Author: Martin, George

Never No More Blues

A few weeks ago I attended an open jam session at an East Bay bar and restaurant. There were about a dozen pickers there from older geezers like me (one fellow who said he had actually played in a New York coffee house years ago with a young Bob Dylan) to some much younger folk.

One of the songs picked that night was Greg Brown’s beautiful tune, “The Train That Carried Jimmie Rodgers Home.” We did a pretty good job of it, I thought, with some nice harmonies on the chorus. When the song was over, a young woman to my right put her fiddle in her lap and asked, “Who was Jimmie Rodgers?”

I gave her the short answer: a pioneer white country blues singer, one of the fathers of country music who recorded at the famous Bristol, Va., sessions run by Ralph Peer on August 4, 1927, he was hugely popular and reportedly sold 20 million records. (Blue Yodel No. 1 “T for Texas” sold almost a half-million by itself.) He suffered from tuberculosis and died from a pulmonary hemorrhage on May 26, 1933 while staying in Camden, N.J. for his last recording session. He was 35 years old.

Rodgers was a huge influence on singers who followed him. Gene Autry’s early recordings sound nearly identical to Rodgers. “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” was Autry’s first recording in his own style. Happily for him it was a huge hit. Bill and Charlie Monroe were influenced by Rodgers, and after the Monroe Brothers broke up, Bill’s first hit was Rodgers’ classic “Muleskinner Blues.”

Ernest Tubb helped preserve Rodgers’ music, too, and Jimmie’s widow, Carrie, showed her appreciation by giving Ernest Jimmie’s 000-45 Martin. Both Milton Brown and Bob Wills moved Rodgers’ music forward into Western Swing.

On a more personal note, Jimmie Rodgers was my father’s favorite singer. I can’t remember if I knew that as a teenager and sought out some vinyl collections of his music, or if I brought the albums home and found out by my father’s enthusiastic reaction. My father loved music but almost never sang because he had asthma and singing often would bring on an attack.

One of only two songs I ever heard him sing was a Rodgers tune, “You Are Mine Only in Dreams.” This is a sad waltz, and the first verse sounds like a lament for a lost love:

“My baby I know that you want me,
each lonely night and day,
your clear blue eyes how they haunt me
when I’m far away...”

Only in the second verse does it become clear that the singer is referring to an actual baby:

“Your future has been the chief aim in my life,
you’ll never know how it seems.
My hopes and my schemes are all vanished it seems
and you are mine only in dreams.”

The last night of my father’s life as he was sinking into drowsiness and a sleep from which he would never awaken, I sat by his bedside with my guitar and sang that song, and some other Rodgers pieces that I know. They say dying people, even when they can’t talk or seem to respond, can hear. If that is true, Dad went out with the music he loved.
Posted:  4/11/2013

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