Lovesick Blues (Hank Williams/Emmett Miller)

Like virtually everybody, I first heard this as a Hank Willams song, though I’m not sure when or how. As I’ve mentioned, my Cambridge folk scene upbringing initially made me resistant to mainstream Nashville country music, Williams included, but by  the early 1980s I was gradually coming to my senses and figuring out that I liked a lot of country, and on my first tours I was playing this one pretty often — the ragtime/pop chord changes made it a natural bridge between my usual ragtime-blues repertoire and a more straightforward Nashville sound.

The tricky part was Williams’s yodeling vocal, which I attempted to imitate at home but never got under control. This forced me to find alternate approaches that to some extent echoed or hinted at the virtuosic yodeling that made the original a country classic.

A few years later I heard the even more virtuosic, even more original recording Williams himself was imitating, by the blackface minstrel entertainer Emmett Miller, backed by a jazz group featuring the Dorsey brothers. At that point, there was only one Miller album, released by a small record collector label in a plain white sleeve — Paul Geremia had a copy, and was kind enough to play it for me — but in the 1990s Sony issued the same material on CD and Miller’s work is now far better known. His work has all the  questionable racial politics of the minstrel stage, but minstrelsy was a major influence on country music, and Miller in particular influenced not only Williams, but Tommy Duncan, the lead singer of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys (Wills reportedly auditioned Duncan by asking him if he could sing in Miller’s style), and Merle Haggard, who recorded a tribute to him in New Orleans with a jazz band.

The story of yodeling in American pop is a further fascinating sidelight, including not only Miller and Williams, but also black singers like the early blues star (and female impersonator) Charles Anderson, who was the first singer associated with W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” Then, when I got to Africa, I got interested in Kenyan yodeling cowboys, a whole other story. Anyway… I still love Williams’s version, and sing my variant of it, and it led me into a long and ongoing love affair with his work.