Wednesday, October 7, 2009

October 7: Jimmie Rodgers, "The Essential Jimmie Rodgers"

Artist: Jimmie Rodgers
Album: The Essential Jimmie Rodgers
Year: 1927-1933 (recorded)/1997 (released)
Label: Victor/RCA

Way back at the very beginning of recorded music, before jazz, before Robert Johnson, before nearly everything else in modern music, there was a man. This man stands, in many ways, as the very start of popular music, and yet somehow, his impact on everything from the blues to country to rock are quite regularly overlooked, if not disregarded completely. Having survived a pulmonary hemorrhage, as well as fighting tuberculosis for the final decade of his life, it is quite literally impossible to imagine modern music without the presence of "The Singing Brakeman," Jimmie Rodgers. Rarely using a backing band, Rodgers' simple guitar and strong, pure voice remain one of the most refreshing and awe-inspiring sounds in music history. Due to the realities of the time, the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers were released only as two song 78's and acetates. However, as the LP came into fashion, compilations of his recordings were among the first to be pressed and widely circulated. Due to this, there are countless collections and compilations of his music, including an imposing six-disc set that Rounder Records released in the early 1990's. However, for a perfect introduction to Jimmie Rodgers, and to easily understand why he is so vital in the progression of music, one need look no further than the 1997 release from RCA, The Essential Jimmie Rodgers.

When one looks at the overall picture of Jimmie Rodgers and tries to find his influences, the reality is, there are none. Simply put, he is an originator, taking the traditional music around him, and reshaping it for the masses. Though nearly all of his recordings feature Rodgers alone, strangely enough, Jimmie Rodgers secured his first recording date with a full backing band, but after internal arguments over what they would be called, he ended up solo for the session. In 1927, Rodgers had a weekly radio show with his band, and when they heard that Victor Records' Ralph Peer was coming to town to record talent, they saw their opportunity for greatness. After the argument that ended with all of the band members quitting, Rodgers went to the session and recorded his first two sides, " "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep," both of which saw notable success upon their release. Rodgers soon moved to New York City, and after making a few more recordings, he was catapulted to superstardom after the phenomenal success of his song "Blue Yodel" which is better known as "T For Texas." The song was, in many ways, the first "popular" song, as its sales were truly unprecedented, selling more than half a million copies. Musically, the song sounded like nothing before it, combining the traditional "cowboy" yodel with a more blues-based musical and lyrical arrangement.

This combination of country and blues is the core of the brilliance behind the music of Jimmie Rodgers. Though the blues as we now know them have taken on countless mutations, the music found on The Essential Jimmie Rodgers proves without a doubt that the first fusion was between the classic blues style and the cowboy style of country. In many ways, this plays in strong contradiction to popular thought which generally places the styles on opposite ends of the spectrum. It is almost impossible to believe that all of this change and foundation was fostered in just under six years, as Rodgers finally succumbed to tuberculosis in May of 1933. Perhaps because he understood his lot in life is the reason that his voice is always so mournful and morose. Rodgers actually turned his illness into a song, and "T.B. Blues" stands as one of the finest, and likely most cathartic songs ever written. The core of the Jimmie Rodgers catalog centers around the thirteen "Blue Yodel" songs, each one based around a standard twelve-bar blues, and featuring his signature, sorrowful yodeling. The songs themselves are also significant because each song has a bit of an edge to it, and the lyrics were certainly a bit "dangerous," if not risqué for the time period. Regardless, they remain some of the most treasured recordings ever, and are still relevant and powerful nearly a century after they were first recorded. Whether it is the "Memphis Yodel" or "Never No Mo' Blues," the songs sing of sadness, yet Rodgers' voice is so stunning that they remain some of the most truly beautiful recordings one can experience.

Jimmie Rodgers possesses one of the most powerful and emotive voices in music history. With nothing at all to aid him, he relied fully on his amazing, pure talent. The recordings are rarely more then just Rodgers and his guitar, yet it is all that was necessary for creating some of the most stunning music ever. Rodgers delivers his lyrics in a calm and clear style, using his sensational yodel for emphasis. There are times that he only uses a bit of this sound, such as during the chorus of "T.B. Blues," but when he completely unleashes the power of his yodel, as on all of the "Blue Yodel" songs, there is truly nothing else ever recorded that can compare. Though it is certainly a style and art that has been pushed far to the fringes of music in modern times, it is impossible to deny the amazing power it possesses all these decades later. Even when he is singing some of the most heartbreaking lyrics, such as on "T.B. Blues" when he laments, "...I've been fightin' like a lion looks like I'm going to lose...cause there ain't nobody ever whipped the TB blues," the beauty and stunning honesty of his voice are never lost, and one can easily make the case that there has never been a more "real" or authentic singer than Jimmie Rodgers. Though he may be written off due to the mere mention of the word "yodel," the phenomenal sound and lyrics of Jimmie Rodgers is something that everyone must experience to fully appreciate any other form of music.

Truth be told, there are few artists who have as sad a tale as that of Jimmie Rodgers. Plagued by health problems, it was far at the end of his tragically short life that he was finally able to record his amazing songs. Possessing a finer voice and more brutally honest lyrics then nearly anyone else in music history, it is even more appealing that he is often overlooked for his contributions to the development of modern music. Fusing together "cowboy" style country, Swiss-inspired yodeling, and deep blues, there is simply no other artist who was creating new sounds in the same manner. Though his plaque in the Country Music Hall Of Fame reads: "Jimmie Rodgers' name stands foremost in the country music field as the man who started it all." it is perhaps an understatement, as he not only started country music, but kick-started nearly EVERY genre that has formed in modern music. Making all of his recordings in the final six years of his life, and his last recording occurring just eight days before his passing, the lyrics are nearly all still relevant today, and Rodgers' voice is just as moving and mesmerizing. With his candid, honest, almost simple singing voice and his heartfelt yodeling, there are truly few artists that have shown the pure talent comparable to that of Rodgers. Though there are countless compilations of his recordings, to fully appreciate the extraordinary talent that is Jimmie Rodgers, one need look no further than the indispensable 1997 release, The Essential Jimmie Rodgers.

Standout tracks: "Blue Yodel #1 (T For Texas)," "Never No Mo' Blues," and "T.B. Blues."

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