Rodgers Remembrance XIII: In The Jailhouse Now

| May 23, 2014 | 0 Comments

Jimmie RodgersOn Monday, May 26th, it will have been 81 years since the passing of Jimmie Rodgers. A titan of American music, Jimmie Rodgers is considered an influence in country, bluegrass, folk, jazz, blues, rock, pop, Americana, and more.

In six short years, “The Father of Country Music” left behind a musical legacy which is still relevant in today’s popular culture. As we remember Jimmie’s passing, I will be featuring some “Rodgers Remembrances” and discussing Jimmie’s impact on bluegrass music.

I had a friend named Ramblin’ Bob
He used to steal, gamble, and rob
He thought he was the smartest guy in town
But I found out last Monday
That Bob got locked up Sunday
They’ve got him at the jailhouse way downtown

He’s in the jailhouse now
He’s in the jailhouse now
I told him once or twice
To quit playing cards and shooting dice
He’s in the jailhouse now

[Yodel]

He played a game called poker
Pinochle, whist, and euchre
But shooting dice was his greatest game
Now he’s downtown in jail
Nobody to go his bail
The judge done said that he refused a fine

He’s in the jailhouse now
He’s in the jailhouse now
I told him once or twice
To quit playing cards and shooting dice
He’s in the jailhouse now

[Yodel]

I went out last Tuesday
Met a girl named Susie
I told her I was the swellest man around
We started to spend my money
Then she started to call me honey
We took in every Cabaret in town

We’re in the jailhouse now
We’re in the jailhouse now
I told the judge right to his face
We didn’t like to see this place
We’re in the jailhouse now

[Yodel]

While being credited with writing In The Jailhouse Now, the song had been around for some time before Jimmie Rodgers recorded the song during his third recording session with Ralph Peer and Victor Records. However, as was common practice in the early development of copyright laws, the song became so widely accepted as a Jimmie Rodgers hit that he was given writing credit. Ralph Peer was notorious for this, as many of the songs he gave A.P. Carter credit for writing were simply traditional mountain songs.

Regardless of whether Jimmie did or did not write In The Jailhouse Now, the fact still remains that, as far as the song is concerned in popular culture, In The Jailhouse Now would not be as well known in American music had Jimmie Rodgers not recorded it. Following the monumental success of Blue Yodel (T for Texas), which sold over a million copies and was the #2 song in the country, Jimmie had skyrocketed into the biggest superstar America had known at that point. He recorded In The Jailhouse Now at his next recording session, and the song hit #14 on the charts. Alongside T for Texas and Muleskinner Blues, it is viewed as one of Jimmie’s most well known songs.

The song is one of the catchiest of the entire Rodgers canon. It’s hard to not to sing along. The Dixieland banjo gives a lighthearted feel to the heavy fate of someone getting locked up in jail. Considering that the song handles someone who likes to “rob, steal, and gamble,” In The Jailhouse Now casts little judgement. Aside from telling him “once or twice” to refrain from his sinful ways, the singer does next to nothing to aid in the development of a moral compass. The opportunity is certainly there, but a moral or lesson is not learned from In The Jailhouse Now. Any hope for a redemptive quality in the song is lost when the singer ends up in jail himself.

This lack of morality was the norm in Rodgers songs, as values are essentially nonexistent in the Rodgers catalog. In many ways, Jimmie Rodgers was the antithesis of his closest contemporaries, The Carter Family. Known for such family-friendly songs as Will The Circle Be UnbrokenKeep On The Sunny SideWildwood FlowerStorms Are On The OceanHold Fast To The RightYou Are My FlowerOn The Sea Of Galiee, and more, they were quite a contrast to Jimmie’s rebellious songs of vice.

Jimmie’s moral ambiguity in In The Jailhouse Now adds to the song’s charm. The song is fun in nature with a bouncy beat and playful banjo. Although it does deal with heavy issues, it does so in such a light-hearted way that a moral lesson would seem too serious for such a vaudeville style number. Not only would morality have made the song feel disjointed, I doubt any life lesson would be taken seriously in such a context. It is clear that Jimmie’s intention is for the song to be enjoyed by whoever listens to it, and that goal is most certainly achieved.

Since Jimmie’s successful original version of In The Jailhouse Now, the song has charted no less than four other times. In The Jailhouse Now took Webb Pierce to #1 in 1955, Johnny Cash to #8 in 1962, Sonny James to #15 in 1977, and Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce to #72 in 1982.

Tim Blake Nelson singing "In The Jailhouse Now"Surprisingly, few bluegrass versions of In The Jailhouse Now exist. Of the small handful of bluegrass renditions, one is known to all of us who have kept in touch with music since the turn of the 21st century. Actor, Tim Blake Nelson delivers a rendition of In The Jailhouse Now (in the neighborhood o’ B) in the Coen Brothers’ film, O’ Brother Where Art Thou. Nelson’s take on the Rodgers classic was included on the film’s soundtrack, which won Album of the Year accolades at the 2002 Grammys. The song’s place in this landmark album, is obviously no accident. Taking place in Depression-era Mississippi, it would have been more surprising if the film had not included a Jimmie Rodgers song.

 

This catchy little song has found massive success throughout the past eighty years. Something tells me that reincarnations of one of Rodgers’ most addictive songs will find success in the next eighty years as well.

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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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