The Blue Yodel songs are a series of thirteen songs written and recorded by Jimmie Rodgers during the period from 1927 to his death in May 1933. The songs were based on the 12-bar blues format and featured Rodgers’ trademark yodel refrains. The lyrics often had a risqué quality with “a macho, slightly dangerous undertone”. The original album sold more than a half million copies, a phenomenal number at the time. The term "blue yodel" is also sometimes used to differentiate the earlier Austrian yodeling from the American form of yodeling introduced by Rodgers.
A folk-blues hybrid
Jimmie Rodgers’ background in the blackface minstrel-shows and as a railroad worker enabled him to develop a unique musical hybridisation drawing from both black and white traditions, as exemplified by the Blue Yodel songs. In his recordings Rodgers and his record producer, Ralph Peer, achieved a “vernacular combination of blues, jazz, and traditional folk” to produce a style of music then called ‘hillbilly’.
Rodgers’ Blue Yodel songs, as well as a number of his other songs of a similar pattern, drew heavily on fragmentary and ephemeral song phrases from blues and folk traditions (called ‘floating lyrics’ or ‘maverick phrases’).
Jimmie Rodgers’ yodel
Jimmie Rodgers’ yodeling refrains, perhaps mimicking a mournful train whistle, are integral to the Blue Yodel songs. Rodgers’ loping and melancholy vocal ornamentations have been described as “that famous blue yodel that defies the rational and conjecturing mind”. Rodgers himself apparently viewed his yodeling as little more than a vocal flourish; he described them as “curlicues I can make with my throat.”
Jimmie Rodgers said he saw a troupe of Swiss yodelers doing a demonstration at a church. They were touring America, and he just happened to catch it, liked it, and incorporated it into his songs.
It has been suggested that Rodgers may have been influenced by the yodeling of Emmett Miller, a blackface minstrel-show singer who recorded for Okeh Records from 1924 to 1929. Singers such as Vernon Dalhart, Riley Puckett, and Gid Tanner incorporated yodeling in recordings made in the mid-1920s; Rodgers recorded a version of Riley Puckett's “Sleep, Baby, Sleep" in August 1927.
Jimmie Rodgers’ distinctive yodel “had the steady ease of hobo song, and was simple enough to imitate”, unlike the sophisticated yodeling of other contemporary performers. Rodgers’ recording and performing successes in the late 1920s and early 1930s ensured that yodeling “became not only an obligatory stylistic flourish, but a commercial necessity”. By the 1930s yodeling was a widespread phenomenon and had become almost synonymous with country music.
When members of Kenya's Kipsigi tribe first encountered the Blue Yodels in the early 1950's, they attributed Rodgers' voice to a half-man, half-antelope spirit they dubbed "Chemirocha." Songs dedicated to Chemirocha came to be incorporated into their fertility rituals; one recording, recorded by ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey, is available here.
The first Blue Yodel (T for Texas)
Jimmie Rodgers’s first Blue Yodel, which became known as “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas) ”, was recorded on 30 November 1927 in the Trinity Baptist Church at Camden, New Jersey. When the song was released in February 1928 it became “a national phenomenon and generated an excitement and record-buying frenzy that no-one could have predicted”.
Blue Yodel song details
- "Blue Yodel” [aka “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)”], recorded on 30 November 1927 at Camden, New Jersey; released on 3 February 1928 (BVE 40753-2).
- “Blue Yodel No. 2 (My Lovin’ Gal, Lucille) ”, recorded on 15 February 1928 at Camden, New Jersey; released on 4 May 1928 (BVE 41741-2).
- “Blue Yodel No. 3 (Evening Sun Yodel) ”, recorded on 15 February 1928 at Camden, New Jersey; released on 7 September 1928 (BVE 41743-2).
- “Blue Yodel No. 4 (California Blues) ”, recorded on 20 October 1928 at Atlanta, Georgia; released on 8 February 1929 (BVE 47216-4).
- “Blue Yodel No. 5 (It’s Raining Here) ”, recorded on 23 February 1929 at New York, New York; released on 20 September 1929 (BVE 49990-2).
- “Blue Yodel No. 6 (She Left Me This Mornin’) ”, recorded on 22 October 1929 at Dallas, Texas; released on 21 February 1930 (BVE 56453-3).
