No one would deny the sincerity and authenticity of the folk and country music legend Jimmie Rodgers, whose recordings were about as far from commercially concocted drivel as one could possibly get. In an examination of his important collaborations, inevitably, the subject of this little old lady from Mississippi comes up. She wrote, co-wrote, or provided the raw material for many of his most famous songs and it proves true the old adage about not being able to go wrong with good ingredients. And unlike any number of phony baloney songwriters cynically hawking their creations around the gang of Nashville publishers, she wrote songs just to help out her brother in law, who wasn't feeling so well at the time, was under a lot of pressure, and just might not come up with enough new songs on his own for his next recording sessions.
Elsie McWilliams was the daughter of a reverend and grew up on a farm, learning music from a very early age. She graduated from high school in Meridian in 1917 and then began teaching school herself until she got married. Just as music had been a regular part of her home as a child, she and her husband provided the same kind of environment for the family they began raising, including phonograph records and involvement in church music activities. Her sister Carrie met Jimmie Rodgers in 1920 when he was working for the railroads and they were married even before Elsie had a chance to meet him. Elsie dabbled a bit in piano by playing in some of the ensembles her new brother-in-law got together around the area, but tended to limit her involvement because of her religious upbringing.
Even though Rodgers was not in the best of health, he was still doing a great deal for work related to both his music and the railroad job, his family traveling along with him. It didn't take too long until he cut the sides for Victor which would become the first of his many smash hits. His voice became a familiar sound on the radio. Just as this excitement was building, Elsie McWilliams received a letter from Jimmie Rodgers in which he pleaded with her to come up with some original ballads, which he spelled "ballards" for future record dates. Furthermore, "I am too tired and too busy trying to make ends meet to do much about it myself..." he wrote her. What songwriter wouldn't have responded to such an urgent request? She got into her notebook and pulled out one she had been working on about a friend's dismal experience in the navy. The song would be called "The Sailor's Plea" and is a great combination of the heavily sentimental, moralistic country & western song-story and churchy gospel chord changes. She sent this ditty off to Rodgers and received word not to send anything else, she was instead to head north where she could teach songs to him directly while she shuttled back and forth between radio broadcasts in Washington and new Victor sessions in New York City and Camden, NJ. She gathered up all the old ballads she could find from stacks of her mother's decaying sheet music and packed them up along with her own verses, most of which she had already set to music herself. What happened when they finally started getting together was described later as being like a song factory of some sort. The results of their work were snatched up by a public that couldn't seem to get enough of Jimmie Rodgers, despite the fact that even his record label thought he would be a one-hit wonder. Part of the appeal was that a listener never knew what the next record he did would be like. On one record he might be preaching to the audience from some experienced pulpit of wisdom, but on the next the audience would find him locked up in the jailhouse. The next song might be a train song.
Rodgers found a great partner in his sister-in-law for such song maneuvering because her tastes were eclectic and musical interests and capabilities broad. The practice sessions were difficult, as the singer often had to take breaks for serious coughing spells. During this intense atmosphere, McWilliams began to tell the publishers that she wanted no credit or royalties for the songs, she was doing her work only for Rodgers, her sister, and their daughter. The publishers insisted she take credit, a wise move, as her contribution to what Rodgers created was enormous based on the evidence of these songs. There were benefits to her in the end, including some payments that she donated to charity, a quite valuable guitar given to her gratis by the Gibson company, now on display in Meridian's Jimmie Rodgers Museum, and most important in her opinion, the opportunity to travel to some interesting places. Other famous Rodgers songs that she was involved in writing include "My Old Pal," "Mississippi Moon," "Daddy and Home," "Waiting for a Train," "Yodeling Cowboy," and the mighty "Hobo's Last Ride," many listeners' favorite Rodgers song. McWilliams became part of the touring party that accompanied Rodgers as he went around from concert to concert, now making as much as 1000 dollars a week, big money for a country artist in the late '20s and still more than most punk rock sidemen made on tour in early 2001. Being on tour was a bit of an eye-opener for the staunchly Methodist woman, and her experiences including being dragged into a burlesque show by Rodgers and his rowdy friends in New Orleans.
The last songs of theirs on which she is credited as a co-writer were cut in 1931, and according to interviews with McWilliams, the actual partnership came to an end in 1929. Now Rodgers himself had more time to write material and was receiving more submissions from other writers than he could process, since everyone wanted Jimmie Rodgers to cut their song. It was time for Elsie McWilliams to fade back into her home and family, a development she couldn't have minded much having never had any great desire for commercial success. Nonetheless, a list of her songwriting credits could easily whale the tar out of many songwriting teams. Material she created completely aside from the relationship with Rodgers was recorded by country great Ernest Tubb and Bill Bruner. Tubb, who had a close relationship with Rodger's widow, also recorded several songs she wrote about the death of Jimmie Rodgers, including the "Last Thoughts of Jimmie Rodgers," which an individual with a weak stomach might find verges on the morbid. Of course, the Rodgers songs she helped write remained her gold mine, whether she wanted it that way or not. In that capacity, she can make a claim that any songwriter would love to, mainly that her works have been sung by the likes of Doc Watson, the Carter Family, the Blasters, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, and Bob Wills, to name a few. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi