Jimmie Rodgers was the first major star of country music, known for adding his trademark “blue yodel” to vaudeville and hillbilly songs. His persona was as important as the music, and Rodgers cultivated a larger-than-life image as someone who had lived out all his songs about trains, whiskey, and women.

For most of his life, though, Rodgers was wracked by tuberculosis. In 1933, the year he died, the Census Bureau reported 67,422 deaths from respiratory tuberculosis in the continental United States (a rate of 53.6 per 100,000 people). Tuberculosis remained the most common type of death from infection, even if cancers and heart disease edged it out as the overall leading cause of death. Tuberculosis spreads through the air, propelled by coughs and sneezes. While the disease can affect the brain, bones, and other organs, in most people it infects the lungs, leading to uncontrolled coughing, fever, and wasting away.

In 1931, Rodgers recorded the autobiographical song “T.B. Blues” for Victor.

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 T.B. blues.
I’ve got the T.B. blues.

Gee but the graveyard
Is a lonesome place.
Lord, that graveyard
Is a lonesome place.
They put you on your back,
Throw that mud down in your face.
I’ve got the T.B. blues.

Of his cough, Rodgers sang, “My body rattles / Like a train on that old S.P.” At the age of thirty-six, Rodgers coughed to death in a New York hotel room shortly after a recording session. His body was shipped south to Mississippi in the baggage car of a train.

On August 21, 2003, Johnny Cash laid down his second-to-last track, a recording of the last song he wrote, originally titled “Asthma Like the 309.” Cash was 71 years, mostly confined to a wheelchair, taking over thirty medications, suffering from diabetes, neurological, and respiratory diseases, and mourning the recent death of June Carter Cash. He died three weeks after that last recording session.

The song would not be released until 2006 on the posthumous album American V: A Hundred Highways. Of the many songs about death on the album, “Like the 309” is humorous, even up-beat. (Compare it to the unbearably sad “On the Evening Train.”) It pokes fun at Cash’s asthma: “It should be a while before I see doctor Death / So, it would sure would be nice if I could get my breath.” At one point in the recording Cash—who could barely finish a line without running out of breath—exhales into the microphone. Set to an almost jaunty tune, the central image is of a casket being loaded onto a train.

Take me to the depot, put me to bed,
Blow an electric fan on my gnarly ol’ head.
Everybody take a look, see, I’m doin’ fine,
Then load my box on the 309.

Not much happening this week, work-wise. But last week the American Religious Ecologies team released the first 40K+ schedules we have digitized from the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies. You can browse the schedules here and there is an explanation here.


Listening: American V: A Hundred Highways.

Working: Not working.

Playing: Attempting a piano/guitar duet with my daughter.

Playing: Should I restart Breath of the Wild and try to play it through?

Reading: Bill C. Malone, Country Music USA.