This week we have been, once again, remembering the life and times of America’s Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman, and the Father of Country Music: the late, great Jimmie Rodgers.Tomorrow, 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 have been highlighting a Rodgers’ song each day and showcasing popular bluegrass versions of each song, to celebrate the career of Jimmie Rodgers.
I’ve got those gambler’s blues
It was down in Big Ed’s barroom, on a corner beyond the square,
Ev’rybody drinking liquor, the regular crowd was there.
I walked out to the sidewalk, began walking around,
I looked ev’ry where I thought she’d be, but my baby couldn’t be found.
I passed by the big infirm’ry, I heard my sweetheart moan,
Gee it hurts me to see you here, ’cause you know you used to be my own.
I goes on out to see the doctor, “Your gal is low,” he said,
I went to see my baby, good God she was lyin’ there dead.
So I strolled on back to the barroom, I drank good whiskey till night,
‘Cause it hurt me so to see my gal, Lying there so cold so white,
She’s gone, she’s gone, God bless her, She’s mine wherever she may be,
She has rambled this wide world over, but she never found a pal like me.
There were sixteen coal black horses, all hitched up in line,
In that pretty buggy she’s riding, goodbye old gal of mine.
I’ve got those gambler’s blues.
One aspect of the music industry which began with Jimmie Rodgers was singing about taboo subjects. Jimmie sang about things that weren’t supposed to be mentioned. He pushed the envelope in so many ways by including topics like death, cheating, addiction, drinking, gambling, murder, sex, etc. He broke the unwritten rules and blew the doors wide open on what you could and could not sing about in public.
One of my favorite stories about Jimmie’s disregard for conventional norms involves him being asked to sing for a Bible study in Florida. At this time, Jimmie’s main country music contemporary was The Carter Family – The First Family Of Country Music. Known for such family-friendly songs as Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Keep On The Sunny Side, Wildwood Flower, Storms Are On The Ocean, Hold Fast To The Right, You Are My Flower, On The Sea Of Galiee, and more, they were quite a contrast to Jimmie’s rebellious songs of vice. Expected to sing a hymn or sacred song for the church group, he chose instead to perform the cheating murder song, Frankie and Johnny!
By breaking these conventional rules of what was allowed to be recorded, Jimmie opened doors for musicians throughout history, including bluegrass. Do you think bluegrass classics such as Pretty Polly, Little Sadie, Banks Of The Ohio, etc would have been as popular or even had been recorded at all had someone not broken down those barriers first? Most likely not.
Those Gambler’s Blues is a lonesome song about a man whose girlfriend dies while he is gambling with his buddies at the barroom. To cope with his loss, he turns to the bottle. Though not as risqué as Gamblin’ Barroom Blues, Those Gambler’s Blues still deals with many tough subjects (gambling, death, alcoholism) which were just being introduced to listeners as song subjects.
Recorded in 2003, Don Rigsby’s Those Gambler’s Blues is the most recent Rodgers rendition we have focused on this week. Don’s powerful voice fits this lonesome song well. Don’s tasteful use of the harmonica adds to the bluesy-ness of the song, while the mournful fiddle playing makes it ‘grassy. Following the precedent set by Bill Monroe, Don shows that Jimmie’s songs matched by a strong tenor voice are timeless in the world of bluegrass.
If you enjoyed the Rodgers Remembrances this week, feel free to tune in to my radio program, Bending The Strings, this 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!