Latter-day minstrel showman Emmett Miller, the subject of Nick Tosches‘ latest biographical work, was an extraordinary artist and a critical figure in American music. A blacked-up “coon” singer whose bizarre blue-yodel style profoundly influenced Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Tommy Duncan, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, Miller recorded a thrilling series of songs during the 1920s that until a long-overdue CD reissue (1996’s SonyLegacy The Minstrel Man From Georgia) were available only on a periodically issued bootleg LP. Miller‘s spell over the biggest names in country music seems all the more exotic for such jazz titans as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Gene Krupa having accompanied him on record. Political correctness aside, blackfaced Emmett Miller remains one of the greatest song stylists of the 20th century.
Tosches has, since his groundbreaking 1977 re-introduction of Miller in the book Country (and a subsequent series of articles in the Journal of Country Music), imbued the singer with such a veil of mythic obscurity that he seems to want to own poor Emmett, body and soul. Yet for a man obsessed since 1974 with the “mystery” of Emmett Miller, Tosches hasn’t come up with much of anything new. He appears to have taken a peculiarly slothful approach in the quest for information, often leaving it to hired hands. One potentially valuable source, producer T.D. Kemp, survived until 1996 (a year after he published his own autobiography, heavily excerpted in Dead Voices), but Tosches delayed the visit too long, excusing his failure with the dull cliche “a day late and a dollar short”; another source sent a letter in response to Tosches‘ inquiry, but the author didn’t bother to undertake a follow-up phone call, using material from another interviewer instead. For a remnant of the commercially dead minstrel show, Miller was quite active throughout most of his life, a fact reflected in innumerable press clippings in papers from all over the East Coast and Deep South, and Tosches seems stunned by these. When he finally deigns to leave Manhattan and visit — with a pal who obviously did much of the archival grunt work — the Macon cemetery where Miller is buried, Tosches can‘t even find the grave.
Presented as equal parts essay, biography and music history, Dead Voices is a roughly hewn work that bristles with often tenuous and far-fetched content. The affectation of the book’s non-structure is appalling; Miller‘s most direct and significant disciple, Jimmie Rodgers, inconsistently slips in and out of the text like some sort of hallucinogenic flashback; when the minstrel troupe Miller performed with in 1927 adds an aerial-themed opener, Tosches chimes in with “It was indeed a year for aviation” and then gives us a paragraph on Charles Lindbergh, followed by half a dozen newspaper reviews of the same season’s performances, reproduced in toto, so pointless a repetition one might suspect he was being paid by the word. Unrelated divergence into coincidental occurrences and extraneous matters litters the book. Tosches drags Bob Dylan into the circuitous narrative every 10 pages, as if providing revelatory linkage, but it reads as irrelevant fandom. (Epiphany: Dylan lifted old blues lyrics.) The Rolling Stones, alluded to with disproportionate reverence, also make numerous trivial appearances.
The text frequently degenerates into a colorless drone of song titles and recording dates, and is loaded with jabs at other Miller researchers so nakedly personal Tosches seems more like a schoolyard bully than a dedicated seeker. He lambastes historian Charles Wolfe for having published an erroneous birth date on Miller and divulges the accurate DOB with great pompous flourish: “That I share this coveted revelation so selflessly, so openly, and without gain attests surely that I am the Christian I hold myself to be . . . all I ask — and it is nothing — is that you do not take credit where credit is not due.” Tosches‘ self-aggrandizing claim becomes even less funny considering that Miller’s birth date has actually been on record since 1991, when Leon Redbone first printed it in his Le Monde newspaper article on Miller.
Tosches‘ self-involvement is colossal and has cost him much; the small cult of Emmettphiles considers him an obnoxious pariah. More’s the pity, as Redbone has letters Miller sent to his mother, copies of Miller‘s Macon police record and documentation on Miller’s first marriage in 1940, the last a fact never established in this book. When a relative of Miller informs Tosches of the marriage, the author dismisses any search for information on the short-lived union; his passage on the second marriage fails to reveal that this wife was herself a well-known entertainer — Tosches, in a characteristic bit of camouflage, wonders if perhaps they met because her brother owned a liquor store.
