History: The father of country music has ties to Sugar Hill

Jimmie Rodgers is recognized as the “Father of Country Music”. Born in 1897 in Alabama or Mississippi, he influenced modern country and blues music and, during his lifetime, was nicknamed “The Singing Brakeman” and “The Blue Yodeler”. Jimmie became well known during the Great Depression and gained recognition in music’s early years, being first recorded commercially by the Victor Talking Machine Company. He died – too early in his life and tragically – in 1933 from complications of tuberculosis.

Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmy recorded and performed hundreds of songs between 1927 and 1933, and one of the songs has direct links to a 1908 train wreck near Mangum’s Crossing in what is now Sugar Hill.

In his early teens, Jimmie ran away from home and performed in traveling shows. His father tracked him down later and got him a job on the railroad as a water boy. In a recent PBS series by Ken Burns titled “Country music,” it is noteworthy that while he already had an affinity for musical entertainment, he learned much more about music from African-American railroad operators, vagabonds, and railroad workers. Jimmie would later become a brakeman for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad. He was also employed at one time as a switchman by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Jimmie worked intermittently for the railroads until he began recording music in 1927. Diagnosing tuberculosis ended his railroad career, but probably created the track he needed to be recognized for his musical abilities. The railroads and his background of being constantly on the move as a brakeman greatly influenced his music and songs.

A 1908 train wreck near Mangum’s Crossing in Sugar Hill. Photo courtesy of Georgia Archives.

The first railroad song, sung and recorded by Jimmie in November 1927, was “Ben Dewberry’s Final Race.” The song, written by an Atlanta-based gospel and folk music reverend and writer named Andrew Jenkins, commemorated a 1908 train wreck that occurred in what is now Sugar Hill. Benjamin Dewberry, the train engineer, and his assistant, Mayson Wadkins, were the only individuals who lost their lives in this train accident on August 23, 1908, near Mangum’s Crossing. The song was then officially released on Jimmie’s 1928 debut album titled “Train Whistle Blues.” The first verse has a good folk rhythm when played on the guitar and sung by Jimmie:

[Verse 1]

“Ben Dewberry was a brave engineer

He told his fireman you’re never scared

All I want is water and coal

Stick your head out the window, watch the drivers drive by.

[Verse 5]

“Ben looked at his watch, shook his head

We can do Atlanta but we’ll all be dead

The train went flying by the easel and the switch

Without any warning, she took the ditch”

The story gives us no information on how Jimmie became familiar with the song—”Ben Dewberry’s Final Race.” Reverend Jenkins was a well-known author of gospel and folk music, and it is likely that Jimmie heard the song while working for railroad companies and traveling across the country by train. The song has since been performed by other artists, including Johnny Cash. Regardless of the specifics, Jimmie’s connection to our community makes for interesting information and history for Sugar Hill.

Listen to Jimmie Rodgers’ recording of “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run” by clicking here.

Brandon Hembree is mayor of Sugar Hill. He’s been a resident of the town for 20 years, and he uses his interest in history to detail Sugar Hill’s rich past.

FEATURED PHOTO: Jimmie Rodgers in 1931. Victor Talking Machine Company taken by Moss Photo, NYC.

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