Jimmie Rodgers was arguably the most popular singer of his era. At the time of his death in 1933, he reportedly accounted for 10% of all records sold by RCA Victor, then the world’s largest record company. His contract had, in fact, been a key asset in RCA’s acquisition of the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1929.
His influence on the genre later known as country music can hardly be overstated. Suffice it to say that he was later dubbed “the Father of Country Music,” that he was one of the inaugural three inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame and that two subsequent inductees—Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow—named sons after him.
Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow and fellow inductees Gene Autry and Jimmie Davis all began their careers as Rodgers imitators, but none achieved anything like Rodgers’ success until they found their own voices. Like hundreds of other lesser lights, they found that dressing like Rodgers, yodeling like Rodgers and singing songs that were reminiscent of Rodgers’ wasn’t the road to success.
So what was it that made Rodgers so unique? I think it was his tone, a buoyant optimism not unlike that of three other 1930s stars, Little Orphan Annie, Shirley Temple and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The world that Rodgers sang about was no less bleak than that of the Carter Family, but where the Carters’ tone was often doleful, even mournful, Rodgers managed to bring an insouciance to even his most desperate songs, a sense that, however bad things might be, better days lay ahead.
As an example, consider one of his most famous songs, “Waiting for a Train” (1928). Rodgers didn’t write the song so much as assemble it from various blues, folk and minstrel-show versions that had been circulating for decades, but his take on it is much different from other versions recorded at around the same time.
Most subsequent recordings have highlighted the plaintive aspects of the song, and certainly Rodgers acknowledges them. The second and third lines of the song are “a thousand miles away from home,/sleeping in the rain,” which is about as forlorn as can be; we later learn that “no one seems to want me” and “my pocketbook is empty/and my heart is full of pain.” This is a song about a man who’s seriously down on his luck, at the end of his rope. He attempts to talk his way into a ride in a boxcar, but the brakeman throws him off and he ends the song as he began it, “a thousand miles away from home.”
Nonetheless, the striking aspect of the song is its jauntiness. Rodgers (as we might as well call the unnamed narrator of the song) is down, but he isn’t out. He’s stranded in Texas, but pauses to mention that it’s “a state I dearly love,/the wide-open spaces all around me/and the moon and stars up above.” He mentions that he’s alone and broke, but says confidently that he’s “on my way from Frisco/heading back to Dixieland.” And he ends the song repeating those third and fourth lines, but with a difference: “Though my pocketbook is empty/and my heart is full of pain,/I’m a thousand miles away from home,/just waiting for a train.”
In other words, he hasn’t given up. This brakeman hasn’t bought his line of talk, but the next one will. He isn’t begging, he isn’t seeking sympathy—he’s doing what everyone else in every train station in America is doing: waiting for a train. That last one wasn’t his train, but the next one will be.
Clinching this interpretation is Rodgers’ performance. The song starts with a mournful trumpet, but immediately the guitar comes in with a banjo-like brightness, and then Rodgers starts to sing. His tone is upbeat, lilting, refusing to wallow in the pathos of the lyrics the way that, say, Johnny Cash’s version does. Rodgers bounces along above a jazzy beat, telling his story without tears.
At the narrative high point of the song, at the end of the first verse, the brakeman throws him off the train and slams the boxcar door. A reprise of the trumpet solo would milk the pathos of the situation, but instead Rodgers offers his signature yodel, as insouciant as Al Jolson’s whistle. The band takes a refrain, and when Rodgers picks up the story with “He put me off in Texas,” it’s to say how happy he is to be there. The song moves briskly to its upbeat conclusion with the same we’ll-make-it-somehow confidence that Annie, Temple and Roosevelt brought to their respective narratives.
“Waiting for a Train” isn’t the childish pep of “On the Good Ship Lollipop” (1934)—which, incidentally, isn’t about a boat, it’s about an airplane—or the giddy, vaguely desperate escapism of “Happy Days Are Here Again” (1929), but it also lacks the helpless rage of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” (1930) or the gloom of the Carter Family’s “Western Hobo” (1929) or “The Broken-Down Tramp” (1937), the former of which draws on the same material as “Waiting for a Train.”
The tone of “Waiting for a Train” is self-reliant, confident and forward-looking. It doesn’t deny the brutal realities of the world, but it refuses to let them get the upper hand. It’s the tone that made stars out of Shirley Temple and F.D.R., and it did the same for Jimmie Rodgers.