The author‘s observations are often filtered not through the luminosity of passionate appreciation but through the hoarder mentality of the 78-rpm-record collector. He snipes over the selection of the Miller record label reproduced as artwork in the CD reissue; we get endless descriptions of warehoused rarities, who owns which wax cylinder, the date they obtained it and similar minutiae. Wading through Tosches’ increasingly turgid spew is no pleasure, and it finally becomes clear that his central theme is a realization that not only has music been performed throughout human history, there indeed appear to be common themes and oft-repeated phraseology. Homer, it seems, like Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan, even played a stringed instrument. This non-discovery, expounded on at painful length, laid out in a blur of pseudo-classical terminology, is unengaging, simplistic, unfair to both subject and reader.
Tosches postures as an oracular fount of knowledge and insight, affecting a scholarly tone by use of parenthetical birth and death dates. These are completely arbitrary; we get numerous citations such as “Bert Williams (1874–1922),” but there are no such dates for Big Joe Turner (renowned boss of the blues whom Tosches in an earlier work characterized as “a big fat fuck”), and when we reach “Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865),” it‘s comedic. Equally unforgivable is the complete omission of a bibliography and source notes. Perhaps that’s because, if included, the citations from books by Hans Nathan and Robert C. Toll might equal in length the entire expository passage dealing with minstrelsy‘s 19th-century rise.
To the discerning reader, Tosches’ work has always been laden with inaccuracies. The chapter on Sidney “Hardrock” Gunter in 1999‘s reprint of his Unsung Heroes of Rock & Roll required several long-overdue factual revisions. His virtually unreadable Dino included a wholly untrue anecdote regarding the Copacabana’s Jules Podell tossing singer Johnnie Ray (“whom he could not stomach”) into the club‘s walk-in refrigerator, resulting in a case of pneumonia; in fact it was Ray’s manager to whom Podell gave the ice-cube treatment, and neither contracted pneumonia. Tosches‘ source for this episode: the autobiography of Wayne Newton, age 10 and years from Vegas at the time of the incident. Tosches states that Wanda Jackson recorded the same “Right or Wrong” as Miller, but it’s an entirely different song, one written by Jackson herself. Tosches is not only doing most of his work from home, he‘s not even listening.
Research work by an author is a spiritual avocation, a joy apparently lost on Tosches. (Much of Dino was also researched by proxy.) His failure of responsibility comes most damagingly into focus in Dead Voices with the exceptionally lively and oddly British-sounding quote from the 1917 testimony of New Orleans jazz musician Alcide “Yellow” Nunez at a Chicago trial convened to settle a copyright dispute over the composition of “The Livery Stable Blues.” While Nunez did testify, Tosches’ version is pure fiction, lifted from 1994‘s The Beckoning Fairground: Notes of a British Exile in Lotus Land, self-published by English entertainer-author Ian Whitcomb. This version of Nunez’s testimony, the import of which Tosches expounds upon windily, was created by Whitcomb as a literary device to embellish his historical perception and as a land mine to thwart the lazy reuser. Nunez‘s actual testimony is excerpted in H.O. Brunn’s 1960 The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a title surely available at the NYC public library, or, failing that, in the Chicago newspaper that reported on the trial. Sadly, our Nick once again simply didn‘t care to follow up.
The purpose of Where Dead Voices Gather lies not so much in its ostensible quest to discover facts on Miller’s life and contributions, but in its compendium of pop, blues and jazz culture and arcana. Yet the author‘s piracy and his credulity of Whitcomb’s obvious fiction lead the reader to question every alleged fact contained in the book — leaving but a single conclusion: The only dead voice here is Nick Tosches‘ own.