This week we are going to once again 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 80 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. As I did last year, I will be highlighting a Rodgers’ song each day and showcasing popular bluegrass versions of each song, to celebrate the career of Jimmie Rodgers.
All around the water tank, waiting for a train
A thousand miles away from home, sleeping in the rain
I walked up to a brakeman just to give him a line of talk
He said “If you got money, boy, I’ll see that you don’t walk.”
I haven’t got a nickel, not a penny can I show
“Get off, get off, you railroad bum” and slammed the boxcar door
He put me off in Texas, a state I dearly love
The wide open spaces all around me, the moon and the stars up above
Nobody seems to want me, or lend me a helping hand
I’m on my way from Frisco, going back to Dixieland
My pocket book is empty and my heart is full of pain
I’m a thousand miles away from home just waiting for a train
Although a mere two verses without a chorus, most of us are familiar with Waiting For A Train, one of the most famous songs from Rodgers’ pen. The timeless story of the hobo being thrown from the train has resonated with listeners for generations.
Jimmie’s performance of Waiting For A Train is one of his best, and one of the most revered in country music history. Luckily, the song is one of only three which are captured on video (Waiting For A Train, Daddy And Home, T For Texas).
Jimmie is able to authentically deliver this song with ease, because he has played both of the main characters: the hobo and the brakeman.
One of Jimmie’s monikers is “The Singing Brakeman,” because of his work on the trains. In his time, railroad work was not viewed as nostalgically as it is today, but was rather a glorious and coveted profession. Being able to travel across the country and meet different people… to the average working American, this was a dream.
In contrast, Jimmie had also been a hobo. The term did not carry the same negative connotation that it does today. In the 1920s, hobos were migrant workers who would bum rides off trains to get the next job. Ironically, Jimmie was a hobo, and would jump trains to get to different railroad jobs across the country.
What made Jimmie so appealing was his authenticity, and the honesty with which he performed his music. The brakeman and the hobo are complete opposites, much like a prisoner and a warden, or a cat and mouse. However, Jimmie was able to record songs from both perspectives, without losing any credibility.
“Playing – and embodying for audiences – both the brakeman and the hobo at the same time, Jimmie Rodgers manages to have things both ways, to switch between personalities but leave the listener recalling only the positive aspects of each,” says Barry Mazor, author of Meeting Jimmie Rodgers. Only Jimmie Rodgers could record Brakeman’s Blues and portray “The Singing Brakeman,” and still release Hobo’s Meditation and Hobo Bill’s Last Ride.
Waiting For A Train has become a country standard since its 1929 release, having been recorded by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Jim Reeves, Charlie Louvin, and more.
There are few bluegrass versions, but one of the most inventive interpretations of the song comes from The Boys From Indiana. On their Memories And Dreams LP, The Boys turn the reflective Waiting For A Train into an uptempo bluegrass tune. On paper, the idea sounds unworkable, but they pull it off with ease.
The Boys From Indiana completely transform the song into a high-powered bluegrass number. Paul Mullins and Noah Crase’s powerful old school fiddle and banjo playing really grass this tune up. Although they stray from Jimmie’s original interpretation, they still pay homage to The Singing Brakeman by adding some yodels reminiscent of Muleskinner Blues. Harley Gabbard’s dobro licks are Rodgers-esque as well, because Jimmie included dobro in many of his songs.
There is also a live version of The Boys From Indiana version on Ralph Stanley & Friends Live At The Old Home Place. Unfortunately, both versions are currently out of print. I do encourage you to dig through your old record collections and find one of these old vinyls and give them a spin. You won’t be disappointed.
Come back tomorrow for Rodgers Remembrance Vol VIII: My Rough And Rowdy Ways.
If you enjoy the Rodgers Remembrances this week, feel free to tune in to my radio program, Bending The Strings, this Saturday afternoon on Classic Country Radio 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!