Elsie Williamson McWilliams (1896-1985), the sister of Jimmie Rodgers’s second wife Carrie, wrote or contributed to music and lyrics for thirty-nine of the songs that Rodgers performed or recorded, although she never received full credit for her work. A Meridian housewife, mother, and Sunday school music teacher, she became the first woman to sustain a successful career as a country songwriter and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1979.
After growing up in Harperville in Scott County, Nettie Williamson McWilliams, called “Elsie” (1896-1985) moved to Meridian where she wrote songs, made music, and tended her family for most of her 89 years. Her musical career would likely have been limited to playing pump organ in church and writing songs for her children’s school plays if her sister Carrie had not married a local railroad brakeman and singer named Jimmie Rodgers in 1920. When Rodgers achieved global popularity and was pressed by his manager and publisher Ralph Peer to supply a steady stream of new songs, Jimmie drafted his music-reading, songwriting sister-in-law Elsie to pitch in with the writing.
McWilliams tended to modestly credit songs only to Rodgers on the grounds that they would not have existed if he hadn’t asked her to help. Rodgers, his publisher, and his record label Victor saw to it, however, that her name appeared as co-writer or lyric writer on nineteen of his recorded songs. By her own later estimate, she also contributed to some twenty others.
Her lyrics for Jimmie Rodgers were sometimes sparked by events from her own life. “My Little Lady,” which would become a cowboy yodeling standard recorded by Roy Rogers and many others, was inspired by a neighbor of the McWilliamses named “Hadie;” the rhyme stuck. Others were based on facts from The Singing Brakeman’s own life. “You and My Old Guitar” was based on an excited comment he made to Mrs. Rodgers.
Many of McWilliams’s creations were sentimental, domestic songs in the melodic style of the Tin Pan Alley songs she loved—“Daddy and Home,” “Lullaby Yodel,” “Home Call,” “Mississippi Moon,” and also Rodgers’s single gospel number, “The Wonderful City.” Yet she was the principle author of lively songs like the risqué “Everybody Does It in Hawaii” and “My Little Lady,” and of broken marriage songs like “I’m Lonely and Blue” and “Never No Mo’ Blues,” and she contributed to the “rounder” number “My Rough and Rowdy Ways.” After Rodgers’s early death, she continued to write verse and songs throughout her life, including several for Ernest Tubb.
Elsie McWilliams devoted most of her time to her husband, Edwin “Dick” McWilliams, who for most of their over sixty years of marriage was a patrolman with the Meridian police department, her three children, and civic duties. But she also performed, playing piano and singing in Jimmie Rodgers’s first pop-oriented dance band trio in 1923, and appearing occasionally at clubs and festivals in the last ten years of her life.
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