Two years before he died in a plane crash in Alaska, the great Will Rogers wrote about the death of his “distant son,” the words he used to describe Jimmie Rodgers.
He eased the hardships of the great depression with his songs.
Jimmie had died in 1933 at age 35 and he left a big hole to fill.
Many tried. Jimmy Davis (You are my Sunshine) Rex Griffin, (The Last Letter). and many, many others. Sunshine and Letter are known by top critics as the two greatest country songs ever written.
Ernest Tubb, with the help of Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers worked to fill the hole starting in 1941, where we also saw the beginning of World War II.
His songs certainly eased some of the pain and sorrow of the war for many Americans.
His worldwide appeal was phenomenal, even in countries where radios were forbidden, and there, they risked their lives to hear his records by hiding under blankets with their radios. I kid you not.
Country (called Hillbilly then) music fame was not limited to Ernest Tubb. Japanese infantrymen, in their charges, would yell “to hell with Roosevelt, to hell with Babe Ruth, to hell with Roy Acuff.”
A Cajun friend, the late Bertman Pitre who lost a leg in battle swore he actually witnessed that.
Ernest Tubb had been on a roll since “Walking the Floor” in 1941, taking the Cajuns, the nation and most of the world by storm with ten straight hit records. He made four movies, two “B” westerns with Charles Starrett, the “Durango Kid” and two as the star, “Jamboree” and “Hollywood Barn Dance”. They were certainly no “Casablanca”, but to his fans they might just as well have been.
The Cajuns had a nickname for him, “Ar-ness-la-by”, French for “Ernest, the tub”.
Decca Records later told him that none of his releases between 1940 and 1950 had sold fewer than 300,000. There were as many as six of his songs on the top hit charts at the same time, unprecedented in any music genre.
During this time, my family had moved to New Orleans where my dad was building landing crafts at Higgins Industries.
I did not hear many Ernest Tubb records in New Orleans and very little country music, but what I did hear was the New Orleans “patois” or the “where y’at?” or “who dat” accent. Horrors! Within a year I was speaking just like them. I had totally lost my Cajun accent for which my new classmates had nicknamed me “Country”.
Eventually my new accent, which was somewhere in between, served me well in my later radio career.
The war ended in 1945 and we returned to my beloved Bayou Lafourche home. Upon hearing my new accent, my Golden Meadow High School classmates nicknamed me … you guessed it … “City”.
I, have some pleasant memories like seeing the original Three Stooges in person at the St. Charles theater, my proximity to Pontchartrain Beach, Audubon and City parks, where I saw over 30 major movie and radio stars at war bond drives.!
One of my best memories was meeting and talking to Ernest Tubb who was in New Orleans to make an appearance at the” Silver Star”. I was too young to see him there, but I played hooky from school and saw him with a large crowd at radio station WJBW where we did a show with his band to plug the event. As we chatted, he was simultaneously signing autographs, and he mentioned a name I knew very little about, but in time I would. The name was Jimmie Rodgers.
Note: My Nashville story is long but we 5 Cajuns lived through it and it was a life-changing event for me. I have met so many interesting and famous people and I yearn to tell you all about them. Writing the column reminds me that I was young once and that’s the best memory I have. You too, I’d bet. BYE NOW! •
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