Rodgers Cuts His First Record for RCA Victor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Commercial country music was in its infancy when Jimmie Rodgers cut his first record for RCA Victor; he would soon become famous and influential in country and blues music.

Summary of Event

In the early 1920’s, the recording industry in the United States became interested in the rural market and therefore in rural music and performers, particularly in the South. “Old-time music” and “mountain music” were two of the terms often used to describe what the industry wanted, and the phrase “hillbilly music” was also coined at the time. In addition, new interest was growing in rural blues as performed by African Americans. [kw]Rodgers Cuts His First Record for RCA Victor (Aug. 4, 1927) [kw]First Record for RCA Victor, Rodgers Cuts His (Aug. 4, 1927) [kw]Record for RCA Victor, Rodgers Cuts His First (Aug. 4, 1927) [kw]RCA Victor, Rodgers Cuts His First Record for (Aug. 4, 1927) Music;country Country music Musical recordings;Jimmie Rodgers[Rodgers] [g]United States;Aug. 4, 1927: Rodgers Cuts His First Record for RCA Victor[06900] [c]Music;Aug. 4, 1927: Rodgers Cuts His First Record for RCA Victor[06900] Rodgers, Jimmie Peer, Ralph S.

One of the pioneers in recording such music was Ralph S. Peer, at one time with OKeh Records but by 1927 under contract with the RCA Victor RCA Victor recording label company. (It was Peer who first applied the term “hillbilly” to white country tunes.) A staunch believer in field expeditions, he set out to find and record new talent from among performers already known in their native locales. In July, 1927, Peer brought his wife, two engineers, and some new electrical recording equipment to Bristol, Tennessee. He already knew, or knew of, some of the people he planned to record, but he also welcomed walk-in performers. One of them was Jimmie Rodgers.

James Charles Rodgers was born on September 9, 1897, in Pine Springs, near Meridian, Mississippi, the son of Aaron and Eliza Rodgers. Like his father, Rodgers became a railroad worker—he would one day be billed as the “Singing Brakeman”—but from childhood on he was fascinated by show business, and he managed to combine some professional musical performances with his railroading and other jobs. By 1925, however, ill health ruled out further railroad work; Rodgers had been suffering from tuberculosis for some time, so he committed himself entirely to the entertainment industry. He worked in vaudeville, performed dance music, and, briefly, worked for a radio show, poverty always dogging his steps, especially as he now had a small family to support.

He had already become connected with a small string band, renamed the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, when he heard about Ralph Peer’s expedition to Bristol. The Entertainers auditioned for Peer, but the band broke up the night before their recording date. The band members’ musical styles and personalities had never matched very well, and Rodgers had earlier announced his intention to leave the band, so a quarrel arose over whether they should keep the name “Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers” for recording purposes. As a result, the other band members recorded for Peer under their original name, the Tenneva Ramblers, while Rodgers showed up alone with only his guitar. It was a fortuitous development, one apparently encouraged by Peer himself. Thus it was that Rodgers cut his first record for RCA Victor on August 4, 1927.

By that time, Rodgers had absorbed influences from so many sources that it is difficult to trace them and equally difficult to categorize the result. He had been singing and playing guitar, banjo, and other instruments in a number of styles. Sometimes he sang popular music, sometimes African American blues—fragments of which he remembered from railroad and vaudeville days—and sometimes he did “old-time” sentimental tunes. He also yodeled. This was nothing new; there had long been Swiss-style and other yodeling, and even the new, commercial country music field had at least a nodding acquaintance with that genre. Rodgers’s yodeling, however, was something special; it was “blue yodeling,” a type unique at that time to Rodgers himself, incorporated into his white man’s version of the blues.

Which of these types of music would Rodgers choose for his recording debut? Peer was anxious to record something new in the way of country music, new in the sense that it would catch the public’s attention, but also new in the sense that it could be copyrighted. Rodgers, however, apparently did not feel that his blue yodeling was ready for recording; moreover, Peer was insisting on “hillbilly,” or something like hillbilly—whatever that was. Rodgers may also have wanted to prove that he could sing any sort of music. In any case, he chose an old song he had reworked called “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” a ballad about a World War I soldier (as Rodgers’s version would have it) who died in battle, leaving his sweetheart to live a single life forever in his memory. These sentimental lyrics were put to an old Irish melody, “Where the River Shannon Flows,” but the final product was new enough for copyright purposes.

The second cut was another old song, a lullaby called “Sleep, Baby, Sleep.” Rodgers’s version included some of his soon-to-be-famous yodeling, fine work, although it, and the whole performance, seem a bit loud for a lullaby. Still, his voice in song and yodel had a loving sound that was appropriate. Although Rodgers had apparently intended the first cut to be his showpiece, “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” has been preferred by many over the years. Peer was somewhat disappointed that “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” was uncopyrightable, but Rodgers simply did not have much else ready to go. Both songs were good enough to lead to later recording sessions and instant fame for Rodgers in 1928.

Significance

The Bristol sessions are justly famous in the history of country music, not only because of Jimmie Rodgers but also for the other talented performers who recorded there, especially the Carter Family. The importance of those sessions could scarcely have been imagined at the time, however. In Rodgers’s case, many months would pass before his recordings caught on with the public. It was his first blue yodel, “T for Texas,” that made him a star when it was released in 1928. There would be thirteen blue yodels in all, plus other songs that featured yodeling and bluesy lyrics or tunes.

Before long, Rodgers was hard-pressed for new material, and he accepted songs from various sources, in particular from his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams. True to his heritage, he recorded in many different styles. In addition to the blues, with their often somewhat bawdy lyrics, he composed or accepted sentimental songs, songs of unrequited love, prison songs, quasi-cowboy songs, lullabies, a pseudo-Hawaiian tune, novelty songs, and even some semiautobiographical songs such as “T. B. Blues.” Often he recorded alone with his guitar, often with side men, and sometimes with jazz orchestras; Louis Armstrong joined him on “Blue Yodel No. 9.” He also did some comedy skits with the Carter Family. One type of music he hardly touched was gospel, in contrast to the practice of most hillbilly musicians such as the Carters; Rodgers was not a religious man.

Much of this product has been regarded as outstanding. Most of the blue yodels were stunningly good, as were many of his other recordings, such as “Waiting for a Train.” On the other hand, a number of his records were flawed, either because he had run out of good material or because he gave indifferent performances. Some of these sides were released, it seems, only because Rodgers’s death prevented the recording of better material. Much of what he produced must have sounded trite even then—such as his recording of “Desert Blues,” which features a tuba—but trite lyrics and “cornball” productions in most cases simply added to his music’s charm. If one sets out to produce a novelty tune such as “Desert Blues,” why not go all the way and use a tuba? As for performance problems, Rodgers had scant musical training, and sometimes his guitar work was, to put it mildly, unorthodox. Again, however, the primitive nature of some of his singing and playing made him all the more authentic-sounding and therefore appealing. Rather than merely rising above his limitations, he carried them with him, making his unorthodox style part of his greatness.

In considering the impact of Rodgers’s work, one must first note the lasting fame of his recordings. Although Rodgers’s sales declined in the final year or so of his career, this was not a reflection of his work’s true worth but a result of the deepening Great Depression in the early 1930’s, which cut into sales everywhere. It was also a reflection of his own declining health. Rodgers died in New York City on May 26, 1933, shortly after exhausting himself in his final recording session, but his records continued to sell. Of his career total of some 110 sides, 25 were released after his death. Many of his songs were later reissued in 78 and 45 RPM formats, and the entire corpus of Rodgers’s work was rereleased on albums in the 1950’s and early 1960’s; a complete edition appeared in Japan in 1973. On November 3, 1961, Rodgers was installed as the first member of the new Country Music Hall of Fame.

His influence on country music in the short run is obvious. Many artists of the 1930’s copied his style of singing and yodeling, new songs were written in his manner, and many of his own songs were performed by other artists in the 1930’s and after. “Mule Skinner Blues,” for instance, has been sung by Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, and many other performers; “In the Jailhouse Now” is another example. One of the later giants of country music, Hank Snow, named his son after Rodgers.

In the longer term, much of what Rodgers did has not remained standard. Few modern country artists have continued the practice of recording with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, and the records Rodgers made with jazz orchestras did not set much of a precedent. Few white country artists have continued to sing the blues in his style since World War II, and fewer still have carried his yodeling tradition into the postwar era.

Rodgers’s brief career raised a number of unanswered questions: Would much of what he made famous have caught on even without his help? “Cowboy” music, for example, predated Rodgers’s career and probably did not require his work to guarantee its subsequent popularity. To what extent did Rodgers inspire young artists? To what extent did he make country music acceptable to urbanites? Such questions are perhaps unanswerable, but it is nevertheless clear that Rodgers deserves the title of “father of country music.” Music;country Country music Musical recordings;Jimmie Rodgers[Rodgers]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malone, Bill C. Country Music, U.S.A. 2d rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. Excellent history puts Rodgers’s music in context. Includes a few illustrations, bibliography, and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002. History of American country music focuses on the relation of the music and its performers to working-class culture in the South. Includes notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paris, Mike, and Chris Comber. Jimmie the Kid. London: Eddison Press, 1977. First full-length study of Rodgers’s work remains a useful source. Includes a detailed discography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Porterfield, Nolan. Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler. 1979. Reprint. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Indispensable, balanced examination of Rodgers’s life and music. Based to a large extent on original sources and interviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodgers, Carrie Cecil Williamson. Jimmie Rodgers’ Life Story (Complete). Nashville: Ernest Tubb Publications, 1935. Personal and somewhat romanticized account by Rodgers’s widow. Valuable for insights and anecdotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanjek, Russell, and David Sanjek. American Popular Music Business in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Comprehensive and exhaustively detailed history of the subject cowritten by an insider who was there through much of the period. Includes numerous references to Rodgers and Peer.

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