This Day in History – Leon Chance on Jimmie Rodgers

It was this day in 1927 that the legendary Jimmie Rodgers was first recorded, helping usher in the birth of country music. Here to talk about this momentous occasion is keeper of the twang, the honky tonkin’ Leon Chance, who ties it all together with creationist theory, Star Wars and some intense yodel research.

Top Jimmy [sic] cooks
Top Jimmy swings
He’s got the look
Top Jimmy, he’s the king

Van Halen, “Top Jimmy,” 1984

Today is the eighty-fourth anniversary of Jimmie Rodgers’ first recording date[1] and it’s also the anniversary of an event widely referred to as the “Big Bang” of country music: the Bristol Sessions. [2]  In August, 1927, in response to newspaper ads by Victor Record Company soliciting auditions, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and seventeen other regional hillbilly acts appeared in Bristol, TN.

The story goes that Jimmie wasn’t responding to the ad.  He showed up at the sessions almost by accident because he was in Bristol shopping for a car.  I’m not making this up.  And even then he almost didn’t get to record because his band, the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, abandoned him after an argument about how to bill the act.  (For those of you who are not musicians, this is typical.)

If the Bristol Sessions really are the “Big Bang” of the commercial country music universe, then in this cosmology, just as in others, fate or randomness (according to your ontological point of view) played a big role in the creation by allowing Jimmie to be there.  Car shopping. [3]

Also resembling other cosmologies and creation stories, there’s a common notion in the country music world that Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, the two protagonists in the Bristol Sessions story, represent two opposing forces in the event.  Jimmie is the Dark Side, Darth Vader.  The Carters, collectively, are Obi-Wan Kenobi.

I’ve put together a “visual”; the Dark Side is represented by Column A.

Jimmie Rodgers – the Carter Family
Darth Vader – Old Ben Kenobi
Richard Pryor – Bill Cosby
Keith Richards – the Beatles

Now, I’m not a scholar, I’m just a musician and a dude who drives a van.  But I think that qualifies me to proclaim that the divisions in this diagram I’ve outlined are completely self-evident.  The folks in Column A?  Libertines.  Rakes.  Rounders.  People who traffic in moral ambiguity.  Vader, for example, wears motorcycle pants.  Keith Richards—really needs no explanation.  Richard Pryor set himself on fire freebasing.  And while Jimmie may or may not have freebased, he certainly had a reputation (which he perpetuated in his songs) for being a drinker and a womanizer.  Jimmie called himself rounder in his songs.  He would have identified everybody else in Column A as a rounder, too.

As for Column B, some of you are likely protesting that they’re on the Dark Side too. I’ll give you this: it’s true that the Carters recorded some dark songs.  Songs about orphaned children who need to have it explained that the telephone can’t be used to call their dead mother in heaven.  And on this same other-hand hand, Jimmie wrote sentimental numbers about longing for home, waiting for a train to take you home, and about Daddy… who is at home.

But still, Column B lacks an essential swagger which sets it apart from Column A.  And it’s the same swagger that sets honky tonk apart from other types of country music:  Jimmie, according to his songs, is gonna leave you in the middle of the night on a train, sleep outside in a hobo jungle somewhere in California, and never ever come back.  Jimmie’s gonna steal some booze and share it with his rounder pals.  Jimmie can get more women than a passenger train can haul and they’ll probably peel him a grape and cook him breakfast.  Jimmie’s gonna kill both you and your boyfriend for cuckolding Jimmie. [4]  And Jimmie’s braggadocio is fun maybe because Jimmie is sly, loveable, and more than a little ironic. Oh—plus he yodels.

I’m into this.  If this is the cosmological seed of my musical universe, I’ll take it.  I’m taking it! Don’t try to convince me otherwise.

Does it mean that the Dark Side won?  I don’t know, but I’ve surrendered, anyway.  Like Obi Wan said, it’s easier than the other.

Did I mention that in the midst of all this, Jimmie Rodgers was dying?  He had fewer than six years between his first recording session, August 4th 1927 and his death from tuberculosis in 1933.  In meantime he recorded 111 songs.  But today’s Bristol session is was the start of it all for the man who they call “the man who started it all.”

[1] i.e. “EVRRRR!”

[2] I’m not sure who first referred to the sessions as the Big Bang, maybe Jimmie’s biographer Nolan Porterfield, but not in the bio.  Based on the following citation, I can it goes back at least as far as 1995. Also, it had to be after 1949. (Now and Then, 1995 Volumes 12-13 East Tennessee State University. Center for Appalachian Studies and Services.)

[3] Jimmie bought a Dodge.

[4] To my knowledge, Jimmie does not refer to himself in third person. “Jimmie might have a compound fracture.”

APPENDIX THE FIRST: YODELISM

While I was working on the bit above, I started looking for instances where Jimmie Rodgers’ signature “blue yodel riff” gets quoted or appropriated, note for note, by other musicians in songs that aren’t Jimmie’s songs, aren’t Jimmie parodies, and don’t mimic his songwriting style. The riff in question is the yodel at 0:28 in “T For Texas,” linked just above.

In Country Music USA, Bill Malone points out that Rodgers was not the first yodeler in country music. He was preceded by Riley Puckett. What Malone doesn’t mention is that Puckett’s yodel, which pre-dates Jimmie’s recordings, is melodically exactly the same and so, potentially, Jimmie’s source. The song is “Rock All Our Babies to Sleep” and the yodel’s at 0:55.

I recall hearing David Allan Coe tack the blue yodel onto several songs. Here he is putting it at the very end of “Fraulein.” Which is nice because, you know: Bavarian yodeling and all. Yodel at 3:22.

And then I’m pretty sure Jimmie is the source of the opening steel guitar riff in Hank Williams’ “Love Sick Blues.” Apparently Hank did not care to be associated with Jimmie’s music, so I’d label this more appropriation than tribute.

Sly and the Family Stone. This is very close until Sly moves on to alpine yodeling. Yodel at 1:19.

Let me know if you’ve got any similar examples. Again, they shouldn’t be covers of Jimmie Rodgers songs or songs that mimic Jimmie’s songs. Just the yodel. Of course there are plenty of Jimmie Rodgers covers and rewrites. Here are a few nice ones:

Louie Armstrong played trumpet on a couple of Jimmie Rodgers recording sessions. Here’s Johnny Cash and Louis Armstrong doing “Blue Yodel No 9.” Yodel at 2:09.

Waylon with “T for Texas” – he asks “ya wanna hear me yodel?” then plays the riff on guitar. Yodel at 3:42.

George Harrison’s “Rocking Chair in Hawaii” – this tune is essentially a straight-up “Blue Yodel” rewrite.

Mississippi John “Hurt-so-good”:

And finally, Peter and Lou Berryman’s “Double Yodel” doesn’t incorporate Jimmie’s yodel, but if you’ve read this far, you really shouldn’t miss it.

APPENDIX DEUX: A YODEL JOKE

Definition of a gentleman: someone who knows how to yodel. But doesn’t.

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