BMO’s NEWS’eum remembers Harperville Mississippi’s Elsie McWilliams. Elise passed away on this date at her home in Meridian Mississippi in 1985. Elsie was a songwriter who wrote for Jimmie Rodgers and even though she is only officially credited with writing twenty songs, she actually wrote or co-wrote 39 songs for Rodgers. McWilliams was his most frequent collaborator. She was the first woman to make a career as a country music songwriter.
Her sister, Carrie, married Jimmie Rogers and in 1920, she and Rogers formed a dance band. McWilliams played piano and sang in the band.
Rodgers asked McWilliams to help him with songwriting after he secured a recording contract and McWilliams agreed, traveling to recording sessions and collaborating. Rodgers could not read music, so McWilliams would play the songs and he would learn them by ear. The first song she wrote for Rodgers was A Sailor’s Plea. Many of her songs became top hits. McWilliams’s ideas for her songs often “came from conversation” and she said that “When an idea hit me, I would have to write it down that minute or it would get away.”
Part of the reason he needed help was because his health was poor. Even though McWilliams helped him write songs, she only took credit for some, stating that she wanted the full amount of the money to go to Rodgers and his family. Sometimes when she received payment for her work, she would turn the royalties back over to Rodgers.
After Rodger’s death in 1933, McWilliams focused more on her family and her church. In 1938, she and her sister made recordings in memory of Rodgers. In 1979, she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame