1932: Final Tour For Jimmie Rodgers, Father Of Country Music

Details Surface of Lost Shows in Missouri and Arkansas

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, August 15, 2019

Copyright ©2019 for original content and historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

Issues confronted star musician Jimmie Rodgers at San Antonio in late 1932.

Rodgers, 35, someday known as Father of Country Music, faced waning record sales, property loss, marital discord and lethal disease. The yodeling string player was forced to hock his mansion and move wife and child into an apartment. Likewise he was losing to tuberculosis, often bedridden with breathing difficulty, bloody mucus and body pain.

Rodgers took off from Texas by Cadillac, anyway, pursuing cash work, show dates of any sort amidst Depression economy. He was bound for the Mississippi River Valley at behest of old friend Billy Terrell, for an interstate music tour to be his last.

That much we’ve known of James Charles Rodgers, retrospectively, and now additional details emerge through electronic search of historic newspapers in Missouri, Mississippi and Alabama.

Advertisements, reports and witness accounts of Jimmie Rodgers in 1932 —long buried within miles of microfilm—are becoming readily retrievable as e-search opens old news-pages. Advent of cyber search, in fact, already spurs revisions in so-called history, edits and corrections, for topics like American football.

Recently uncovered in music are portions of Rodgers’ farewell loop through western Mississippi, southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Imagery is vivid when considering Rodgers in the delta, given new information to complement the biographical Jimmy Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler [1979], by Nolan Porterfield, a college instructor of mine at Southeast Missouri State.

Early November, 1932, Jimmie and Carrie Rodgers reached his father’s house in Alabama. Aaron W. Rodgers was a railroad man retired at Geiger, his native community just inside the state line. Two decades previous, over in Mississippi, Aaron had secured son Jimmie’s job with the Mobile & Ohio at Meridian. The boy was 14, quitting school to labor around trains and track, and so marked was the art of Jimmy Rodgers. His music and performance oozed railroad culture, ranging from lyrics and visuals to his whistle imitations and a second stage name, The Singing Brakeman.

Jimmie and Carrie traveled on to hometown Meridian, where her three married sisters lived in the same block. They drove west from the Mississippi hills, down into the delta from Greenwood to Indianola, where he booked gigs at familiar venues. “Jimmie Rodgers has been visiting over his home state between his recording and regular theatre engagements,” reported the Indianola Enterprise, cheerily. “Jimmie takes his vacation by getting out and playing the dances in the towns among the people he knows and loves.”

In truth Rodgers suffered on that trip, badly as anytime since TB unleashed a lung hemorrhage eight years before. He’d been a hearty young man to that point, standing 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, but subsequent, recurring  illness diminished his frame and fortitude.

Rodgers arrived at southeast Missouri in December 1932, resembling “a walking skeleton” for his first and only performances in the Bootheel. The visit began with ice and snow whipping over the bald, deforested flatland. “A strong north wind was blowing that seemed to drive the cold right into your bones,” recalled Robert E. Legan, writing decades later for the Malden Press-Merit.

Legan was 21, clerking in Miller’s Store at Malden on Dec. 10, 1932, a Saturday, when the living legend appeared about noon. “Jimmie Rodgers came in, bundled up in an overcoat with a hunter’s cap pulled down over his ears. He was shivering and said he could not get warm,” Legan recounted. “Because of the weather we were all standing around without very much to do and I think we all helped to wait on Jimmy. We sold him a pair of overshoes, a heavy sweater and a muffler. He put them all on.”

“Before he left I told him how much I liked his singing and his songs—especially Waiting For A Train. He thanked me and started out. He hesitated a moment and looked out through the glass door at the terrible weather outside. Then he shrugged his shoulders, turned up his coat collar and went out into the cold… ”

Seeing Rodgers go, his bony pelvis and splaying legs didn’t fill the trousers. “Time was running out,” Porterfield noted of the TB stage. “For him there was no long-range anything, as he knew all too well.”

Rodgers was in Malden with showman Billy Terrell, veteran Missouri talent and proprietor of popular comedy companies. Terrell once hired Rodgers for the Blue Yodeler’s first tour, straight out of Meridian. At Malden, Rodgers picked guitar and sang during matinee and night shows for Terrell under canvas, damn the winter elements. “Billy had a big coal stove on each side of the tent, with the stovepipes going out under the tent flaps,” wrote Legan, who had adored and followed Terrell since boyhood. But Legan also grasped the dire context for famed Jimmie Rodgers, “down to traveling with a tent show.”

Packed houses savored the entertainment, stirred by Rodgers, renowned for his overriding optimism amidst hard times—embodying the essence of blues theme. “He could still sing,” Legan recalled in 1978. “His songs were of a natural melancholy nature and the sight of this emaciated, doleful creature, singing his heart out with his shining eyes, glowing away back in their sockets, just naturally drew compassion from the audience.”

“I will never forget him or his songs that somehow took hold of the common people.”

The tour of Jimmie Rodgers continued through southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Performances are now documented at the Malone Theatre in Sikeston [Dec. 15-16, 1932] and the Ritz in Blytheville [Dec. 18-19], per news texts recently retrieved. The vintage advertisements and reports don’t mention Terrell, indicating Rodgers booked dates and provided promotional copy himself.