- “Anniversary Blue Yodel (Blue Yodel No. 7) ”, recorded on 26 November 1929 at Atlanta, Georgia; released on 5 September 1930 (BVE 56607-3) - Jimmie Rodgers and Elsie McWilliams (Rodgers' sister-in-law).
- “Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues)”, recorded on 11 July 1930 at Hollywood Recording Studios, Los Angeles, California; released on 6 February 1931 (PBVE 54863-3).
- “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standin’ On the Corner)”, recorded on 16 July 1930 at Hollywood Recording Studios, Los Angeles, California (with Louis Armstrong, trumpet, and Lil Hardin Armstrong, piano); released on 11 September 1931 (PBVE 54867-3).
- “Blue Yodel No. 10 (Ground Hog Rootin’ in My Backyard) ”, recorded February 6, 1932, at Dallas, Texas; released on 12 August 1932 (BVE 70650-2).
- “Blue Yodel No.11 (I’ve Got a Gal) ”, recorded on 27 November 1929 at Atlanta, Georgia; released on 30 June 1933 (BVE 56617-4), after Jimmie Rodgers had died.
- “Blue Yodel No. 12 (Barefoot Blues) ”, recorded on 17 May 1933 at New York, New York; released on 27 June 1933 (BS 76138-1), a month after Jimmie Rodgers’ death.
- “Jimmie Rodgers' Last Blue Yodel (The Women Make a Fool Out of Me) ”, recorded on 18 May 1933 at New York, New York; released on 20 December 1933 (BS 76160-1), seven months after Jimmie Rodgers had died.
Covers and legacy
- The 1930 song "Future Blues" by the bluesman Willie Brown includes the lines "And it's T for Texas, now, it's T for Tennessee."
- In 1969, country singer Merle Haggard released Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings The Great Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers, which included "Blue Yodel #6", "California Blues", and "Mule Skinner Blues".
- Tompall Glaser recorded a version of "T For Texas" which was included on the 1976 compilation, Wanted! The Outlaws, country music's first million-selling album.
- The band Lynyrd Skynyrd also performed "T for Texas" on their 1976 live album, One More From the Road, in a rock and roll style with triple guitar work from the band's three guitarists.
- The 1998 song "A Country Practice" by the band Half Man Half Biscuit on their album Four Lads Who Shook the Wirral includes the lines "T for Toxteth, T for Tennessee, T for Thatcher, that girl that made a wreck out of me".
- Johnny Cash also recorded a cover of "T for Texas", which can be heard on his posthumously issued box set Unearthed. Bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe covered three of the Blue Yodels: #4, #7 and #8 (Mule Skinner Blues).
- Many other artists have gone on to cover Mule Skinner Blues in Monroe's style, including Dolly Parton, the Stoneman Family, Old and in the Way and Rhonda Vincent.
- The Del McCoury Band has covered Blue Yodel #3 in Monroe's bluegrass style.
- Blue Yodel #9 has been covered by the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band on Almost Acoustic, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on Been All Around This World and Steve Earle on Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator.
- Wanda Jackson covered "Blue Yodel #6" for her album The Party Ain't Over (2011).
- "T" for Texas is the first song on the Waylon Jennings album entitled Waylon Live, which is one of his most popular and highly acclaimed albums. The album was released in December of 1976, but the songs were recorded in 1974, pre-dating the Lynyrd Skynyrd recording by two years.
- Karl Denver recorded "T for Texas" in a Decca Ace of Clubs album
- ‘Jimmie Rodgers: Life & Time’ by John Lilly (citing Jimmie Rodgers: The Life and Times of America's Blue Yodeler by Nolan Porterfield, University of Illinois Press, 1992).
- ‘Black and White Cultural Seepage in Country’, by Cole M. Greif-Neill, ‘Your folyops’ website (2005).
- John Greenway, ‘Jimmie Rodgers: A Folksong Catalyst’, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 70, No. 277. (Jul-Sept 1957), pp. 231-234: available on-line
- Liner Notes by Bob Dylan, ‘The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers’ album, released 19 August 1997 (Egyptian Records label) (from) 'Jimmie Rodgers', 'The Bob Dylan Who’s Who' website.
- Yodel-ay-ee-oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World by Bart Plantenga, 2004, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-93989-5.
- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather, 2001, Little, Brown, USA, ISBN 0-316-89507-5
- Kailath, Ryan. "In A Kenyan Village, A 65-Year-Old Recording Comes Home". NPR.org. NPR. Retrieved July 1, 2015.