German, Scandinavian, French, and Irish traits were exaggerated for laughs; Chico Marx was Jewish, but he spent his career playing an Italian buffoon. All of these impersonations were stylized way past the point of caricatureóthey were commedia dell'arte. Minstrelsy did not steal from black musical sources (he corrects something I once wrote on this point, and I stand corrected); rather, it tapped into and fed the vast act of miscegenation that is American culture, the spawning ground where one root song could whelp both "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary Blues," and where any number of lines could migrate from song to song across racial boundaries. Of course, Tosches being Tosches, he will not make these points without throwing his elbows around and deliberately spilling his beer on any hippies and academics who happen to be standing nearby. He rightly argues, for example, that most white blues, especially the speciously earnest early-'60s variety, should be classed as minstrelsy. On the other hand, to deny that "the playing of blacks by whites [is] more demeaning or momentous an absurdity than the playing of Italians by Jews and WASPS" is just a little bit obtuse. The European tribes had variously hard struggles in America, but I don't recall many of their number being lynched because of how they looked.
Tosches documents the rise and fall of minstrelsy in an impressive, sometimes dizzying chronicle of long-forgotten names that made me wish the book had an audio component (photos wouldn't have hurt, either). He succeeds in conveying a nuanced sense of interracial transactions, and of the vast entertainment demimonde in the 1920s and '30s that lay somewhere between Irving Berlin and Blind Lemon Jeffersonóthe stuff you'd actually take in at the Bijou. All of this puts Emmett Miller in context, but it also deepens his mystery. And, of course, the mystery that sits next door to the lounge is pretty much where Tosches lives. Only Tosches could make Dee Dee Sharp's "Mashed Potatoes started long time ago" sound like something out of Heraclitus, and only Tosches could write a sentence like this one, about the year 1927:
. . . the year of Emmett Miller's glory; the year that the great flood of the Mississippi, the great flood of the Delta, the great flood, ignivomous and exundant, which seemed to sunder the chthonic sacrarium and bring forth the tombaroli, the holy grave-robbers and thieves; to loose the cestus of Mystis, sweet tectonic mama, and raise, in skirl and sigh and yodel and moan, in epiclesis, in aestus, in quietusóstile vecchio, stile duro, stile nuovoóthe tessitura of it all, the dark and myriad-voiced antediluvian song and resurrection in the light of new morning, matutina lux, Viva-tonal and electric, wild-souled and endlessly rocking.
That's right, leaning against the jukebox are a couple of those hooded sages out of the Rosicrucian advertisements, and they're playing craps with human vertebrae, and Emmett Miller's yodel starts to sound like a banshee wail from the sunken continent of Lemuria. Tosches doesn't forget that Miller was a drunk who died broke, probably alone, and by most conventional standards a failure, but those pathetic facts only serve to highlight the disguise affected by a direct descendant of Pan.
Luc Sante is the author of The Factory of Facts (Pantheon, 1998).