A Yodeling Fish

Who was real father of country western?

As one beats his way through the reeds and rushes in search of the headwaters, the source of country music, one comes across the shadowy figure of Emmett Miller. Of course, off in the distance, in the monumental figure of Jimmie Rodgers, the "Father of Country Music." Who got where first with regard to musical innovation will be moot. We leave that to ethnomusicologists, social historians, and barroom cognoscenti to thrash out. But we do know that it was Miller who first came up with the blue yodel we identify with Jimmie Rodgers and that he was the first country performer to record with horns and drums in a small jazz setting.

When I wrote of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys last week, along with Spade Cooley, I came upon what led me back toward Emmett Miller. When Wills punctuates his lyrics or an instrumental riff with his signature "Ahhhhh" or some jivey patter, or when his horn section starts to swing, that's Emmett Miller's influence you're hearing. And you can hear it even more baldly in Willis's 1935 recording of "I Ain't Got Nobody," a close reprise of the earlier Emmett Miller version — as, apparently, were a lot of Bob Willis's onstage shenanigans and persona. Given that Bob Willis's act delighted tens of thousands of dancing fans in roadhouses across Texas and Oklahoma — as well as selling millions of records, making Willis the hottest swing band of the '40s, outpacing even Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller — it's worth having a closer look at the man and the artist who influenced him.

Miller was white and probably born in Macon, Georgia, around 1903. Whether or not Emmett Miller was his real or stage name is not properly documented. What is, however, is that he worked in blackface for Dan Fitch's Minstrel Troupe as early as 1919 and by the early '20s was working Vaudeville in New York, where he made his earliest recording in 1924 on the Okeh label, "Any Time," which was to remain his signature tune throughout his career. In 1928, Miller cut four sides at the Okeh studios in New York, one of which, "LOvesick Blues," became a huge hit for Hank Williams 21 years later and established Williams as a leading country figure. On hand with Miller at the 1928 recording were Tommy Dorsey on clarinet and alto sax, and Eddie Lang on quitar, along with trumpet, bass, piano, and drums. (Sounds like a pretty good jazz band to me.) Miller's old minstrel show boss Dan Fitch was also there to exchange the kind of banter that made up the dialogues (à la Amos and Andy) that prefaced each song.

Miller would record 20 titles for Okeh records, and from the '20s into the early '50s he toured the Vaudeville circuits of the South in blackface, his career fading as that old-style minstrel routine loot fashion in the changing social climate. There exists an account of a 1951 nightclub engagement in Nashville, and that about closes the book on Miller. That was it, apart from these sides from Okeh reissued on Columbia and the Blue Yodelers discs, which also includes nine sides by a Miller contemporary, Roy Evans, who also employed a yodel and some first-rate jazz sidemen — James P. Johnson, Benny Goodman, and the Dorsey Brothers. On the same disc are eight sides by Jimmie Rodgers, including one, recorded in Hollywood in 1930, with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and his wife Lillian Hardin Armstrong on piano, "Blue Yodel #9."

How did this curious hybrid of jazz, blues, hillbilly, and Vaudeville (bring to a boil and let sit one hour) come to pass? The career and early life of Jimmie Rodgers provides a few answers. Rodgers was first recorded in 1927 by a New York businessman named Ralph Peter, who worked for the Victor Talking Machine Company and had set up an operation in the town of Bristol at the Tennessee-Virginia border to audition locals who sang "hillbilly music." The first country record had been produced four years earlier, in 1923, generating interest in this raw new genre. Among the performers who turned up in Bristol were Maybelle Carter and a 30-year-old originally from the railroad center of Meridien, Mississippi, who'd been working in Ashville, North Carolina, as a janitor and taxi driver while playing with a local band for social functions and on WWNC radio. Mr. Peter of New York City would have known, if he had any sense whatsoever, that he had just landed a big fish. A yodeling fish. Someone who had in his voice and lyrics the feeling and texture of the hardscrabble, nomadic railroad life. By 1927, Rodgers was already too weakened by tuberculosis to hold down radio work. "The Singing Brakeman" would later become his tag; in six years he would be dead. So compellingly did he sing of his illness in songs like "T.B. Blues," audiences would shout at him, "Spit 'er up, Jimmie, and sing some more."

Rodgers wasn't much of a guitar player, but he had an expressive tenor that, in a casual way, managed a broad emotional range. Adept at phrasing, he gave particular words and syllables extra wright or duration or coloration. As a songwriter he was, and remains, without parallel in country music. Even to someone ignorant or contemptuous of country music, a dozen Jimmie Rodgers songs are probably in his head without him even knowing it. He might think it's Merle Haggard or Ernest Tubb or Lefty Frizzell he's hearing, but he'd be wrong. It's the "Singing Brakeman" he's hearing in the voices of the more recent stars.

Rodgers's father was a railroad man, and his son grew up among folks who'd cluster around a railroad center like Meridien where the north-south and east-west railroad lines crossed; travelers, hobos, gandy dancers, train crews, along with porters, switchmen, and work gangs. Rodgers would listen to the gandy dancers sing in the rhythm to a "caller" while they shifted track. He'd hang out in the opera house, the Vaudeville theaters, and the hotels, where he'd hear jazz and parlor music. He'd learn blues form he local black musicians.

Rodgers recorded all sorts of music, including what he called the "jazz junk" you can hear on the Blue Yodelers disc. It's likely his model for this style of music is Emmett Miller, whom Rodgers may well have heard in the local Vaudeville house or on the road as a railroad man. The yodel, which would make Rodgers the most famous country musician in history, was likely "adapted" from Miller and enhanced.

The contemporary performer who most sounds like the Blue Yodelers, especially Miller and, even more so, Roy Evans, is Leon Redbone, who has merchandised himself as a curiosity act but who is actually a musician of the first stripe. Redbone is best known for his appearances on Saturday Night Live, and his voice will be familiar for his work in other TV shows, films, and advertisements. But his important work was done at clubs in Toronto in the '70s, work that caught the attention of Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and Warner Brothers, which signed him to a contract. Redbone favors standards from the 1920s adn '30s, which he performs in a laid-back, husky-voiced, ragtime style. Like other superlative performers, Redbone's career never took off. Probably because his art was too subtle for the popular taste. His schtick, apart from a fedora and sunglasses and regal proboscis, has been a stagey mysteriousness. The Toronto-born artist was last spotted living in New Hope, Pennsylvania — a nice place to live, which suggests Leon is doing just fine. He still gives concerts and appears at festivals. You'd be missing something good if he came through town and you didn't catch his act.

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