T.B. Blues

Note, to avoid confusion: This is about the Jimmie Rodgers song. There is also another song with the same title, recorded by Leadbelly (who may have written it) and others, which begins “Too late, too late…”

Jimmie Rodgers was the first country music superstar, before it was called country music. He was considered a hillbilly singer, but the blues were really at the heart of his music. By prevailing southern race definitions of the time, his music might have been called “Negro,” as the black elements would have made the music “quadroon” or “mulatto” by the even most conservative of musical gauges. One of Rodgers’ recordings even featured Louis Armstrong along with his wife, Lil Hardin, on piano. The primacy of African-American elements in American country music has never gotten its due recognition.

Known as “The Singing Brakeman,” Rodgers worked for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad before his performing career took off. His big break came in 1927, when Ralph Peer recorded a veritable Old Testament of early country music (including The Carter Family) in Bristol, Tennessee, for the Victor company.

Rodgers had contracted tuberculosis in 1924, and it was to do him in nine years later. One of his most affecting songs, “T.B. Blues,” deals with his disease without equivocation. This is definitely not illness as metaphor.

[The excellent steel guitar work on the recording is by Charles Kama]

My good gal’s trying to make a fool out of me
Lord my gal’s trying to make a fool out of me
Trying to make me believe I ain’t got that old TB
I’ve got the TB blues

When it rained down sorrow it rained all over me
When it rained down sorrow it rained all over me
Cause my body rattles like a train on that old S.P.
I’ve got the TB blues

I’ve got that old TB, I can’t eat a bite
Got that old TB, I can’t eat a bite
Got me worried so I can’t even sleep at night
I’ve got the TB blues

I’ve been fightin’ like a lion looks like I’m going to lose
I’m fightin’ like a lion looks like I’m going to lose
Cause there ain’t nobody ever whipped the TB blues
I’ve got the TB blues

Gee but the graveyard is a lonesome place
Lord that old graveyard is a lonesome place
They put you on your back, throw that mud down in your face
I’ve got the TB blues

Consider that first line. “My good gal’s trying to make a fool out of me.” What’s the first thing a listener thinks upon hearing this? I’d say, here comes a “she done him wrong song.” But Rodgers turns that assumption on its head when we learn that the good gal is trying to comfort him with optimistic sentiments. It’s really brilliant, yet it’s not something I ever thought about until I decided to write about it.

From there we get the classic rain metaphor for personal gloom, followed by a vivid simile from his railroad world. Surely listeners of the time would have easily recognized “that old S.P.” as the Southern Pacific Railroad.

And when Rodgers sings “I’ve got the T.B. blues,” he does so in his signature yodel (indeed, many of his tunes were titled “Blue Yodel,” followed by a number).

The song ends on a stark, dark note, with a harrowing image. “They put you on your back, throw that mud down on your face.” Perhaps inaccurate, but certainly much more gut-wrenching than “throw that mud down on your casket,” wouldn’t you say?

A number of others have recorded the song: Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Leon Redbone, Don McLean, Pete Seeger and, the best of them all for this song, Merle Haggard. Haggard has a special affinity for Rodgers’ music. Really, most country musicians worth their salt do, but Haggard has always had Rodgers songs in his repertoire and in 1969 he recorded a tribute album.  But as good as Haggard is, as good as any of them are, they’re performing another person’s illness; Rodgers was living it and dying from it as he sang it.

* * *

In 1929 Rodgers starred in a short film, “The Singing Brakeman,” in which he performs several of his best known tunes.

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One thought on “T.B. Blues

  1. “The primacy of African-American elements in American country music has never gotten its due recognition.” I think Ray Charles. And then I think, it’s been sanitized and Stalinized, hasn’t it?

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