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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 a rural childhood in Harperville, in Scott County MS, (Nettie) Elsie Williamson McWilliams lived, wrote songs, made music and tended to her family here in Meridian 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.
Modest throughout life for all of her characteristic spunkiness, Elsie tended to credit the songs purely to Jimmie, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have existed if he hadn’t asked her to help. Rodgers, his publisher and his record label Victor saw to it 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.
Many of Elsie’s creations were sentimental, domesticated songs in the melodic style of the Tin Pan Alley melodies she loved—“Daddy and Home,” “Lullaby Yodel,” “Home Call,” “Mississippi Moon,” and also Jimmie’s single gospel number, “The Wonderful City.” Yet with her lively imagination and spark, she was also the principle author of the risqué “Everybody Does It in Hawaii” and “My Little Lady,” of broken marriage songs like “I’m Lonely and Blue” and “Never No Mo’ Blues,” and she contributed to the proto-outlaw roving “rounder” number “My Rough and Rowdy Ways.” After Rodgers’ early death, she continued to write verse and songs throughout her life, including several for Ernest Tubb.
The majority of Elsie McWilliams’ time would always be devoted to her immediate family, her husband, (Edwin) Dick McWilliams, who for most of their over 60 years of marriage was a patrolman with the Meridian Police Department, and her three children, and to civic duties. But she also performed, playing piano and singing in Jimmie Rodgers’ first pop-oriented dance band trio in 1923, and returning to occasional club and festival dates in the last ten years of her life.
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