Welcome to the third in the Pledge Week series of episodes, putting up old bonus episodes posted to my Patreon in an attempt to encourage more subscriptions. If you like this, consider subscribing to the Patreon at http://patreon.com/join/andrewhickey .
This one is about “Blue Yodel #9” by Jimmie Rodgers, but it’s really about two great women who shaped twentieth century popular music without much credit — Lil Hardin and Elsie McWilliams
Click the cut to view a transcript of this episode:
Welcome to the latest episode of the Patreon-only bonus podcasts. For this episode, we’re going to do something different from what we’ve normally done. In the main series, I’ve been going strictly chronologically — each episode covers a fairly long period of time, but each song I’ve dealt with has come chronologically after the song before.
This time, we’re going to go right back in time, to the beginnings of country music. I’ll be doing that kind of thing a lot more on these Patreon episodes, because the short length gives me the freedom to look at any time period I want, and to jump back and forth in the story.
Today, we’re going to talk about two great women who don’t get as much credit as they deserve for the work of the great men they were behind.
Lil Hardin was the piano player for King Oliver’s jazz band in the 1920s, when he hired a new second cornet player, a young musician called Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was a promising musician, with a lot of ability, but he was also a bit of a hick — badly-dressed, with a bad haircut, and with no understanding of how to present himself on stage. He also had no ambition – he just wanted to play with his hero. Lil Hardin saw something in him, though, and tidied him up, showed him how to act on stage, how to dress and how to do his hair. She persuaded him that while he loved just playing in the same band as King Oliver, he could become a star himself.
The two of them both divorced their respective spouses and married, and when the time came for Louis Armstrong, who had been only second cornet when he’d met Lil, to become the leader of his own band, the Hot Five, Lil Hardin Armstrong was its piano player. The recordings by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five were the records that built Louis’ reputation as a musician, and which still to this day are regarded as the peak of New Orleans jazz. And Lil Hardin is all over them.
[Excerpt: Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, “Muskrat Ramble”]
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Jimmie Rodgers had had to retire from his job on the railway due to tuberculosis, and was trying to make a living as a singer.
I’ve mentioned Jimmie Rodgers a few times, and if I’d decided to start the narrative in the 1920s rather than in 1938 he would almost certainly have had a full episode devoted to him. He was probably the first big superstar of country music, but he influenced people in all sorts of other fields as well — for example Howlin’ Wolf developed his vocal style by attempting to imitate Rodgers’ trademark yodel.
In 1927 he began his recording career with records like “Sleep Baby Sleep”:
[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, “Sleep Baby Sleep”]
Rodgers is the credited songwriter on most of his work, but many of his songs were written or co-written by his sister in law, Elsie McWilliams, who had played piano in his band and who he asked to help him whip his ideas into shape when he got a recording contract. McWilliams wanted to make sure her sick brother-in-law and his family would have money, so she only got credited on about half the songs she wrote or co-wrote, giving Rodgers the credit on the rest. And when she did get credited, she often gave Rodgers the actual money anyway.
Much later she said, “I didn’t want a penny for those songs, you understand, if there was any money coming, I wanted him to have it. He was sick and broke and I loved ‘em both so very much.
He kept after me to sign a contract, but I wouldn’t, I didn’t want any of his money. But he kept after me anyway, so I finally agreed to accept 1/25th of a percent… I nearly fainted when I got my first royalty check, it was for $256.56. I signed it right over to the church.”
No-one knows for sure exactly which songs McWilliams co-wrote, but she’s generally credited with having worked on roughly a third of Rodgers’ songs. This means I can’t know for sure if she worked on the song we’re looking at today, but whether she did or not, it’s entirely possible that Rodgers would not have been in any position to even be recording without McWilliams’ contributions.
Rodgers’ greatest successes were a series of recordings called the Blue Yodels, which started shortly after Rodgers started collaborating with McWilliams, with “Blue Yodel #1”, a record we’ve repeatedly mentioned in the main podcast:
[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel #1”]
For the ninth Blue Yodel, though, Rodgers was inspired by a record that had come out four years earlier, “The Bridwell Blues”, by Nolan Welsh, with Louis Armstrong on trumpet:
[Excerpt: Nolan Welsh, “The Bridwell Blues”]
So in what was for the time an extraordinary fusion of musical styles, and an extraordinary collaboration between black and white musicians, he got Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin to add their jazz instruments to his “Blue Yodel #9”:
[Excerpt: Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel #9”]
Within a year of that recording, Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong would split up for good. Armstrong went on to become the biggest star in jazz music history, while Hardin never managed much greater success than being billed as “Mrs Louis Armstrong”. And within three years, Jimmie Rodgers would be dead — the tuberculosis finally took him in 1933.
At the time of his death, Rodgers was selling ten percent of all the records on his label, RCA, and while he’s now largely forgotten except to fans of country music’s history, he was so famous at the time that seventeen years later an ethnomusicologist studying the music of the Kipsigis people of Kenya recorded this:
[Excerpt: Kipsigis people, “Chemirocha”]
That’s someone singing “Chemirocha” — Jimmie Rodgers.