Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Okeh 40239




The missing link of the "Missing Link"?

Contrary to popular belief, the blues is just pop music. I know, I know, I wanted it to mean something more too, but the blues was only ever a copy of a copy of a copy; like a copper engraving, it’s most indelible imprint begun earlier in it's material life, time and sentimentality having worn the crisp quality of that negative space down to the point where both depth and shadow are now flat with the fatigue of a thousand lesser works. Even in its day the blues was derivative and suffered from the same hobgoblins of every artistic endeavor, mainly that it was never an artistic endeavor to begin with – it was always ever about money. And why shouldn’t it have been? Slavishness to authenticity is, after all, a modern contrivance, and besides, a man’s got to live and eat and those things tend to work themselves out - more often than not - with a guitar in one's hand.


While the whole of the genre is eminently listenable, there are fleeting moments that defy convention, moments where we recognize innovation at work within inspiration, much like the Devil who mixes lies with the truth in the interests of enticing one to swallow the former at the insistence of the latter.

True: Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain shares more than a passing resemblance to Joshua White’s When the Sun Goes Down (pre hand injury), but I submit that it is not Johnson’s implied devilry which is noteworthy (Blues has always ever courted superstition and, likewise, minorities were ever associated with witchery), but the fact that Johnson - by 1937 - had improved upon the mechanics of his contemporaries to the point where by the time of his untimely death he had effectively whipped the medium till the butter came. Can anybody truly say that the medium as been improved upon since Johnson’s time?



Similarly, If Emmett Miller had only taken hokum to its logical conclusion, namely that anachronistic collision with the jazz age presaged by the success of his contemporaries, then he would have truly been relegated to the dustbin that is ignominious death, but as we are talking about him now in glowing superlatives it is apparent that Miller survived the grist mill that is pop music and came out the other side intact, lauded even. Why? After all, the man was a Blackface Minstrel, and as such, propriety dictate his legacy be chiseled off of every obelisk of cultural relevance - a heretic.

Miller's voice, for one - his is an instrument which is free in a way that most people could never be. Intoned as much as the words are sung, each vowel is impregnated with the kind of emotion which, though undeniably melodramatic, is capable of dragging even the most sentimental claptrap to the kind of lofty heights which betray the limited scope of late 19th / early 20th century balladry.

My experience with Miller begins, as most do, over whiskey and beers, “Hey, did you ever hear the earlier version of Love Sick Blues that Hank William ripped off”, a half-truth which, as an avowed Hiram Williams fan, was bound to elicit a curiosity beyond what one might deem as healthy (Thanks Peter). What's more, it changed the way I looked at music. It was no longer a question of authenticity (There's that word again) , but an elliptical undercurrent of repeating motifs transcending race and nationality. Motifs which have shamelessly been passed off as contemporary but, in reality, belong to no one author - like the elemental formula for oxygen, the very spirit of public domain.



Jump ahead several years to an unassuming Saturday morning at a local junk shop, a veritable Kingdom of the Spiders stinkin' to high heaven of kerosene and promise. After several hours diggin' I had managed to amass a small stack of 78s, slick with white mold but otherwise unremarkable save for a pair of Sugar Chile Robinson discs. It seems strange now, but were it not for the rusty math of the elderly caretaker tallying up my spoils, I might not have wandered off into the periphery and chanced a sealed box containing what were otherwise Caruso and Wagner discs, a heavy stack upon who’s top brazenly sat a near mint copy of Okeh 40329, Emmett Miller and Walt Rothrock performing Anytime and Pickaninnies’ Paradise. All told, the record cost me a dollar - the last fair deal gone down.

Cut in 1924, this disc is a long way from Ashville, NC, though  if I had to hazard a guess I would say Miller’s patronage of RCA’s Camden recording studio during the 20’s and a rumored engagement at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier might just account for the 78’s appearance this far north. Regardless, it’s a small miracle considering up until ten years ago this record was thought not to exist at all (Famously omitted from Columbia’s Miller retrospective as no copies could be located), and even now, conventional wisdom numbers those copies still in existence at three.

