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 29, 2008

The Family Moth Head Confesses

Previously, in my entries of May 16, May 31, July 1, July 22, August 18, September 8, and October 8, I have discussed at length my experiment of trying to listen to all the rock and R&B albums released in the calendar year 1968 in the order in which they were released. Please refer to these earlier blog entries for the explanation for such an unusual project (and all many pitfalls). Listed below is the December 1968 listening schedule, for anyone wishing to duplicate my experiment. I’ve reiterated many times that I cannot claim my list is infallible, but I continue to work to improve it. If you look back over the previous postings, you'll notice that I have continued to add to, and revise, them once I've received new or updated information. Here's the list I have assembled for December 1968, as well as a list of albums I refer to as "the remainder," those albums for which I could not determine a month of release. Hopefully that list will be diminished as I continue to work on this project.

13th Floor Elevators, Bull of the Woods
The Animals, Love Is
Blood, Sweat & Tears, Blood, Sweat & Tears
Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, [The Lost Concert Tapes] 12/13/68 [2003]
The Monkees, Head
The Neon Philharmonic, The Moth Confesses
Harry Nilsson, Skidoo
The Pretty Things, S. F. Sorrow
The Rolling Stones, [Rock and Roll Circus] 12/11/68 [VHS 1996; DVD 2004]
The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet
Tom Rush, The Circle Game
Santana, [Live at the Fillmore] 12/19-22 [1997]
The Soft Machine, The Soft Machine
Spirit, The Family That Plays Together
James Taylor, James Taylor
Stevie Wonder, For Once in My Life
Neil Young, Neil Young

The Remainder:
American Blues, American Blues Is Here
Aphrodite’s Child, Aphrodite’s Child
Aphrodite’s Child, Rain & Tears
Asylum Choir, Look Inside
Arthur Brown, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
Can, [Delay 1968]
The Fraternity of Man, The Fraternity of Man
The Great Society, Conspicuous Only in its Absence
Richard Harris, A Tramp Shining
The Idle Race, The Birthday Party
Albert King, Live Wire/Blues Power
Melanie, Born to Be
The Millennium, Begin
The Moving Sidewalks, Flash
The Pacific Gas & Electric Blues Band, Get It On
Pearls Before Swine, Balaklava
Shocking Blue, Beat With Us
Silver Apples, Silver Apples
Steppenwolf, Steppenwolf The Second
The Sundowners, Captain Nemo
The Troggs, Mixed Bag

Thursday, November 27, 2008

X The Unknown

X is typically used as the variable (the unknown quantity) in algebraic equations. According to this post by Dr. Ali Khounsary of the Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois, one possible reason why the letter X is used to denote the unknown factor in algebraic equations dates back to the origins of algebra itself in Arabic civilization. Dr. Khounsary writes:

Algebra has its roots in the Middle East where sciences including mathematics and astronomy flourished in the Islamic world in the 700-1450 period. Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (780­-850) was one of the major mathematicians of his time and the author of a number of influential books. One of his major books is on arithmetic and another on algebra. In fact, it is his transmuted name ‘algorithm’ which we now use to refer to the step-by-step procedures for solving a problem. His algebra book is titled Kitab al-jabr wal-muqabala which translates to “the book of calculation by completion and reduction.” The Arabic word “al-jabr” is the origin of the word “algebra” which describes the process of moving terms from one side of an algebraic equation to the other to find the value of an unknown. . . .

In algebraic equations, one solves equations to obtain the value(s) of one or more unknown(s). The word for “thing” or “object” (presumably unknown thing or object) in Arabic—which was the principal language of sciences during the Islamic civilization—is “shei” which was translated into Green as xei, and shortened to x, and is considered by some to be the reason for using x. It is also noteworthy that “xenos” is the Greek word for unknown, stranger, guest, or foreigner, and that might explain the reasons Europeans used the letter x to denote the “unknown” in algebraic equations.

Xenos, of course, is the root of the word xenophobia: the fear of foreigners or strangers. Interestingly, as it happened, the call letters of all Mexican radio stations—also referred to as “border radio”—begin with an X. The first Mexican radio station, located in Reynosa, started broadcasting in 1930, with the call letters XED, possibly a pun on “crossed [Xed] out,” a reference to the marginalized and dispossessed. Only one major company uses X in its name—Xerox—and very few bands have used X in the group’s proper name—X-ray Spex (a play on "X-ray Specs," ads for which used to appear in comic books, pictured), the L. A. punk band X, and XTC come to mind—and very few albums and songs have used X in the title. One should perhaps remember that X is also an abbreviation for Christ, as in “Xmas,” and that once John Lennon named an album Shaved Fish, perhaps a play on ICTHUS, the Greek word for “fish”—ICTHUS being an acrostic referring to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Some Albums:
Electric Light Orchestra, Xanadu
David Lindley, El Rayo-X
Iron Maiden, The X Factor
Olivia Newton-John, Xanadu
Def Leppard, X
Mushroomhead, XX
Toto, XX (1977-97)

