Emmett Miller: The Yodelling Minstrel

61x2v1DCWbL._SL1000_On the 29th of March 1962, American minstrel show performer, singer and yodelling master, Emmett Miller, died in Macon, Georgia, the US, the city of his birth some sixty two years earlier (although certain sources indicate he was born in 1903). Popular in the mid-1920s and early 1930s for his blues-country-like recordings with the characteristic yodelling twitch, he died oblivious of his influence on modern country music. Among those who found his tunes inspirational are: Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and the Callahan Brothers. Due to the lack of any official interviews, the story of Miller’s life was until recently vaguely known. But the growing interest of music historians in the influence of yodelling on country music has brought the story of his life back into the daylight.

Miller started his performing career at the age of sixteen as a blackface comic with a then fashionable minstrel group run by Dan Fitch. In 1924, he moved to New York where he joined a vaudeville show with Cliff Edwards and the comedy duo Smith and Dale. Having spotted his unusual talent for breaking his voice into falsetto mid-word/sentence, Cliff Edwards got him the first recording deal with the Okeh label. His first title was the old pop song Anytime, turned by Eddy Arnold into a popular country standard over two decades later . “Miller’s first record makes it abundantly clear that he was already, in 1924, one of the strangest and most stunning of stylists ever to record. In an age when scat singing was coming to represent a stylistic avant-garde of sorts, Miller’s debut represented an avant-garde of its own, an altogether otherworldly voice, a bizarre malarkey of the soul that seemed both a death-cry and a birth-cry: the last mutant mongrel emanation of old and dead and dying styles, the first mutant mongrel emanation of a style far more reckless and free than the cool of scat. The slurred arabesques, the yodel-like falsetto melisma: the attributes of Miller’s brilliance as we know them are here, fluorescent and full.” (Marc Smirnoff, The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing).

In 1925, he moved to Ashville, North Carolina, where he worked in various clubs and started collaboration with the area’s famous country singers, The Callahan Brothers. A year later he was talent-spotted by Ralph Peer and recorded his own version of the popular song Lovesick Blues. In 1927, he was back in New York and worked extensively on various new recordings, such as St. Louis Blues, Ain’t Got Nobody, Right of Wrong, Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now, or The Blues Singer from Alabama.

51X4Kn2F3OL (1)Despite the success that followed, he never considered himself a country singer. His heart was very much in minstrel shows and vaudeville, both of which he pursued until the late 1940s. Nevertheless, such gems as for example The Pickaninny’s Paradise prove a rare musical skill for which he should be remembered. “The song’s [The Pickaninny’s Paradise] description of heaven grows ever more ghastly as it unfolds. There is a sweetness in Miller’s voice as he sings of this place where – so hideous an image – “every bird in the sky has diamond eyes”; a sweetness that is cheap, theatrical, exuberant, disarming at once – and then, as if to signal and savour the sudden ominous descent of those birds, those fugitives, in this trite and tawdry heaven, from the hell of Hieronymus Bosch, he completes the rhyme with a dire, careening howl that contorts the simple innocence of the word “nice” into a cry whose effect, saccharin and strychnine at once, is altogether unsettling: “Now, ain’t that niii-yiii-yiii-yiii-yice?” The suggestion is not that Miller designed it so, not that he knew from Hieronymus Bosch or felt toward this mawkish song other than warmly and well. To the contrary, this distasteful and perversely racist song may well reflect to some degree his taste; its grotesque bathos, his poetic sense. He was, after all, a man whose literary grasp very likely fell short of that Macon bestseller Eneas Africanus. No, the suggestion is that impulse and a galvanic sensitivity to certain words, certain lyrical and musical colours, conspired in him to articulate, as startling sound, ambiguities and conflations of feeling that were otherwise inexpressible; the suggestion is that beneath his conscious artfulness, beneath his showmanship, something hidden, unknown if not unfelt, was subconsciously at work.” (Smirnoff)

Film Credit: skorecki7