TODAY is the 50th anniversary of the death of singer and songwriter Jimmie Rodgers, considered by many to be a founding figure lasting symbol of country music. The former railroad worker's star shone briefly: his late-blooming career only lasted six years before he died of tuberculosis at 35.
But with his superb songs, patented yodeling and high, lonesome singing style Rodgers laid a foundation for commercial country music, becoming the first genre singer to attract a national as opposed to regional following. He was also the first to establish himself as a solo performer on record and in concert, the first to get rich off his music. He left a deep mark on the face of American music, particularly on singers like Gene Autry, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizell and Hank Williams, but more generally on the spirit of country music.
Rodgers' hometown of Meridian, Miss., has been awash with a full week of activities and celebrations, but Washington can lay claim to a little of the Rodgers legend as well, for it was during a year spent here, from early fall 1927 to fall 1928, that he made some of his early recordings and first established himself as a star.
Rodgers already had made some inconsequential recordings in Bristol, Tenn., with Ralph Peer, an independent agent working for the Victor Talking Machine Co. Those first records -- he relied on popular songs from the New York publishing houses -- would bring in royalties of less than $28.
At that point, according to Rodgers' biographer Nolan Porterfield, he moved to Washington "primarily because he had relatives there but he also wanted to be closer to New York and the center of the entertainment world as it existed in those days. It was fortunate, because he would certainly have been lost in New York; Washington turned out to be a pretty good experience for him."
Of course, when Rodgers first began, there was no such thing as hillbilly music, much less country, and, Porterfield says, "people weren't listening to him in those days as if he were a hillbilly; he really was a blues singer."
Rodgers, who used to perform in a business suit, played between films in neighborhood theaters, while his wife, Carrie, worked as a hostess in the Happiness Tea Room. During the winter, he had several bouts with pleurisy, but he worked regularly and even had a show on WTFF radio.
After moving here (he lived just north of the Capitol), Rodgers went to record for Peer in Camden, N.J., which is where he cut "Blue Yodel #1," or as it's better known, "T for Texas."
"That was the first million record seller that he had," Porterfield points out, "and there just weren't many people in those days who sold a million records."
It was the start of a year-long ascent to stardom for Rodgers, who was now being billed as "The Exclusive Victor Recording Star," "The Singing Brakeman" and "America's Blue Yodeler." His royalties jumped to $2,000 a month and his record sales eclipsed those of Enrico Caruso.
During his Washington period, Rodgers wrote many songs with his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams. According to Porterfield, "after Rodgers got here he was very short on material and he wrote to her, told her he'd pay off her expenses if she'd come to Washington and help him write songs, so she came."
Among the 38 songs written during this period (though many were not recorded until later) were "T for Texas," "My Old Pal," "In the Jailhouse Now" and "Pistol Packin' Papa."
A year to the day after he made his first record, Rodgers headlined his first show, at the Earle (now the Warner) Theatre on a vaudeville bill featuring "rube fiddler" Charlie Althoff, the Lovey Girls and the Kardo Brothers, as well as a film (Laura LaPlante in "Home, James," described as "a delightful masquerade of love"). A Washington Post reviewer wrote in the Aug. 6, 1928, edition that "Jimmie Rodgers would have come back some five times if a certain Saturday audience had had their way about it."
Ironically, the Earle was built by the father of dobro player Ellsworth Cozzens, who ended up playing in Rodgers' band. Cozzens was the uncle of Mike Auldridge, the superb dobro player with the Seldom Scene, and Auldridge remembers tales of his uncle's group, "the Blue-Grey Troubadours, who had a show on WTOP, Ralph Peer had told Rodgers to pick up some musicians and meet him in Camden on a certain date, so he picked up this band -- my uncle, a guy named Julien Nine and another guy. They worked up a few tunes and in February of 1928 did his first Camden sessions."
Auldridge says his uncle also wrote one of the songs -- "Sailor's Plea" -- recorded at that first session. "His name is on several others, and from what I understand he wrote four or five songs that he just sold to Jimmie for $50 or something and [let him] put his name on it, but I don't know which ones they were. He was made for selling 'cause he could have made a lot of royalty money off them."
In the fall of 1928, his career in stride, Rodgers left Washington to start a lengthy vaudeville tour and, according to Porterfield, "he just never got back. He eventually wound up in Texas, built a home and simply stayed there" until his death 50 years ago.