Concerning the quality of the performance, I’ll let the music speak to its own strength. As to what I take away from Miller and the strange circumstances of his posthumous celebrity? Simple, history is a complicated and ugly thing, but no more so than it's authors. One day someone will pick through your wreckage having not known the particulars of your circumstances. If you would have them give you the benefit of the doubt then you owe your contemporaries and, likewise, the contemporaries of your heroes, nothing less.

Anytime – Emmett Miller (featuring Walt Rothrock)

Picanninnies’ Paradise – Emmett Miller (featuring Walt Rothrock)




11 comments:

Prof. Grewbeard said...

"Simple, history is a complicated and ugly thing, but no more so than it's authors. One day someone will pick through your wreckage having not known the particulars of your circumstances. If you would have them give you the benefit of the doubt then you owe your contemporaries and, likewise, the contemporaries of your heroes, nothing less."

nice. welcome back.

The RedBoy said...

Thanks, Grew. Been crazy busy. Got some cool stuff in the works. Hoping to post w/some frequency. Who knows?

RiCK SAUNDERS said...

Hey- Terrific blog.
Cheers,
-Rick

realdeepblues.blogspot.com

The RedBoy said...

Thanks, Rick. Likewise. I'll be sure to add you to the ole' blogroll.

-RB

SWinGB said...

Thanks for posting this! What a find - what a treasure! Can you post a scan of the A-side of this recording please? I have never even seen a scan of this record in any book the recording is so dang rare! Thanks again!!

The RedBoy said...

No problem. I updated the post w/ a pic of the A side. Glad you dug it. I realize Miller's appeal is limited even though his influence on pop is universal. If you havn't already, you should read Tosches book Where Dead Voices Gather.

SWinGB said...

Thanks for posting the A-side jpeg! Yep, the Tosches book is already in my 'to read' stack. Emmett is a legend and anyone who likes music Americana needs to take a gander at his music.

If one only admires Hank Williams they need to check him out - and of course those who are into Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Eddy Arnold etc should do same. It's amazing how eclectic his material was and how his recordings spanned styles and genres.

I read that there was a 'Complete Recordings' CD issue but all I can find is the 'Minstrel Man From Georgia' disc which has been re-pkgd a couple of times. There is a UPC 766487189446 for the 'Complete' disc(s) that is unique but so far I have found no track listing and not even a scan of the cover art turns up on a Google image search. Do you or anyone know anything about this?

Here's a blog link for all the known Emmett tracks in two zips:
http://westernswing78.blogspot.com/2007/10/emmett-miller.html
http://westernswing78.blogspot.com/2008/01/emmett-miller-set-2.html
I think that's all the known tracks but then who knows what might turn up somewhere, sometime...? Thanks again!

The RedBoy said...

Thanks for the links.

The Miller disc you are referring to was released in the early 90's but was incomplete as Columbia could not locate copies of Miller's first three Okeh 78's effectivly rending the recordings as "lost". The disc was eventually pulled because the cover, a photo of a Miller lithograph poster, was considred racist. Eventually the disc was re-released w/ a plain cover featuring a Miller 78 label, but the content is identical to the more scarce black face cover disc, including the ommision of the first three Okeh 78s. The Western Swing links you provided are the complete recordings, including the "lost" Okeh sides, but quality varies. I assume most of these tracks come from the Columbia disc anyway.

http://www.thelyricarchive.com/album/12321/Minstrel-Man-from-Georgia

http://www.amazon.com/Minstrel-Man-Georgia-Emmett-Miller/dp/B000002B10/ref=sr_1_2?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1342016118&sr=1-2&keywords=emmett+miller

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billf0675 said...

There are a total of 46 Emmett Miller recordings accounted for, which includes the 2 comedy skits he does in the movie "Yes Sir, Mr. Bones". Rumour has it that another skit was recorded, on 1-15-1928, titled "On the Rockpile", that Leon Redbone borrowed from the Sony Music vaults, circa 1985, and never returned. In 1953 Emmett recorded a home demo of "I Ain't Got Nobody" and 1 other unknown title. And in the early 1960s Emmett was recorded at a house party, on a reel to reel tape, telling lewd jokes and singing bawdy party songs, accompanying himself on piano. Leon Redbone owns the home disc and the reel to reel tape. Hopefully, interest in Emmett's recordings will peak again, at some point, and this material will be released. Wouldn't that be great? I am fortunate to have acquired the 46 songs that are accounted for.