Last weekend my wife and I were walking along Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade and we happened across a fine new group busking out on the street calling themselves The Buffalo Skinners. They played a raucous, Levon Helm-inspired version of “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” and as they finished the song I overheard a woman reciting the lyrics back to her husband with a chuckle – “T for Texas, T for Tennessee. T for Thelma, that gal who made a wreck out of me.” I gathered from her amusement that she was only hearing those lyrics for the first time. But that funny little number was first recorded at the Victor Studios in Camden, New Jersey in 1927 by Jimmie Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman.
Since his untimely death at the age of 35, the brief but remarkable recording career of Jimmie Rodgers has earned him the title, The Father of Country Music. Indeed, Rodgers could be the prototype of the modern country superstar. The Singing Brakeman was big in his day – really big, selling a half million copies of “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)”, touring with Will Rogers, and starring in a motion picture short. And he did it all with the kind of plainspoken sincerity that people have always admired in great country singers. Pete Seeger once recalled a man in a Montana saloon saying to him of Jimmie Rodgers – “Everything he sings is true.” Seeger called this “the highest praise a folksinger could ever have.* ”
Rodgers suffered with tuberculosis (TB) for the last six years of his life and succumbed to the disease on Saturday, May 26, 1933. Last Saturday, March 24, was World TB Day – an international day of recognition for a disease which continues to claim millions of lives around the globe. Jimmie Rodgers wrote about his illness in the songs “The TB Blues” and “Whippin’ that old TB.” In the spirit of my post on coal mining songs, I wanted to communicate to you, reader, that while some songs grow older, their stories remain as contemporary as ever.
You can read some figures on the current state of TB at The Lancet. Among them include the startling fact that approximately 1.45 million people died of the disease in 2010. Drug resistance continues to hamper treatment and control efforts but, there has been a decrease in incidence and there is a new goal to see that no children die of tuberculosis by 2015. Such a goal may seem improbable, but so was the life and legacy of Jimmie Rodgers.
You can learn more about TB control at home and abroad from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). And be sure to learn yourself up a few Jimmie Rodgers songs. If country music, to quote Harlan Howard, “is three chords and the truth” than “The TB Blues” is as country as it comes.
Below are a couple of clips of Jimmie Rodgers hits, including “The TB Blues” and “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas).” For a complete listing of tracks by The Singing Brakemen, click here. For a listing with writing credits, click here.
*This episode is recounted in Bill C. Malone’s excellent new biography of Mike Seeger, Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger’s Life and Musical Journey.