On 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.
Jimmie Rodgers has more monikers than any other entertainer, of which I am aware. “The Father of Country Music,” “The Singing Brakeman,” and “America’s Blue Yodeler” all reveal separate pieces of Rodgers’ legacy. “America’s Blue Yodeler” is a reference to the extremely successful collection of blue yodels which Jimmie released during his career, the first of which was Blue Yodel (T for Texas).
“Jimmie Rodgers earned the title of “America’s Blue Yodeler” by composing and performing a series of twelve blue yodels. Jimmie by no means invented the yodel, but provided the yodel a unique interpretation by combining it with the blues. Jimmie made the yodel work for him. His yodel could display pain, loneliness, or even a happy frame of mind. Somebody said that Jimmie often inserted the yodel because he ran out of lyric, but I prefer to think that Jimmie Rodgers’ yodel, more often than not, displayed his real feelings better than any lyric could have…”
Rodgers is a leading figure in blues music, largely due to his blue yodels. Revered by many as the greatest blues singer of all time, Howlin’ Wolf’s favorite blues singer was Jimmie Rodgers.
“My man that I dug, that I really dug, that I got my yodel from, was Jimmie Rodgers. See, he yodeled, and I turned it into something more of a howl.”
Jimmie’s blues is evident in many of his songs, particularly in his collection of blue yodels. The blues sound is clearly evident in the blue yodels, due to their arrangement. Most classic blues songs follow the same pattern. The song’s are written with one line, the line repeated, and then a punch line. The punch line is key. In addition to adding a hint of humor, the punch line adds clarity to the preceding lines and expresses the true sentiment of the verse and the song itself.
A well-written blues song is timeless, which is why Jimmie’s songs are some of the most-recorded tunes of all time, and not just in country and bluegrass. Jimmie’s songs are recorded and performed all over the world.
She’s long, she’s tall, she’s six feet from the ground
She’s long, she’s tall, she’s six feet from the ground
She’s tailor made, she ain’t no hand me down
She got eyes like diamonds, but teeth shine just the same
Got eyes like diamonds, her teeth shine just the same
She got sweet ruby lips, and hair like a horse’s mane
Ev’ry time I see you, Woman, you always on the street
Ev’ry time I see you, you always on the street
You hang out on the corner like a police on his beat
[Hey, hey, hey]
Won’t you tell me, Mamma, where you stayed last night
Tell me, Mamma, where you stayed last night
‘Cause your hair’s all tangled, and your clothes don’t fit you right
I ain’t gonna tell you no story, Woman, I ain’t goin’ to lie
I ain’t gonna tell you no story, Mamma, I ain’t goin’ to lie
But the day you quit me, Woman, that’s the day that you die
I hate to see, this evening sun go down
Lord, I hate to see, this evening sun go down
‘Cause it makes me thinks, I’m on my last go around
Several of Jimmie’s blue yodels have received successful bluegrass transformations, most notably Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas) and Blue Yodel No. 8 (Muleskinner Blues). One of the most overlooked bluegrass blue yodels is Blue Yodel No. 3. Monroe recorded the first bluegrass version of Blue Yodel No. 3, however, the song was curiously released under the title Blue Yodel #4. The majority of Monroe’s version consists of verses from Blue Yodel No. 3, with the closing verse borrowed from Jimmie’s Texas Blues. The Blue Yodel No. 3 verses which Monroe dropped are considered taboo by today’s standards, and definitely would’ve been off-putting to an Opry audience in the late forties. Barry Mazor, author of Meeting Jimmie Rodgers, reflects on Monroe’s version of Blue Yodel No. 3.
“In 1946, the classic postwar lineup of the Blue Grass Boys, including Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, would record something Monroe called Blue Yodel No. 4, with syllables compacted or stretched — indeed, toyed with, especially in that alledgedly “lonesome” upper register of Monroe’s. The number was not in fact built on Rodgers’ California Blues, the acutal No. 4, but a combination of verses from Blue Yodel No. 3 and Jimmie’s Texas Blues. By that time, Bill’s blues-inflected mandolin solos on this sort of number and Scruggs’ mind-boggling banjo rolls were genrating yells and screams from the genrally sedate Opry audeince. This was physical music, body music — brash, unafraid, empowered music. Rodegrs numbers were dependable showpieces for music like that, given Monroe and his bands’ skills, and they would always have a place in his repertoire.
Mazor’s description of Monroe’s transformation of Blue Yodel No. 3 could not have been more accurate. This was music with guts, and its power has stood the test of time.
Here is a live version of Bill Monroe & The Bluegrass Boys from the Grand Ole Opry in the late forties. (Yes, the lineup includes Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs.)
Eventually, bluegrassers would catch Monroe’s mistake and correctly record the song under Blue Yodel No. 3. However, it is still oftentimes mislabeled as Blue Yodel No. 4, leading to a misrepresentation of the song’s impact on bluegrass music. Blue Yodel No. 3 has been recorded by Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, The Country Gentlemen, The Dreadful Snakes (Jerry Douglas, Blaine Sprouse, Bela Fleck, Roland White, Pat Enright, and Mark Membree), The Johnson Mountain Boys, IIIrd Tyme Out, and has been performed at countless jam sessions for decades.
Aside from Monroe’s two of the most well known versions for Blue Yodel No. 3 come from The Johnson Mountain Boys and IIIrd Tyme Out.
JMB’s rendition is straight down-the-middle bluegrass. Dudley Connell leads the way with his powerful vocals and meaty rhythm guitar.
“I have admired Jimmie’s music for many years and have always been impressed with his interpretation of the blues.”
It should be no surprise that this is a key aspect of Rodgers’ music which appeals to Dudley, because his voice has always had a certain bluesy quality, particularly when he performs such songs as Rollin’ and Tumblin’ and A Hundred And Ten In The Shade.
JMB’s Blue Yodel No. 3 is powerful bluegrass and a must-listen for fans of traditional music. Released in 1987, this recording would have felt right at home if it had been released three decades earlier. It is one of my favorites from the Johnson Mountain Boys catalog.
IIIrd Tyme Out’s take on Blue Yodel No. 3 appears on their 1992 album, Puttin’ New Roots Down. It is not only one of Russell Moore’s best vocal performances from the early days of IIIrd Tyme Out, but from the band’s twenty-plus year tenure. Russell injects so much feeling into this old song, while singing each note as clear and as pure as only Russell Moore can do.
Be sure to give Blue Yodel No. 3 a listen as we remember Jimmie Rodgers!