Monday, May 02, 2005
  From a Voice Plantation #1

Over the last few decades a number of music writers and researchers have excavated the life and times of Emmett Miller, a long-forgotten blackface singer from Macon, Georgia. Wizened old rock critic Nick Tosches is chief among them. His 2001 book, Where Dead Voices Gather, utilizes his quest for Miller’s biographical data as the framework for an examination of minstrelsy and how thoroughly it permeated and influenced popular culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Tosches takes many tangents, as is usual for him, but never fails to return to Miller and his trick voice every so often, effectively asserting that Miller was both a product of his culture and yet an unusually unique performer.

The late twenties were the end-times for blackface minstrelsy, and Miller consummately embodied this dying and disreputable tradition. At the same time, though, he transcended it with his desperate, disarming yelp of a voice. “Anytime”, his signature song, begins with that crazed yodel that left such an indelible impression upon Tosches. The subsequent fake Negro patter and bad Amos and Andy routine are typical blackface hallmarks, their ridiculous racial notions more baffling than offensive. But when Miller begins singing again, and his voice hits those unexpected high notes that often spiral into a yodel, he sticks out from other recorded blackface singers, both his contemporaries and predecessors.

Tosches points to Miller as a perfect example of the cross-pollination between country, blues, and jazz in their early recorded stages. Miller, a real Southerner, sang, as a fake Negro, tunes written by New York songwriters, and played by a backing band that featured not-yet-legendary jazzmen like Gene Krupa and the Dorsey Brothers. Minstrel lyrics were often lifted from folk-blues songs, which, in turn, often appropriated words written by professional Tin Pan Alley songwriters. Tosches likens these relationships to the ourobouros (an allusion that I believe is used at least once in every Tosches book I’ve read), the snake eating its own tail. As he puts forth in his earlier work Country, our musical history consists primarily of words and music of unknowable origin passing from memory to folk tradition, then on to blues, country, and jazz, and then back again. When recording was new, before culture became national and streamlined, genres were indistinct and permeable, and would be combined, often unwittingly, in fashions far more seamless than anything Cowboy Troy could ever hope to manage. The boundaries between blues and country, jazz and folk had not yet firmed, and thus a singer like Emmett Miller could straddle and influence a multitude of styles.

Miller’s most obvious influence was upon country music. Yodeling was a part of country almost from when that term started to be used. Jimmie Rodgers became the first country superstar based on his amazing “Blue Yodel”, which shares some lyrics with southern blues songs encountered by folklorists. Tosches determines that it’s impossible to tell whether Miller influenced Rodgers, but Miller was yodeling before Rodgers put anything on tape. Subsequent country yodeler Bob Wills acknowledged Miller’s influence, and Hank Williams’ hit recording of “Lovesick Blues” owes much to Miller’s version from the twenties, in both arrangement and vocal performance. Many years later, Merle Haggard did a whole album of Miller songs. In influencing Williams, probably the most important and influential country singer, Miller played a notable role in the development of country music.

But the primary point of interest with Emmett Miller, the reason his memory has been rescued from oblivion, is that startling and amazing voice. Miller sounds quite sincerely insane much of the time, and almost inhuman elsewhere. His voice was an incredible instrument for bizarre and unsettling noise, and one of the most distinctive sounds I’ve ever encountered.

Emmett Miller: "Anytime"
Emmett Miller: "Lovesick Blues"

Jimmie Rodgers: "Blue Yodel"
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