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Remembering Jimmie Rodgers

Remembering Jimmie Rodgers

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, home entertainment was a hand-cranked phonograph. Records were ten-inch black wax discs with a hole and label in the middle, had songs on both sides and spun at 78 revolutions per minute, (RPMs). It was fragile, broke easily, cost 75 cents and bargain labels with lesser artists cost 35 cents.

From 1927 to 1933, the major recording artists in Cajun country, the nation and the world were Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ruth Ettings, (portrayed by Doris Day in the movie “Love Me or Leave Me”), Helen Kane, (the boo boo pe doop girl), Helen Morgan, (portrayed by Ann Blyte in the movie “The Helen Morgan Story), and a tubercular former railroad brakeman named Jimmie Rodgers, portrayed by himself in the movie “The Singing Brakeman”.

Jimmie Rodgers? Who Dat? … Just the most popular recording artist of that time, especially with the Cajuns. He was “America’s Blue Yodeler”, the singing star of the Great Depression.

After recording “just” 105 songs in 5 years he died of tuberculosis in New York during a recording session on May 26, 1933. He was 35 years old.

Tuberculosis is still around, curable today, but in the early 20th century it was a nonreversible death sentence. Physically disabled, Jimmie quit railroading and was trying to make a living for his family by singing in tent shows and vaudeville.

On August 4, 1927, he auditioned for Victor (later RCA) records in Bristol, Tennessee.
Agent Ralph Peer, seeking rural talent to make phonograph records, signed and recorded both the Carter Family and Jimmie on the same day and struck gold.

Jimmie Rodgers became the most popular recording artist especially with the Cajuns from 1927 through 1933, but was mostly completely forgotten by 1939. Why? Maybe because his signature Blues and Yodeling went out of style. But Jolson, Crosby, Ettings and Morgan were never completely forgotten, they were his peers but his records outsold theirs.

Maybe it was a period we just wanted to forget.

He went on to sell over 15 million records and hundreds of imitators copied his guitar licks, his voice, his yodels, and even his chatter, like “hey hey”, “pick it boys” or “sing them blues, boy.” (Bob Wills copied that just two years later.) Imitators included Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff. They all became stars and urged RCA to re-issue Jimmie’s recordings now gathering dust in their vaults. Hank Snow was especially influentially because with “Moving On” he was now RCA’s bestselling artist since Jimmie Rodgers.

Every Cajun home had a hand-cranked phonograph and a trip to the grocery store was not considered fruitful if it did not include the latest Jimmie Rodgers record released four times a year.

How do I know all this? In 1945, still in high school, I first discovered his records, became a fan and started a pilgrimage to almost every barn, attic, storeroom and trunk in South Lafourche and bought, begged, borrowed or stole, (borrowed without returning), over 500 of his records, dusty, molded but always carefully stacked.
I did not find one place with records of that period where Jimmie Rodgers did not have more records than all the others combined. By 1964 I had accumulated 75 of his 105 recorded songs, numerous duplicates and, with other artists of that era, I owned over 3,000 78 RPM records UNTIL …

In 1964, Hurricane Hilda flooded us and fused my stacks of records into solid round blocks of wax. Heartbreaking!

Knee deep in water I cried and added tears to the flood. I was devastated until I found out a tornado in Larose had killed 22 people, some good friends of mine, and my loss became irrelevant.

In 1950, without much expectation nor fanfare, and mostly to appease Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb, RCA quietly issued a Jimmie Rodgers vinyl LP entitled “The Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Album” and an amazing thing happened.

Next week: Jimmie Rodgers makes a post-mortem come back and how a singer who died when I was only three years old affected my life. Oh! There was also a lady involved.

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