Where Dead Voices Gather
Since the 1977 publication of his landmark book Country: The Biggest Music In America, Nick Tosches has engaged in what he describes as “my pursuit of the ghost of Emmett Miller.”
Country included two chapters on Miller, a yodeling blackface singer whose unique vocal style was an influence on Bob Wills, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. “Lovesick Blues”, a Tin Pan Alley song recorded by Miller in 1928, would become a #1 hit for Williams two decades later.
Where Dead Voices Gather is loosely a biography of Miller, but Tosches goes further. The book examines how perceptions of race and popular culture have shaped each other, from minstrel shows to rap, symbolized by the book’s stark black-and-white cover.
This is a sprawling work, veering from Homer and the ancient Greeks to a history of minstrelsy to musings on Al Jolson, Bob Dylan, Jim Dickinson and Michael Jackson. To Tosches, they are all part of a continuing story; he presents his book as one long chapter, without subdivisions.
Tosches, who has written biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis, Sonny Liston and Dean Martin, combines a passion for his subject with diligent research. Miller emerges from the shadows to become a figure whose artistic contributions vastly outweigh his record sales. He made all his recordings between 1924 and 1936 and drifted into obscurity as minstrel shows fell out of favor. While the comedy routines sound dated, the music remains fresh.
Relying on accounts from newspapers and Billboard magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, plus interviews with those who knew him, Tosches provides the most in-depth portrait to date of a singer whose life and legend has drawn comparison to bluesman Robert Johnson. “The big difference,” Tosches writes, “is that Miller’s ghost never entered the salon of white vogue.”
Tosches uses the life of Miller as a springboard for hard-edged observations on American popular music. “As the quaint fantasy of the happy antebellum coon, the figment of which minstrelsy was predicated, lost its currency, the parallel fantasy of the whimsical and picturesque hillbilly simultaneously rose to take its place in the subculture of Southern show business,” Tosches writes.
Some factual errors slip into the book. Tosches has Dickinson releasing his Dixie Fried album in two different years, and he gets Dylan’s birthdate wrong. His prose at times can send the reader reaching for the nearest dictionary. These, however, are minor matters in a book that illuminates and challenges the way we perceive popular culture.