Nothing in the world illustrates the concept of hybrid identity quite like the phrase “Blue Yodel,” and indeed Jimmie Rodgers’ series of Blue Yodels deliver exactly what they promise: thirteen songs that perfectly walk the line between pre-war blues and proto-country music. I think it is somewhat of a slight to Rodgers that he is primarily remembered as a progenitor of country music, considering both his debt and contributions to blues music, and indeed this notion points to the neglected common roots of country-western and blues musics. Not only do Rodgers’ songs bear a structural resemblance to early blues records, they also share lyrical tropes, such as the tale of Frankie and Albert, who become Frankie and Johnny to Rodgers. As well, Rodgers’ songs also seem to bear a fascination with pistols (ex. “Pistol Packin’ Papa”) similar to the string of 22- and 32-20s by artists such as Skip James and Robert Johnson. In addition to the frequent use of the word “blue” or “blues,” Rodgers also occasionally provides banter around his solos, not unlike Blind Willie McTell. (See Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues (Blues Yodel No. 8)” at around the 2:14 mark.) Finally, even the feature that most sets Rodgers’ style apart from traditional conceptions of blues music, Rodgers’ yodelling, bears a striking similarity to Tommy Johnson’s vocal modulations in songs like “Cool Drink of Water Blues.”
All of these similarities point to a natural conclusion, one that bears repeating. African-American blues musicians and white country-western musicians in the pre-war era likely shared many of the same lived experiences. Rodgers was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1897, and died young after a brief yet prolific recording career. Rodgers, like many of his African-American contemporaries, experienced a rural existence marked by hard labour, migration, disease and family hardship. During the years in which these Blue Yodels were recorded (1928-1933), Mississippi certainly saw its share of racial violence and segregation, and while it is incredibly important to remember this history of violence, it is just as important to recognize the opportunities for, and instances of, cultural dialogue during this period. Rodgers, and white country music, borrowed from the blues. The blues borrowed from white folk culture. Or, perhaps more precisely, both styles and cultures where founded upon similar experiences and inspired by similar precedents, namely travelling musicians and minstrel/medicine shows in the pre-recorded era. Much as early hip-hop and punk rock shared similar ideals and aesthetics, rooted in the lived experience of urban poverty, the blues and country-western music share common inspiration and foundation, likely the rooted in shared experiences of life in the rural South during the early twentieth-century. As well, both punk and hip-hop, as well and country-western and blues, sharply diverged in the following years, primarily along racial lines. The result of this divergence has been the erasure of the commonalities of these genres and the historical lived experiences of the populations they represent.
Anyways, enjoy some of Rodgers’ Blue Yodels below:
Jimmie Rodgers, “T for Texas (Blue Yodel 1)” (1927)
Jimmie Rodgers, “Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel 8)” (1930)
Jimmie Rodgers, “T.B. Blues” (1931)