The Sikeston Standard reported “thousands of country folks have developed a taste for Jimmie’s particular talent, and his record of ‘packing ’em in’ is well-known wherever he has appeared in theatres outside of the large cities.” And from the Steele Enterprise: “Jimmie is that same likeable fellow that he was when he sat high in the [train caboose], strumming the guitar and singing the songs that made him famous on both continents.”

Note that presently only a fraction of the region’s historic news-pages are available for electronic search. Rodgers possibly appeared elsewhere locally, with evidence yet uncovered. Anyone can review newspapers on microfilm for the month of Rodgers’ visit, representing localities like Poplar Bluff, Dexter, Chaffee, Cape Girardeau, Illmo-Fornfelt, Benton, Charleston, New Madrid, Portageville and Kennett in Missouri; Cairo in Illinois; and Blytheville in Arkansas. A host of indexes and microfilm editions are available through The State Historical Society of Missouri, website shsmo.org.

Regarding December 1932 in southeast Missouri, the news-pages available for modern search were published at Malden, Sikeston, Caruthersville, Hayti and Steele. See newspapers.com and maldenmuseum.com for more information.

***

Jimmie and Carrie Rodgers apparently returned to Texas by outset of 1933, where Porterfield picked up their trail again in his research. That January Rodgers played the Joy Theatre in Dallas then started a tour of Texas towns with showman J. Doug Morgan. “But Jimmie had ignored the elements and jeopardized his health once too often,” Porterfield observed. “While they were playing Lufkin during the second week of February, he collapsed and was rushed to Methodist Hospital in Houston.”

Family members traveled to his side. “Little, if any, hope is held for the recovery of Jimmie Rodgers,” reported the Chocktaw Plaindealer in Mississippi. After a month hospitalized, however, Rodgers rose from sick bed again, seeking work. “Money did not mean much to him personally…” Porterfield stated, “but now he was increasingly anxious about those he would leave behind, especially twelve-year-old [daughter] Anita.”

Rodgers scheduled recording sessions in New York for a $3,000 advance at completion. He boarded an ocean liner at Galveston, accompanied by personal nurse, and arrived in Manhattan on May 14. Rodgers cut some 10 songs in studio but his lungs hemorrhaged catastrophically at a hotel. He fell comatose and succumbed in his room on May 26, 1933.

“Jimmie Rodgers had not quite literally died alone, but it was very much the same thing,” Porterfield remarked. “To his family and friends, his death had been imminent for years, yet all of them were far away when the time came.”

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling companion books on southern music. Tentative titles are River Shows, Jazz and Country Music: Legends of Song, Dance and Circus in the Northern Delta; and Rockabillies in the Missouri Delta. See Chaney’s page Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Select References

Do You Suffer From Painful Feet? (1928, March 2). [Advertisement.] Malden Merit MO, p. 5.

From Railway Boxcar To Stardom Overnight. (1932, Dec. 15). Steele Enterprise MO, p. 3.

Geiger, Panol And Gainesville Voters. (1928, May 2). Our Southern Home, Livingston AL, p. 4.

Ice And Cold On Weather Menu. (1932, Dec. 13). Sikeston Standard MO, p. 5.

Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodeler,” To Be Stage Attraction Dec. 15-16. (1932, Dec. 9). Sikeston Standard MO, p. 1.

Jimmie Rodgers, Famous Singer, Coming. (1932, Nov. 24). Indianola Enterprise MS, p. 1.

Jimmie Rodgers, Yodeling Brakeman, Dies in New York. (1933, June 1). Kerrville Mountain Sun TX, p. 1.

Legan, R.E. (1978, April 27). Things I Remember About Malden: ‘Toby’ shows and Jimmy Rodgers. Malden Press-Merit MO, p. 74.

Like Your Music “Grand Ole Opry” Style? (1953, April 19). [Advertisement.] Nashville Tennessean TN, p. 71.

Little Hope Held For Recovery Of Jimmie Rodgers. (1933, Feb. 24). Chocktaw Plaindealer, Ackerman MS, p. 4.

Look Who’s Coming! (1932, Dec. 13). [Advertisement.] Sikeston Standard MO, p. 2.

Look Who’s Coming! (1932, Dec. 16). [Advertisement.] Sikeston Standard MO, p. 7.

Over The County. (1932, Nov. 9). Our Southern Home, Livingston AL, p. 1.

Over The County. (1933, March 1). Our Southern Home, Livingston AL, p. 1.

Peterson Purchases Home In Westland. (1933, March 23). Kerrville Mountain Sun TX, p. 1.

Porterfield, N. (1979). Jimmie Rodgers: The life and times of America’s Blue Yodeler. University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago IL.

Ritz Theatre. (1932, Dec. 15). [Advertisement.] Steele Enterprise MO, p. 4.

Skelton, B. (1972, May 23). Meridian’s Jimmie Rodgers father of country music. Jackson Clarion-Ledger MS, pp. 27, 30.

Smith, B. [Dir.] (1930). Jimmie Rogers in The Singing Brakeman. Columbia Pictures Corporation: Hollywood CA.

Society. (1932, Nov. 38). Greenwood Commonwealth MS, p. 3.

Some Relief From Weather. (1932, Dec. 15). Caruthersville Republican MO, p. 1.

The Tactless Texan. (1933, June 6). Amarillo Globe-Times TX, p. 2.

Worst Ice And Sleet Storm In Years Visits This Area. (1932, Dec. 16). Malden Merit MO, p. 8.