BY AARON KEIM | FROM THE SPRING 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
Jimmie Rodgers (1897–1933) is widely regarded as the “father of country music.” He rose to wide acclaim in the late 1920s with his famous “blue yodel,” his iconic songs about trains, and his laid-back, bluesy vocals. An often-overlooked part of Rodgers’ legacy is the diversity of his style, which was influenced by blues, jazz, novelty pop songs, and even Hawaiian music.
Born in Meridian, Mississippi, into an unstable home life, Rodgers spent his youth in a series of foster homes. He always loved music and entertainment, learning guitar, banjo, mandolin, and ukulele as a young man. At 13, he started working for the railroads, killing time between trains with the other railroad workers, swapping stories, jokes, and songs. This is likely where he would have heard African American singers and guitar players, planting the seeds of his blues-influenced style. Along with the railroad work, he hustled for gigs, signed on for traveling tent shows, and formed pickup bands. In 1924, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which caused him to quit the railroad and try to focus exclusively on music.
But success was not immediate. Rodgers and his young family moved around a lot, bouncing between music and the railroad to try to make a living. He got lucky in February 1927, when he was hired to perform on radio in Asheville, North Carolina, and convinced a band called the Tenneva Ramblers to back him up. They had heard about a record executive named Ralph Peer who was recording string bands and rural singers in the town of Bristol, on the Tennessee/Virginia border. On August 3, 1927, they auditioned for Peer, who asked them to come back the next day to record. But the band had an argument that night, apparently breaking up, so Rodgers showed up the next day to record two songs on his own.
Later that year, Rodgers traveled to Camden, New Jersey, and began a prolific recording career with an original called “T for Texas (Blue Yodel).” This song, drawing on traditional blues and featuring his unique yodel, was a hit, and he followed it up with more blues, sentimental songs, and original tunes written with his sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams. He then became so famous that publishers and writers started to court him, bringing songs around for him to record. This led to him recording music influenced by popular music of the day, including jazz and Hawaiian music.
Starting in the late 1920s, the steel guitar (played flat on the lap with a steel bar), the ukulele—which had become increasingly popular during the first two decades of the 20th century—and Hawaiian music in general were very popular. Musicians from the Islands toured the mainland, performed on live radio, made Hollywood film appearances and recorded commercial records. Popular mainland songwriters were inspired by Hawaiian music, and churned out many hits, such as “Sweet Leilani,” “Beyond the Reef,” and “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii.” This mixture of Hawaiian music and English language pop (and jazz) is often called hapa haole (derived from the slang term for the mix of Hawaiian and white ancestry) and has proved long lasting in American culture.
Rodgers capitalized on the craze by using steel guitar on 31 of his recordings, including a song he co-wrote with McWilliams called “Everybody Does it in Hawaii,” a typical double-entendre song of the era that featured native Hawaiian Joe Kaipo (steel guitar), and Billy Burkes (guitar) and Weldon Burkes (ukulele). According to historian Anthony Lis, in his exhaustive multi-part study “The Steel Guitar in Early Country Music,” the Burkes brothers and Kaipo were something of a fixture on the Texas vaudeville club and theatre circuit. When Rodgers traveled to Dallas in the summer of 1929 to make some recordings for Ralph Peer, he enlisted the trio for the session, and also performed with them locally. Weldon Burkes played ukulele on four songs with Rodgers. Three years later it was middle brother Charlie Burkes who played uke on a Rodgers session in Dallas, while Billy played steel guitar and Weldon played regular acoustic guitar.
Rodgers also collaborated with Lani McIntire and his band on several recordings, including the sentimental and sweet “I’m Lonesome Too.” Lani and his brother Dick were Hawaiian musicians who performed with many big names of the era, including Bing Crosby, Sol Hoopii, and Dorothy Lamour. Overall, Rodgers was accompanied by ukulele on a dozen songs, and he played it himself twice on record—on “Dear Old Sunny South by the Sea” in 1928 and “I Want a New Mama” in 1931. Rodgers’ country-blues vocals, backed up by a string band including steel guitar, would prove very influential on later singers like Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Hank Snow, and many others.
Rodgers’ recordings sold very well in his lifetime. He toured the country, had a weekly radio show, and was even featured in a short film by Columbia Pictures. But tuberculosis finally caught up with him and he died on May 26, 1933, at just 35 years old, at the peak of his career. The 100-plus records he left behind, which helped give early country music some of its stylistic diversity, influenced generations of musicians that came after him. The steel guitar and ukulele on his records were not just part of a fad, but a coherent part of his sound and style, helping to plant the seeds for countless other musicians in the 20th and 21st centuries to do the same.
In the Jailhouse Now
Of all of Jimmie Rodgers’ recordings, “In the Jailhouse Now” may be the most famous. It has been covered by many musicians, including a notable performance in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where it was actually sung by actor Timothy Blake Nelson. My version on the following pages is a mix of the two, ironing out a bit of the crooked phrasing that Rodgers uses in order to match the performance that you are more likely familiar with.
Although the authorship of the song was credited to Rodgers and his sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams, it had already been recorded by several other African American musicians by the time he cut his version. (Claiming authorship of other writers’ work or for folk material was common practice for Victor records and Ralph Peer).
Rodgers’ guitar style was simple, functional, and easy to transfer to the ukulele. He played with a guitar pick, but we don’t have to use one to mimic his style. His basic accompaniment was to play a single low note on beats one and three and chords on beats two and four. He added some variety by occasionally playing a bass run, as simulated in bars 17, 23, and elsewhere in my arrangement. I like to play the single notes with my thumb and strum the chords with my first finger, but feel free to do what is comfortable to you. Another way to add some variety is to change chord voicings if there is a long stretch of time on the same chord—check out the two slightly different F shapes in bars 12–16, for example, or the higher G7 in bar 29.
Notice that in my arrangement, I don’t sing the yodel, but pick it on the ukulele. To get the right sound, you have to play up to the 12th fret on the first string, but I know you can do it!