Published Apr 01, 2002Nick Tosches dwells in the shadows, and for this we should all be thankful. As a member of that hallowed host that laid the foundation for rock criticism, in his books he has been the champion of the true innovators of the music, albeit those deemed too obscure or just too plain wild to be accepted in the conventional pantheon constucted by the arbiters of taste at Rolling Stone. This is beside the fact that Tosches is one of the great stylists in American literature these days. One only has to be drawn into his biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin to get accustomed to his skill at conveying not just his subject's life, but also the entire milieu from which they sprung. But it is the slimmer, yet no less compelling works, Country and Unsung Heroes Of Rock N Roll that should be referenced before tackling his latest work, Where Dead Voices Gather (Little, Brown).
As the two former books attest, Tosches has never shied away from a good mystery, and it was while writing Country that he first encountered Emmett Miller. Born in Macon, Georgia around the turn of the last century, Miller's sole ambition from an early age was to join a minstrel show; those travelling musical/comedy revues intended to entertain through an "authentic" portrayal of black life, largely performed by whites adorned in burnt cork. Miller did indeed fulfil his dream, although his prime time came during the circuit's waning days; when motion pictures and radio had distracted the theatre-going audience. Like other minstrel show stars, Miller also had a moderately successful recording career in the 1920s, which would have been erased by PC revisionist historians like Ken Burns had it not been for one song. Miller's take on "Lovesick Blues" featured his "trick voice," his version of yodelling, which soon became the trademark of Jimmie Rodgers, commonly acknowledged as the founder of country music. Those following Rodgers' wake are too numerous, but include Hank Williams (who recorded "Lovesick Blues"), Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard.
But what of this blackface singer who had possibly taught this "trick voice" to Rodgers, and whose handful of known recordings were only compiled and released in 1996 in response to the small cult that emerged in an attempt to put the pieces of his life together? While Tosches is clearly part of that cult, he has always had serious doubts about the research of others obsessed with the ever-changing Miller legend. He admits these doubts were the catalyst for Where Dead Voices Gather; the culmination of a 30-year quest he also admits has probably cost more of his time and effort than it's probably worth. The book does unfold like the hard-fought struggle for the final word on Miller's life that it is, and, as stated, should probably not be an introduction to Tosches' writing. However, for roots music fans and those already accustomed to his unshakeable view that no art (especially American culture) can claim to be original, the book is a dense journey through the world of early phonographic recording, and the tempestuous (what an understatement) relationship between white and black modes of expression. Tosches typically pulls no punches in illuminating the origins of minstrelsy and the crucial transitional role it played in relation to every musical form that came after it. In fact, like Bob Dylan in Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, Emmett Miller is really just a signpost on Tosches' sketchy map of digressions; a few enticing tidbits being the origin of the word "hip" (a term of recognition, dating to at least 1904, among opium smokers who traditionally indulged while laying on their sides), and the term "rock'n'roll" (now dated to as early as 1910 in the Male Quartette's recording, "The Camp Meeting Jubilee").
The sheer deluge of archaic pop culture knowledge in the book is head-spinning, yet by the end a clear picture emerges, perhaps not of Miller's lasting importance, but a convincing confirmation that what we may have thought was rock and roll, country, or blues, is merely a perpetual extrapolation of some sonic big bang we can never hope to pin down. As Tosches argues early on, "Popular culture is the product of who we are only in that it is the product of lies, pretences, and falsehoods that define us, and beneath which we flee." Yes, to profit from this is the foundation of the entertainment industry, but without mentioning Eminem or P. Diddy, or anyone else that may have popped in your head after reading that quote, Tosches goes on to say, "It is when they bear the masquerade, the role, offstage when the stage walk and the stage talk becomes the street walk and the street talk, when show business becomes the business of life that they become truly frauds."
All this from an obscure blackface singer, who, if you buy into the mystery, should be given an equal spot with Louis Armstrong as the most influential American musician of the 20th century. By the time he finally stumbles upon Miller's grave, Tosches doesn't even know anymore. He is merely satisfied that he has faced down his personal "devil": "He is wherever I look. As one sees the passing figure of a lost lover in glancing at every stranger of remotest resemblance in the street, so I can hear no song, read no line without perceiving the ghostly presence of Emmett therein."
What was it that some modern white minstrels once said? It's only rock and roll? Hardly.