Nick Tosches’s Mysterious Minstrel

Writer Nick Tosches has harbored an obsession with the obscure minstrel Emmett Miller for more than a quarter century. His curiosity was piqued by I Love Dixie Blues, a ’73 Merle Haggard live album on which the singer paid homage to Miller and one of his fans, western swing giant Bob Wills. Soon after that, Tosches located a bootlegged collection of recordings Miller made for the Okeh label in the late 20s, and his attempts to unearth the details of the singer’s life began in earnest.

The conclusion he would come to was that Miller was a sort of Rosetta stone for the “mixed and mongrel bloodlines of country and blues, jazz and pop, of all that we know as American music.” Miller’s 1928 recording of “Lovesick Blues,” distinguished by what his label advertised as his “clarinet voice,” was the blueprint for the hit version Hank Williams recorded two decades later, and his otherworldly yodel seems to have influenced country music’s all-time greatest yodeler, Jimmie Rodgers, a contemporary. Tosches made Miller a central topic of the 1977 book Country, and in the 90s he wrote several articles about him for the Journal of Country Music. But apparently he still didn’t feel he’d said all there was to say.

Tosches calls his new book, Where Dead Voices Gather (published by Little, Brown), a “synthesis of all that I have written regarding Emmett Miller, and of all that I have learned regarding Emmett Miller.” But aside from positively ascertaining dates of birth and death for the singer, the 300-page book adds little of significance to the available biographical information. Countless questions–when did Rodgers first hear Miller? did they ever meet?–remain unanswered, which Tosches addresses thus: “True history seeks, it does not answer; for the deeper we seek, the deeper we descend from knowledge to mystery, which is the only place where wisdom abides.”

What seems to be for sure is that Miller, a white man born in Macon, Georgia, on February 2, 1900, had an obsession of his own–minstrelsy–and he made a go of it in the 1920s, even though blackface entertainment was well past its prime. (Tosches draws a masterful sketch of minstrelsy’s roots and history, although his attempts to diminish its offensiveness are unfortunate–he takes the position that it was more about money than social pathology, going to great lengths to describe a long tradition of black performers who blackened up their own faces.) By mid-decade Miller had become popular enough to start making records; he cut 14 that we know of, the bulk of them in 1928 and ’29 with a studio band called the Georgia Crackers, featuring jazz musicians like Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, and Gene Krupa. These met with minor success, but by 1930 his career was effectively over. He made a few more recordings for RCA in 1936 and then faded away, dying in Macon on March 29, 1962.

Tosches tries to piece together those final three decades from newspaper clippings and the admittedly hazy memories of a handful of people who knew him. That might add up to about 20 pages worth of material; the other 280 are filled with digression upon digression, in which Tosches unloads his scholarship and research on America’s uniquely miscegenated music and, by extension, its culture. He does an excellent job laying out how song subjects and particular phrases were borrowed, swiped, and distorted in a free exchange between white and black music that gave us blues, country, jazz, R & B, and rock ‘n’ roll. He traces, for instance, the song “St. James Infirmary”–variants of which have been recorded by dozens of artists in country, blues, jazz, and pop–from its beginnings as an old Irish ballad called “The Unfortunate Rake” all the way through its thematic echoes in Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.”

Of this phenomenon, he writes: “That is what all of this is–all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed, and fleeting than any song, except perhaps, those songs–that song, endlessly reincarnated–born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it.”

But although Miller’s got great symbolic potential, what’s known of his story still makes a pretty skinny set of bones for Tosches to hang all this meat on. The idea’s not entirely new, either: the book has more than a few similarities to Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic–a more grandiloquent discussion of the same stuff using Dylan’s Basement Tapes as a gateway. Tosches sometimes lapses into stream-of-consciousness spew for paragraphs at a time–a mention of a song called “Cocaine Blues” leads to a four-page discussion of the drug’s place in songs of the time, its past social acceptability, its purported role in a 1913 race riot in Mississippi, its chemical derivation, and its casual usage in some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories–and though the mess is stimulating, with numerous demonstrations of Tosches’s rare ability to make all sorts of music come to life on the page, it’s still a mess.


Last month John Corbett’s Unheard Music Series label reissued Nuclear War, an ultrarare 1984 album by Sun Ra. The title track, whose lyrics (“Talking about nuclear war, yeah / It’s a motherfucker, don’t you know / If they push that button, your ass gotta go / Now whatcha gonna do without your ass?”) most likely dissuaded U.S. labels from releasing the album, was inspired in part by the 1979 partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, about a hundred miles west of Philadelphia, where the Sun Ra Arkestra was by then based. The LP was eventually issued by the British postpunk label Y Records, also home to the Pop Group and the Slits–but only in Italy. With the exception of “Nuclear War,” which is basically a long stripped-down call-and-response groove with no solos, it focuses on standards and swing-based material, foreshadowing the primary direction Sun Ra would take for the remainder of his career.

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