For more than thirty years, Nick Tosches has been the preeminent archaeologist of American popular music. His earliest books—Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll (1977), Hellfire, a life of Jerry Lee Lewis (1982), and Unsung Heroes of Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis (1984)—eulogize the soundtrack of our culture before it became “Muzak on the elevator to middle age.” Tosches believes that only in the material released before Elvis initiated the process whereby raw power turned into schmaltz can one discover the hopped-up heart of American society. The exceptions to that rule are few and far between, for subsequent to the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, an ominous sense of purpose took over the music industry. Rather than pursuing excess and energy for their own sake, musicians lived and died by the record charts. The artists Tosches most admires—Big Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, and Roy Brown, to name but a few—are virtually forces of nature rather than figments of commercial calculation. Tosches only values material like theirs that aims to illustrate the risk and rapture of our limited lives. As he writes of Jerry Lee Lewis,
The truth is that Jerry Lee has always known the end is almost here, must be almost here, and that the almost-here end is the heart of it ; without it, there is no rock-and-roll, no jukebox epiphany, just pale, soft people looking from the window. Without the obsession or the fever or the fear of the almost-here end, all is reasonable and mere.
In order to uncover that obsession and fever, Tosches believes we must reach into our past. Though it may come as a surprise, beneath the surface of Tosches’s hipster patois and rude-boy posturing lies someone committed to the classic verities. Tosches frequently uses the Latin and Greek classics as illustrations of his ideas and is also obsessive in his search for origins. Tosches possesses no interest in novelty for its own sake. He believes that all culture, musical or otherwise, recycles and revises a body of preexistent materials. “What we claim as originality and discovery,” he states, “are nothing but the airs and delusions of our innocence, ignorance and arrogance; that whatever is said was said better—more powerfully, beautifully, and purely—long ago.”
The frequency with which Tosches constructs lists of performances that precede events we presume to be touchstones illustrates his desire to demolish our obsession with innovation. It is difficult to read one of Tosches’s books and not want to purchase a stack of obscure music, for the urgency and passion with which he describes his favorite material is altogether infectious (I should know, for I ended up collecting releases by virtually every artist covered in Unsung Heroes). Tosches makes one feel as if a concerted effort has been made to keep the most volatile and affecting American music hidden away and allow the mediocre and mundane to usurp the rightful position of the hell-bent and heartrending.
The manner in which Tosches presents his ideas is as compelling as the energy of his facination with the material he loves. Tosches characteristically mixes divergent forms’ voices. A paragraph by him will typically incorporate the most latinate of language along with a deliberately gutbucket vocabulary. When this practice achieves an elegant symmetry, Tosches modulates between these seemingly antithetical styles as effortlessly as a musician switches keys. Hellfire, for example, is a masterful exercise. Its transformation of the events in Jerry Lee Lewis’s cataclysmic life into a kind of sermonic rhetoric reads as if the Puritan preacher Jonathon Edwards were narrating VH1’s Behind the Music . On the other hand, his most recent work, The Devil and Sonny Liston (2000), fails to achieve a similar balance. Perhaps it might be my own lack of interest in boxing, but here the shifts in style jar and collide like misplaced punches. The practice, however, is also notably successful in his novels, Cut Numbers (1988) and Trinities (1994). Superficially, these works are thrillers, but the exploits of Tosches’s low-life characters come across as if Herodotus collaborated with Dashiell Hammett.
Tosches’s new book When Dead Voices Gather brings to a conclusion his long-term obsession with an obscure vocalist, Emmett Miller (1900-1962). He introduced him in Country, and the elusive Miller has remained the object of Tosches’s persistent fascination ever since. The initial words he wrote about Miller dubbed him “one of the most intriguing and profoundly important men in the history of country music.” In the years since, Tosches has extended Miller’s importance beyond that genre alone. He elaborates in the present volume: “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.” Since 1974, when Tosches first heard Miller’s voice, he has doggedly pursued whatever fugitive scraps of evidence still exist that fill out the image of this nearly phantom figure.
So who was Emmett Miller, and is Tosches’s estimate of his talents mere hyperbole or the genuine article? Until 1996, when Sony reissued Miller’s twenty tracks under the title The Minstrel Man From Georgia, only record collectors and the purchasers of a 1969 bootleg were in any position to judge. Miller began to appear on stage as early as 1919, and he allied himself with a form of performance that time and custom was soon virtually to abolish: blackface minstrelsy. He had seen a traveling troupe at the age of ten and declared his life-long allegiance to the style then and there. Throughout his professional career, Miller would paint his face in cork and imitate the voices and manner of African-Americans. As he frequently recorded portions of his blackface routines in the form of introductions to his songs, Miller’s catalogue remains one of the few documents we possess of this frequently reviled but crucially influential form of performance.
