Monday, March 17, 2008

Blue Yodel Number One

Nick Tosches on the till recently all-but-unknown yodeling blues singer Emmett Miller (1900 - 1962):

"The very concept of him -- a white man in blackface, a hillbilly singer and a jazz singer both, a son of the Deep South and a roue of Broadway -- is at once unique, mythic, and a perfect representation of the schizophrenic heart of what this country, with a straight face, calls its culture."

Here's Miller, in 1929, with "Lovesick Blues," a remake of his own original (from 1925) anticipating Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Bob Dylan and so much else by decades....



If you're not familiar with Tosches, he is -- sorry, memory of Lester Bangs -- the greatest writer about rock and its related genres who ever lived; if you doubt it, or if the above clip has piqued your interest in the formerly obscure Miller, hie thee to Amazon and order Tosches' quite profound meditation on Miller's life and work Where Dead Voices Gather.

You should also check out Tosches' Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll (now in its third revised edition), a tome which is at once screamingly funny and historically fascinating about the real pioneers of the music it turns out most of us knew quite little about, actually.

Relevant quote: "The illusion of newness is pop culture's greatest sucker racket."

Amen to that, as the above Miller clip proves rather conclusively.....

And for the rest of Miller's music, go here.

[h/t Kerrin L. Griffith]

10 comments:

dave™© said...

I'll always remember a piece Tosches did on drinking at Christmas for CREEM magazine.

Illustrated with a great picture of an obviously-plowed R. Meltzer in front of a liquor store...

steve simels said...

I actually saw Meltzer pee on the centerpiece at a dinner for the first and last convention of the Rock Writers of the World.

Good times!!!!

Phila said...

I like Tosches' work. But there's something aggravating about the idea that Miller was "obscure" before Tosches got around to him (kinda like how no one knew anything about Dock Boggs before Greil Marcus came along, at least to hear Marcus tell it).

Which is not to say that this kind of writing isn't valuable, or that Tosches isn't one of the great living practitioners of it, but doesn't the line about "the illusion of newness" apply as much to Tosches' "discovery" of Miller, and the rewriting of history that now supposedly becomes necessary, as it does to pop music itself?

Phila said...

I actually saw Meltzer pee on the centerpiece at a dinner for the first and last convention of the Rock Writers of the World.

I wonder if that was the inspiration for "Electrocute Your Cock"

steve simels said...

phila:

Actually, Tosches wrote about Miller in 1977 -- in his book "Country" -- before just about anybody else had ever heard of him, and certainly way before any of Miller's music appeared on CD.

dave™© said...

Any idea what Meltzer is up to now?

I think I've still got a copy of "The Aesthetics of Rock" somewhere...

Phila said...

Actually, Tosches wrote about Miller in 1977 -- in his book "Country" -- before just about anybody else had ever heard of him, and certainly way before any of Miller's music appeared on CD.

Well, it depends what you mean by "anybody else." I mean, he was no secret at all to jazz and blues collectors, or vaudeville and ragtime researchers, going back at least to the sixties. Granted, some of 'em looked down their noses at him, and treated him as a distraction from whatever backing musicians he had (a la, say, Ted Lewis) and what have you.

I was just irked because sometimes there's this sense that stuff matters only when it's been put into a specific narrative, as opposed to its original context (kinda like how ragtime often used to be thought of not as interesting in itself, but simply as a stepping stone to the "freedom" of jazz).

That said, I'm in a foul mood today, and the tone of what I said here reflects that a lot more than it should. What Tosches has tried to do in terms of expanding people's perceptions of the history of American music is exactly I've always admired about him, and your enthusiasm for sharing and praising this music is a million times more admirable and worthwhile than my pissy quibbling here. So consider it just another kick in the ass you'll owe me, one fine day!

steve simels said...

phila:

I didn't know that about Miller, vis a vis other scholars, although I suppose it shouldn't have been a surprise that he wasn't a complete rediscovery by the people at Sony/Legacy.

I just sort of assumed that other than Tosches, nobody more or less mainsteam had heard of him until the CD came out in 96.

Shows what I know....

Mark said...

For a second there I thought maybe someone had dug up some film footage of Emmett Miller. No such luck.

I haven't been in love with Tosches' recent work (I thought IN THE HAND OF DANTE and KING OF THE JEWS were a bit tedious), but his best stuff -- COUNTRY, UNSUNG HEROES OF ROCK AND ROLL, the Dean Martin bio and his essay on the Rolling Stones in STRANDED -- is absolutely brilliant. He's also written some good novels, something few other rock critics have managed.

steve simels said...

The Dino book is absurdly good. Seriously, it may be the only celebrity bio worth reading.....