Some Songs:
Blondie, “X Offender”
Coldplay, “X & Y”
John Lennon, Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Mushroomhead, “Xeroxed”
Olivia Newton-John, “Xanadu”
Rush, “Xanadu”
System Of A Down, “X”
U2, “Xanax and Wine”
Frank Zappa, “Project X”
ZZ Top, “Heard It On The X”

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fiber Y

According to an article that can be found in the Time magazine on-line archives, the synthetic fabric Qiana (“kee-ah-nah”)—the name the result of a computer generating random combinations of letters—was introduced by Du Pont Laboratories in June 1968. Apparently the fabric took twenty years to develop. Thus research on the fabric that was eventually named Qiana—a light-weight, nylon-like fabric intended to be a simulacrum of silk—dates back to the years that comprised the collapse of Swing music in post-World War II America (in 1948, Du Pont's nylon was then a decade old). The Time magazine article, dated 5 July 1968, also contains the following information:

Boasting qualities that are superior to the most luxurious silk fabrics, Qiana gives all the appearance of silk. . . . It took 20 years and $75 million to develop (compared with $27 million for nylon). Thus it was no wonder that the security at Du Pont’s Chattanooga, Tenn., pilot plant took on Pentagon proportions. To the trade, it was known simply as “Fiber Y.” Even at the press preview, Du Pont took no chances of leaking the process before it hits the market at year’s end. Six models wearing Qiana garments were escorted by armed guards to prevent any overanxious competitor from the common practice of snipping a sample swatch. The versatile new fabric, which sells for about $5 to $8 per pound (versus $9.30 for silk), will be found initially only in women’s fine apparel, but eventually will be used in all types of clothing. For Du Pont . . . costly Qiana is not expected to mean an overnight boom.

Indeed, clothing made of Qiana was not “an overnight boom,” just as the Time article predicted—it took a few years. But . . . when Qiana caught on, a few years later, it had become the disco fabric of choice. Qiana is to 1970s disco music what flannel is to grunge, what the tie-died cotton shirt is to Sixties psychedelic rock. In Saturday Night Fever (1977)—the film that is to the disco era what Woodstock is to the 1960s—whenever Tony Manero (John Travolta), a member of the vast working class of America used to the sweat that comes from hard labor, took to the discotheque dance floor, he wore a cool, light-weight, faux-silk Qiana shirt.

Eventually, though, this synthetic fabric became an emblem of the tawdry artifice that many saw in disco music (a form of urban pop). Subsequently, as disco music fell from favor, so too did Qiana. Clothing made of Qiana, inexpensive but trendy, became the style of clothing that for many represented the plasticity (artifice) of disco music. Conversely, by the late 1980s—by which time Qiana shirts numbering in the scores could be found in Goodwill stores throughout the United States—flannel came to represent the putative working-class “authenticity” of grunge. Thus it happened that Du Pont’s Qiana gave way to L. L. Bean.

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.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Strictly Commercial?

Earlier this month I posted a blog entry on Continuum’s 33 & 1/3 series of books examining classic albums of the rock era. A couple of weeks ago, the editor of the 33 & 1/3 series, David Barker, posted a list of the first ten proposals he’s received so far for new books in the series, none of which—so he avers—he’s yet read. While it is a little too early yet to get any real sense of the range of groups and albums that will be submitted, my own view, for what it’s worth, is that it is a little too early yet in the series’ publishing history to give up on albums of the classic rock era. As Mr. Barker has made clear, Continuum is looking to sell books, and I have no problem with this policy as long as it doesn’t prevent albums that have proved their durability through time from being neglected for the sake of potential book sales. Case in point: Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) sold six million copies in its first six months, but sold fewer than two million in the next twelve years. The question is whether the commercial success of an album (at least in its first year) qualifies it for consideration as a "classic" album. I suppose he would say that he might be convinced if the proposal were good enough. At any rate, the proposals he’s received so far are for books on albums by:

The Fall
The Jam
Van Halen
The Zombies
Against Me!
Jefferson Airplane
Mary Margaret O’Hara
Yo La Tengo

In my earlier entry I stated that an album ripe for discussion would be The Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle, and while I have no idea if the book proposal is for this album specifically, I strongly suspect it is. I would welcome a book on that album, and depending upon the particular album, the books on The Jam, Van Halen, and Jefferson Airplane interest me, while the other groups on the list only marginally so.

On a different note, Mr. Barker posted a fascinating excerpt from the forthcoming 33 & 1/3 book by Bruce Eaton on Big Star’s Radio City, another installment in the 33 & 1/3 series that I look forward to reading (click on the above link to Mr. Barker's blog to read the excerpt). I have not yet submitted my book proposal to Mr. Barker, but I hope to do so by December 1, well before the deadline of December 31st. The last time such a call for proposals was posted, I think the proposals numbered around 400, with about 20 of those being accepted for publication. As I mentioned earlier, my proposal on Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West was rejected, but I intend to submit another proposal this time as well.