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.” (more…)