In addition, Miller crafted a unique manner of vocalizing that was to have an indelible effect on many others, most notably Hank Williams. Drawing upon sources we can only imagine, Miller teased his singing with a quavering yodel. It resulted in a sound that, in Tosches’s words, was “congested, nasal, full of after-hours liquor and crazy times.” On his most famous track, “Lovesick Blues,” recorded in 1928, Miller weaves in and out of the melody, swooping along the pitch-line like a drunkard absent-mindedly tracing his erratic path down the street. The yodel does not come across as a simple flourish or outlandish idiosyncrasy. Miller appears instead to abandon himself to the pure pleasure of the sound of his own voice. Hank Williams drew directly upon this practice in his 1949 recording of the song. Tosches also hears echoes of the style in such diverse individuals as Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, Jimmie Davis, and the Western Swing pioneers Bob Wills and Milton Brown. Obscure and commercially unsuccessful as Miller’s recordings may have been, they let loose a form of statement that eventually permeated the national consciousness.
Where Dead Voices Gather does not simply eulogize Miller’s short-lived recording career, which only lasted from 1924 to 1930. Tosches has an equal interest in the more mundane elements of Miller’s life. The impact of the Depression and the waning pubic interest in Miller’s material led Columbia to dismiss him. For the rest of his life, Miller played whatever few remnants of the minstrel circuit remained until passing away in Macon, Georgia in 1962, the same year as William Faulkner, who, like Miller, ventriloquized the voices of African-Americans, only in prose and not song. His surviving relatives remember Miller as a balding, heavy-set, snappily dressed alcoholic who enjoyed a good cigar and retained his sense of style whether driving in a limousine or carrying his belongings in a bandana. His brother-in-law told Tosches, “He always had a good press on his trousers, and his shoes were shined.” What led Miller to his fascination with blackface or his commitment to the form way past its influence on the public remains a mystery.
For Tosches, Miller’s existence amounts to more than the simple sum of his professional achievements or private peccadilloes. Even though Tosches cynically states, “Meaning is the biggest suckers-racket of all and any regard for it, no matter how fleeting, befits a middle-aged fool like me,” he doggedly pursues all the available evidence for the importance of Miller’s career with the tenacity of a private eye. The number of recordings and musicians Tosches brings up either as an influence upon or a consequence of Miller’s music is awe-inspiring. One finishes Where Dead Voices Gather eager not only to hear Miller’s work but also the material by such obscure individuals as the talking bluesman Julius Daniels or the troupe the Southern Negro Quartette. Tosches describes the latter’s “Sweet Mama (Papa’s Getting Mad)” as “black-on-white berserk, with the wildest harmony conflagrations to be heard on any of these forgotten recordings. One regrets, however, that the book fails to contain a discography and therefore hearing these and other tracks would require a fair degree of effort.
There are some other unsatisfying elements of Where Dead Voices Gather. Tosches’s assessment of blackface as a cultural force places too much emphasis upon the permeable relationship between the worlds of black and white entertainment and the color-blind tendency to masquerade. Tosches seems unwilling to grant that the motive for engaging in the practice was anything more complicated than a desire for money on the part of impoverished performers. Bringing the matter down to such an ordinary level may seem to be simple common sense, yet to dismiss blackface as neither a “racist relic” nor a “textbook manifestation of ideology or psychology” fails to come to terms with such a complicated and contradictory matter. One wishes Tosches had the determination to tackle this daunting subject with the ambition that led him over almost thirty years to doggedly track down every possible piece of information about Emmett Miller.
When Dead Voices Gather inevitably brings to mind Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic (1996), his examination of Dylan’s Basement Tapes and another effort by a prominent music critic to resurrect an essential portion of our by-passed cultural heritage. But where Marcus too often engages in wool-gathering and aimless speculation, Tosches convinces the reader through his wealth of detail, his skill at story-telling, and his commitment to the importance of such a seemingly minor individual. In the end, however, Tosches is forced to concede that much about Miller will remain a mystery despite all his dogged investigations. Nonetheless, Tosches’s elegantly written and emotionally satisfying case for the singer makes one think of American music in an altogether different manner. Tosches convinces us that hearing Miller and the expansiveness of his yodel redraws the landscape of our cultural environment. It is as if the very topography of our knowledge can be shifted in a subtle but substantial way by one man’s “wry, bizarre phrasing” and “uncanny swoons of timbre and pitch.”