I know three Jimmie Rodgers collections well, the five-CD collection RECORDINGS 1927-1933, the Bear box set THE SINGING BRAKEMAN, and the single disc THE ESSENTIAL JIMMIE RODGERS. Each of these collections is flawed in its own way. RECORDINGS 1927-1933 is on the surface of things a great bargain, in that you get very nearly all of Rodgers's recordings in a single inexpensive set. Unfortunately, the sound quality isn't nearly as good as the other two compilations. THE SINGING BRAKEMAN is hands down the finest collection, with all of the extant recordings, a very nice booklet, and great sound, but it is prohibitively expensive, at the moment that I write this review nearly $190. If money is no object, then by all means get this one. The third collection that I know well is this one, THE ESSENTIAL JIMMIE RODGERS. It is very good sonically and features 20 of his best known songs. Its problem is not that it isn't good; but that he has vastly more than 20 very good songs. There are far, far more "essential" recordings than that.
What is not at issue is the quality of the music. Even on the two large collections there is surprisingly little dross in Jimmie Rodgers's recordings. I find that every disc stands up marvelously to relistenings. Even Rodgers's very first cuts were decent. The majority are excellent, and more than a handful were superb. And there is a remarkable diversity. Although a large number of the cuts are solo performances with Rodgers playing only guitar, a large number feature a wide variety of accompaniments. The most famous is, of course, "Standing on the Corner," recorded in Hollywood with Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet as only he could. Many of the other cuts feature weak or average players, but there are the occasional cuts with exceptionally fine players. But in everyone Rodgers dominates.
While there are very few weak musical cuts, this collection does happily leave off the intensely horrifying "The Pullman Porters," a skit that is included on the Bear THE SINGING BRAKEMAN box set, in which two white men, one of them unfortunately Jimmie Rodgers, parody black Pullman Porters. Even when factoring in that it was humor that was typical of the age, it hardly excuses Rodgers for engaging in painfully racist humor. And "racist" is absolutely the correct word. Most accusations of racism these days involve incidents that can usually be debated. But this comedic skit is vastly more offensive than Michael Richards's celebrated tirade. It isn't just Rodgers mimicking African-Americans or the loose use of the N-word, but the way that the porters, especially the porter that Rodgers is talking to, are presented as complete and abject idiots. The skit is also extremely embarrassing to whites. It pains me that whites might have found this funny. This skit reflects very, very badly on the whites of the period.
Speaking of whites of the period, one thing that I often thing about in listening to Rodgers is my grandfather. After being mustered out of the Army in 1918 at the end of the Great War, my grandfather (who was a photographer for the army) began working for the U.S. Post Office. Specifically, he worked on mail trains. As far as I can tell, he mainly worked runs into Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana from 1919 through the late 1920s. Rodgers finished working on the railroads around 1923 or 1924. There is absolutely no way of telling for sure, but it doesn't seem unlikely that Rodgers and my grandfather might have been on a run together at some point. They certainly inhabited the same worlds. What is more, my grandfather was a fiddle player. It would have been so sweet if my grandfather and Rodgers had had a talk about music. I don't know if they ever met or were even on the same trains, but it certainly isn't impossible.
Of the three Jimmie Rodgers's collections with which I am familiar, I am not sure which I would most recommend. RECORDINGS 1927-33 is nearly as complete as THE SINGING BRAKEMAN and can be had for a sixth of the cost, but it definitely is not of the same quality. On the other hand, THE SINGING BRAKEMAN is so absurdly expensive! There is a significant difference in sound quality, but even more of a difference in price. THE ESSENTIAL JIMMIE RODGERS has exceptionally fine sound quality, but it leaves off way, way too many of Rodgers's most important recordings. It lacks such important gems as "Standing on the Corner" (the collaboration with Louis Armstrong), "Home Call," "Peach Picking Time in Georgia," "Long Tall Mama Blues," and "Jimmie's Mean Mama Blues," along with many others. In short, there is no easy recommendation about which direction to go in getting the right Jimmie Rodgers collection. THE ESSENTIAL is too small, 1927-33 is too inferior, and THE SINGING BRAKEMAN is too expensive. But right now, those are our choices.