Celebrations honor legendary man and his music
Editor's note: This is the third of a five-part series on Jimmie Rodgers written for The Meridian Star by historian, entertainer and radio personality Carl Fitzgerald. The series will be published on Sundays through May 25.
By Carl Fitzgerald / special to The Star
May 11, 2003
That May, 26, 1953, the first Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Celebration (non-festival) was also tagged by man as "National Hillbilly Day," and even "National Country Music Day." And even though the late Arthur Winstead of Philadelphia, who was serving us as our 3rd District U.S. Congressman, reportedly put a bill before the House, trying to establish May 26 as a special day in honor of Rodgers' untimely death. As far as I know, that bill never passed the House.
That national day honoring country music would have been ideal, but the Jimmie Rodgers celebrations were off and running without having to depend on any political clout. But, some political moves were filtered in about 1954, as we recall, and I'll share that blunder a little further in this column. Many of you fans will remember. Yes, you will.
In my earlier research, I found that the original (1953) organization was chartered in the state of Mississippi as "The Jimmie Rodgers Memorial and Health Foundation." It was not a membership organization like the Rodgers organization is nowadays. You will note the state of Mississippi nonprofit charter names for the '53 group and the 1972 JRMF charter are similar in their names. The first one has (note) Memorial and Health Foundation and the latter prints out as Memorial Foundation. The 1953 group, for the most part, was made up with committee members such as Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Nate S. Williamson and James H. Skewes, editor and publisher of The Meridian Star. I should say at this point, "The original '53 group, through their president, Nate Williamson, gave us (JRMF) $20,000 in funds when we dedicated the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Highland Park in 1976," said James Skelton.
By the way, those celebrations in the '50s (there were only six of them) were tremendous celebrations, which focused on a non-commercial salute and tribute to Jimmie Rodgers. Again, the year dates of the events were: 1953 through 1959, but no celebration was held in 1958. The event had just simply, failed due to lack of local support. Why? Well, the 1954 appearance of president hopeful Adlai Stevenson, who made the tragic mistake of speaking on the wrong subject … POLITICS.
Just sort of (Carl, tell it like it was) made a lot of country music people mad! Yes, it did. Hank Snow, Roy Acuff and others didn't take to this very lightly. Well, many of the participating artists (stars) who were donating their professional services as entertainers began pulling away. Plus the local-area fan base of the stars were very much in disarray after that political blunder. Of course, the next year, 1955, was the year that KWKH Radio in Shreveport, La. brought in their artists to do their Saturday night show, as I recall, or at least it could have been a special weekday night (I have not checked my calendar dates-days recently) but I do remember that Horace Logan was here, boss man of that show, and I understand that KWKH did the CBS Network show from the stadium stage that night. Yes, Elvis Presley performed on the '55 show and he was a star of the hayride show at the time. Now, I plan to research this some more and see if they may have recorded their net portion for a Saturday night play, or if they may have done the CBS show live another year, but I don't think so at this point. Jim Reeves was here also … from the "hayride" show.
Anyway, after that 1954 blunder, the show came back quite well in 1955 as I am relating here in part three. 1956 and 1957 were not really super events and after the 1958 no show' year, the local restaurant association, through Meridian restaurant owner Vic Skinner, tried to get the Rodgers' train rolling again, but it just would not fly. Skinner did pull off getting CBS network star Ted Mack to come down for a Rodgers talent show and local country singer Ken Mabry won the contest. He and his band, local pickers Charlie Harrison (steel guitar) bass man Monk Graham and drummer John Howington went to New York to appear on Mr. Mack's television show. Hey, that Rodgers 1959 event brought the Jimmie Rodgers celebration of the '50's to a "halt," and the "dozen dead years" ran from 1960-1971. Our group organized the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial Festival in 1972.
By the way, that newspaper reporter probably meant well in inviting Adlai E. Stevenson, as he said that Mr. Stevenson would make a non-political speech as a world statesman. Tubb and Snow only agreed to his appearance after they were assured that he (Stevenson) would not make a political talk. Of course, if the reporter told the truth, then the Stevenson camp messed up! And fans, you DON'T MESS with Country Music Folks!