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Nick Tosches: Where Dead Voices Gather


Where Dead Voices Gather

Author: Nick Tosches
Publisher: Little, Brown

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Nick Tosches has been on the trail of Emmett Miller since the '70s, and the search seems to have gotten to him. One way to read Where Dead Voices Gather, a rambling, perceptive, years-in-the-making Miller biography, is as Tosches' attempt to find meaning in his own failure to understand his subject. A blackface minstrel during minstrelsy's last gasp in the late '20s—just before vaudeville, crooning, and other forms of entertainment put him out of business—Miller influenced Jimmie Rodgers' famous blue yodel, handed Hank Williams one of his biggest hits with "Lovesick Blues," and sang on early recordings by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, bringing them together with famed guitarist Eddie Lang as part of The Georgia Crackers. This well-documented or readily apparent history, along with the highly unusual quality of Miller's recordings, is probably enough to earn him a footnote in the histories of country, vaudeville, and jazz. But Tosches is trying to fill in the blanks—not so much with new biographical facts, although he provides some previously unknown information, but with a somewhat free-floating discussion of all things connected to Miller. By Tosches' account, this includes just about everything, as he uses Miller as a locus for investigations into race, pop culture, contemporary music, classical poetry, Shakespeare, and the Mashed Potatoes dance craze. In many ways, Where Dead Voices Gather is the book Tosches has been writing from the start of his career, picking up from work begun in Country and themes developed in Unsung Heroes Of Rock 'N' Roll, an examination of all the unheralded sources of rock 'n' roll that preceded Elvis ("the great mediocrator," by Tosches' reckoning). An unclassifiable, untamed relic of 19th-century entertainment and a harbinger of the 20th, with its endless borrowings and mixings between black culture and white culture, Miller is, in Tosches' view, a sort of ultimate unsung hero, a far-reaching influence whose very existence is something of an embarrassment. "By the year of Miller's reputed spell in Nashville," Tosches writes of his later days, "a new alchemy was brewing. They called it rock 'n' roll. New, yes, and without burnt cork, but neither stranger nor so deeply different from Miller's own alchemy." The continued existence of minstrelsy, in spirit if not in actuality, is one of the most prominent strands in Tosches' book; like all his topics, it gets picked up and abandoned throughout Voices, not so much developed as reiterated with variations. Digressive in the extreme, the book will doubtless prove frustrating to readers seeking a cohesive account of Miller's life and career, or a discrete set of arguments about his significance. The discipline of Tosches' great biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis (Hellfire), Dean Martin (Dino), and Sonny Liston (The Devil And Sonny Liston) is almost entirely absent. As a ramble through the overgrown depths of a shared culture, however, it's a pleasure, and Tosches is one of the few writers capable of navigating the terrain.