Showing posts with label Jimmie Rodgers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jimmie Rodgers. Show all posts

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Blue Yodel (#2)

Slightly over a week ago, I posted a blog entry on the yodel, followed by a second entry on the so-called “blue yodel.” At the time I posted the first entry, I fully realized that the issue regarding the relationship between the American cultural origins of the yodel and its subsequent use in popular music demanded more extensive treatment than what I was giving it, although the insights were quite valid, if also quite general. In the second, follow-up post, a short entry containing a link to an article exploring the possible origins of the blue yodel, I mentioned the importance of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. However, in that second post, I neglected to mention the rather significant figure of Emmett Miller (1900-1962), a former minstrel show performer—a white man who performed in blackface—and recording artist about whose life little is known except what has been excavated by certain dedicated music historians, among them, most especially, Nick Tosches. As Tosches points out in his fascinating and well-researched exploration into the life (or rather, what little is known of his life) and times of Emmett Miller, titled Where Dead Voices Gather (Little, Brown and Co., 2001), Miller’s musical career is, sadly, largely undocumented, primarily because the portable recording equipment that could have captured his act in the late Teens and early Twenties didn’t yet exist (he did make several recordings in the late 1920s, however, backed by the Georgia Crackers). And while there is no hard evidence establishing the influence of Emmett Miller on Jimmie Rodgers, at the very least there is one of convergence, as both were drawing on a tradition of which both appeared to be quite knowledgeable. Tosches observes, “Were it not for the black sources from which Rodgers [and Emmett Miller] drew, there would have been no substance through which to wreak the rare brilliance of his style.” (97)

About the relationship between Miller and Rodgers, Tosches writes:

. . . it is with . . . [Emmett Miller’s] Miami engagement of July 1926, that the phrase “yodeling blues” does indeed appear to be for the first time applied to a style, an inflection, of singing: the style and inflection of singing that Emmett Miller had given voice to since at least the earliest recorded evidence of it, in 1924, and, as fully developed as that earliest evidence is, almost certainly for some years predating that evidence. That style, that inflection—that wild rushing flight of swarming inflections—eludes and defies any other more accurate single word. And yet it cried for a name. For while powers need no names, nothing can be sold without a name.

Thus, sometime between the spring and summer of 1926, either from wile and wit within or bestowed, or raised from the common, spreading descriptive of the fleeting masses of his fleeting fame, Emmett Miller became the Famous Yodeling Blues Singer. (70-71)

As is well known, Rodgers’s first recording session for Victor took place on 4 August 1927, although this session contained nothing close to his famous blue yodeling style. Indeed, his first blue yodel recording, “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T For Texas),” did not take place until 30 November 1927, which, as Tosches points out, was sixteen months after Miller had been labeled “the Famous Yodeling Blues Singer.”


It is irrefutable that, as Jerry Lee Lewis said, again and again, Jimmie Rodgers was, essentially and above all, a stylist. There were, as Jerry Lee saw it, only four stylists that ever mattered a damn: Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson, Hank Williams, and himself. Of these four, only Williams was a songwriter of significance; and, even in his case, his biggest success, far from being an original composition, was a version of Emmett Miller’s rendition of “Lovesick Blues.” (97)

About Jimmie Rodgers’s vocal style, Michael Jarrett has written:

Rodgers’s style frequently seems an imitation, a simplification, of Miller’s. Which is not to declare Rodgers a pretender. (Installing Miller as an original is equally problematic, given his now obscure but equally certain “borrowings.” ) It’s to emphasize a key point about the blue yodel: This device, critical to distinguishing white country music from black blues, arrives already vexed. To whom should Bob Wills, Hank Williams, and Merle Haggard pay tribute? (230)

For those interested, footage of Emmett Miller performing in blackface has been posted on; footage of Jimmie Rodgers performing “T For Texas” has also been posted on as well.

Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather. Little, Brown and Co., 2001.
Charles Wolfe, Liner notes to Emmett Miller: The Minstrel Man From Georgia. Columbia/Legacy, 1996. Reissued 2001.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blue Yodel

An update on my post from yesterday titled “Yodel”: Bent Sørensen (find the link to his blog on the right) kindly shared the URL for a short blog entry he wrote a few weeks back on his Tumblr, Ordinary Finds, about Jimmie Rodgers, which in turn contains a link to an article titled “America’s Blue Yodel” on the possible black origins of Jimmie Rodgers’ “blue yodel.” The serendipity of our both posting on Jimmie Rodgers within a short period of time suggests another remarkable way in which our interests overlap; as usual I thank Bent very much for sharing this fascinating piece of information.