Emmett Miller


Emmett Miller – The Minstrel Man From Georgia

By Jeff Waggoner (nytimes.com):

Of the surviving photographs of the minstrel Emmett Miller, one shows him in blackface, with a tight bowler tilted toward his left eye. He is wearing the too-broad smile of a clown.

That’s the image on the cover of ”Emmett Miller: The Minstrel Man From Georgia,” a 1996 compilation of songs+recorded in the 1920’s and 30’s (and which was scheduled to be rereleased late last month). In Nick Tosches’ ”Where Dead Voices Gather,” this politically incorrect white man in blackface is remembered and rehabilitated. He was, Tosches argues, not only ”one of the strangest and most stunning of stylists ever to record,” but also, in his mongrel, mythic essence ”a perfect representation of the schizophrenic heart of what this country, with a straight face, calls its culture.”

Miller’s fame+was short-lived, peaking in the mid-to-late 1920’s, when he made a handful of commercial 78’s, and on the wane by 1930. Miller was briefly promoted as the ”Famous Yodeling Blues Singer” before being eclipsed by ”America’s Blue Yodeler,” Jimmie Rodgers. In the 1930’s Miller dropped into obscurity, working in tent shows and cheap joints, his face still smeared with burnt cork. He died of esophageal cancer in 1962, after surviving for years on the kindness of family, friends and barroom strangers.

Sadly, even the musicians with whom Miller recorded seem to have forgotten about him, but those old 78’s were transformed nearly 40 years later into ”Emmet Miller Acc. by His Georgia Crackers” (the producers didn’t bother to spell Miller’s first name right). The 1969 album was intended for jazz collectors, with Cracker members Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang and Gene Krupa, who all later became stars, providing the selling points. Then, four years later, Miller’s name popped up again when Merle Haggard dedicated ”I Love Dixie Blues” in part to Miller. That whetted the curiosity of Tosches, a journalist and music critic, who fished out a copy of ”Emmet Miller Acc. by His Georgia Crackers” from a record store bargain bin. ”I was astounded,” Tosches writes, ”and my search for information on him began in earnest.” In Miller’s 1925 recording of ”Lovesick Blues,” all the ”vocal trademarks” are there: ”his wry, bizarre phrasing, his eccentric timing, his startling falsetto flights in the middle of vowels, his uncanny swoons of timbre and pitch — these were only the most accessible elements of the singular essence that set him apart, in his own day and forever.”

That voice was referred to by one 1927 reviewer as simply the ”trick voice.” ”A trick voice!” Tosches writes. ”What a wonderful and perfect phrase, unimproved in all the metaphorical groping that in recent years has sought to capture and describe the essence of that voice.”

Twenty years into his search, Tosches hadn’t found much. In 1994, he still couldn’t say ”with certainty exactly when or where he was born, or exactly when or where he died, or even whether Emmett Miller was really his name.” One of the few people Tosches found who had a vivid recollection of Miller was his nephew, Edgar J. Parent, who was 80 years old when he interviewed him. Parent knew two things, at least, about his uncle — he always had a shine on his shoes and a ”good press on his trousers.”

Tosches did, finally, ascertain a few details.+We learn that Miller was born in Macon, Ga., on Feb. 2, 1900, and died 62 years later in Macon Hospital. We learn, too, at least one reason that he was forgotten.+Not long after he arrived in blackface, interest in minstrelsy began dying. Some of Miller’s more successful contemporaries had the sense to get out of burnt cork and into cowboy hats.

But having few facts about his principal frees Tosches to dive into broader themes. Why, for example, are some influential and creative artists forgotten, while some popularizers are worshiped? Taking off from the questions surrounding Miller’s legacy, ”Where Dead Voices Gather” becomes a book of asides on creativity, originality and individuality. Miller is a prototype — the primitive, ancestral form. It is a familiar theme for Tosches, the author of 10 other books, including ”Hellfire,” a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. Like Lewis, Miller stands in contrast to the+totemic Elvis Presley, whom Tosches calls the ”great mediocrator,” who turned ”the fine crude bread of real rock ‘n’ roll” into ”sterile and insipid Wonder Bread for the masses.”

Miller’s influence is impossible to document. Was he the yodeler who inspired Jimmie Rodgers’s blue yodel? Tosches can’t tell us. Neither Tosches nor Rodgers’s biographer, Nolan Porterfield, is sure that the two singers ever met. They were both in the Asheville, N.C., area in the 1920’s, but who influenced whom? Or did both listen to a third singer, even better forgotten than Miller? Was the yodel simply in the air, echoing in the Blue Ridge Mountains?

However the lines of influence might be drawn, it’s obvious to Tosches that Miller represented a ”culmination and transcendence” of a wide range of American music — country, jazz, blues and pop. A great minstrel, after all, was gifted at mimicry. Although blackface minstrelsy was popularized by white Americans in the North, it was eventually taken up by black Southerners, who also applied burnt cork. What began as white-as-black becomes black-as-white-as-black. What starts as mimicry becomes closer to an act of creation, as minstrels in England, for example, impersonated black Southerners they might never have seen. It was stereotype as invention, and, Tosches asserts, no different from what happens today in wildly popular movies like ”The Godfather” and in ”every other manner of ethnic fraud upon which our popular culture has to this day been based.”

Tosches accepts that he can’t untangle everything. It’s ”all sort of mashed up,” Bob Dylan once said about the wellsprings of his own music, ”like the influence isn’t in its given form anymore.” If anything, uncertainty seems to have energized Tosches: ”True history seeks, it does not answer; for the deeper we seek, the deeper we descend from knowledge to mystery, which is the only place where wisdom abides.” His quest for the facts about Miller may have come up short, but he has turned his failure into a memorable rumination, full of roguish passion and sardonic humor, on forgotten men like Miller ”and the even more forgotten men they stole from.” It’s a rare talent, indeed, who can send+his audience away happy even without delivering the headliner to the stage.


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