Jimmie Rodgers' Texas Blues

The music of Jimmie Rodgers, a.k.a. “the singing brakeman,” fits right into our discussion of unusual blues forms.
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THE MUSIC OF JIMMIE RODGERS, A.K.A. “THE SINGING BRAKEMAN,” FITS RIGHT INTO OUR discussion of unusual blues forms. One of the earliest recorded blues artists, Rodgers certainly became one of the most popular when his 1927 recording of “Blue Yodel #1 (T for Texas)” sold almost 500,000 copies. The song has been covered by countless artists, but let’s examine versions by Waylon Jennings, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Robert Earl Keen to compare forms with the original.

Jimmie Rodgers’ style was a mix of rural folk music and blues, with syncopations that alluded to the jazz of the time. His self-accompaniment allowed him the freedom to change the musical phrase lengths to match his vocal delivery, which at times seems almost random. Not only did he add extra measures to the standard 12-bar format of three four-bar stanzas, he frequently added a 2/4 bar to a phrase, usually at the end—but not always. Example 1 shows the form of the first chorus of “Blue Yodel #1.” Note the 2/4 bars at the end of the first two phrases, followed by four bars of the V chord, closing off with two bars back on the I. But between each verse, Rodgers plays his signature yodel break—a simple I–V–I–I progression that also gets a bar of 2/4 tagged to it—most of the time. All told, the first verse weighs in at 19-and-a-half bars, but each subsequent verse varies depending on the lyric. Rodgers uses this expanded phrase concept in all of his 12 Blue Yodel compositions, each with its own idiosyncratic structure.

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In cover versions, “T for Texas” can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but rarely as Rodgers first performed it. Example 2 is a close match to the line played on Skynyrd’s live 1976 version from One More From the Road [MCA], but rather than mess with 19-and-a-half bars, the band stretched it out to a 24-bar blues form—doubling up on the phrase lengths of a standard 12 bar. The overall track (and the bass line in particular) sounds very much like the Allman Brothers’ version of “One Way Out.” Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkeson sticks fairly close to his two-bar pattern, with only the obvious walkups between the chord changes for variation.

Example 3 is a sampling of the line underneath Waylon Jennings’ version, from Waylon Live [RCA]—also released in 1976, but recorded two years earlier in Austin, Texas. Bassist Duke Goff gets a chunky pick tone from his Jazz Bass, strung with flats, and approaches the tune with a loose, syncopated two-feel that reminds us—country music used to be funky! Like the Skynyrd version, Waylon also follows the 24-bar, or “doubled-up 12-bar” blues, but I don’t know who had the idea first.

Example 4 is a taste of what was played on the 2015 version of “T for Texas” from Robert Earl Keen Jr.’s Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions [Dualtone]. Longtime REK bassist Bill Whitbeck hauls out the doghouse for this all-acoustic collection, laying down a solid root–five, two-feel approach that fits the style perfectly. Also featuring guest vocalist Lyle Lovett, the tune has been arranged into a healthy 14-bar form with one extra bar applied to the first phrase on the I chord, and one bar added to the V chord. At first listen, I was fooled into thinking I heard slap upright, but it was drummer Tom Van Schaik’s stick work on the rims in perfect sync with Whitbeck’s bass that created the illusion.

Take note that none of the three above versions use the I–V–I–I yodel refrain in between verses. If you ever happen to be on a gig and someone calls “T for Texas,” it is difficult to predict what form will be used. Besides the aforementioned versions, there are also recordings by Tompal Glaser, Bob Wills, Townes Van Zandt, and Johnny Cash, and many others that might be the template in the singer’s head. Your best response is to listen to the lyrics and watch closely. On YouTube, there is film footage of Jimmie Rodgers performing “Blue Yodel No. 1” in 1930. His simple guitar accompaniment and plaintive vocals are at the root of country, blues, and jazz. And with the long-lived popularity of his music as cover material, it’s well worth digging into the quirks of his style—life does exist beyond the 12th bar!



Ed Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.