jimmie Rodgers’ music. One such is example is Mark Rader of The Traditional Grass.

The Traditional Grass was a popular bluegrass band in the 1980s and early ’90s based out of southern Ohio. They recorded four albums for Rebel Records, three of which are still in print. Featuring Mark Rader, Paul “Moon” Mullins, Joe Mullins, Gerald Evans Jr, and Mark Clevenger, The Traditional Grass have had some of their songs recut by such popular modern artists as Adam Steffey, Brandon Rickman, and Mickey Harris. They recorded two different Rodgers songs on their Rebel albums: Jimmie’s Texas Blues and My Old Pal.

Mark Rader attributes the Rodgers influence in his own style to Merle Haggard’s tribute album to Jimmie, Same Train, A Different Time.

“On his radio shows sometime back in the early 70’s, I heard Paul Mullins mention Merle Haggard’s tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers. He regularly featured cuts from it. I rushed out and bought a copy and have been heavily influenced by it ever since.”

As far as I know, The Traditional Grass’s version of My Old Pal is the only bluegrass version of this Jimmie Rodgers’ classic. Mark Rader’s distinguishable lead vocals deliver the song beautifully. Emotion and control are earmarks of a great singer, and both are executed here with ease.

You’ve heard the saying “Sometimes less is more”? Well this song could be the poster-child of that phrase. A simple arrangement featuring just Mark, his guitar, and Gene Wooten’s dobro does wonders. This provides more room for Mark’s voice and his beautiful guitar work to take the spotlight. Gene’s tasteful dobro compliments Mark brilliantly. In my opinion, My Old Pal has yet to be done as well as this. This recording is a masterpiece, and I’m sure you will agree.

After listening to My Old Pal, you will see why this has become such a popular Rodgers song, and why Elsie McWilliams was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1979 for her work with The Father of Country Music.

Come back tomorrow for Rodgers Remembrance Vol V: Blue Yodel No. 1 (“T” for Texas).

 

If you enjoy the Rodgers Remembrances this week, feel free to tune in to my radio program, Bending The Strings, this Saturday afternoon on My Classic Country from 3:00-5:00 p.m. (EDT). In honor of the life of Jimmie Rodgers, I will be producing a very special tribute show including many of the songs discussed in the Rodgers Remembrances this week. You won’t want to miss it!

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Daniel Mullins

Daniel is from southwestern Ohio and has been around bluegrass his entire life. He manages the Classic Country Connection, a music store in southern Ohio which specializes in bluegrass, classic country, gospel, and Americana music. He is the host of the Bending The Strings radio program, which plays a variety of bluegrass, newgrass, and Americana music. He also maintains the website for Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers.
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