Where Dead Voices Gather, by Nick Tosches. Boston and New York: Little, Brown. 352 pages. $24.95. BUY NOW


In Nick Tosches's first book, Country: The Biggest Music in America (1977), he summoned up the ghost of Emmett Miller, "one of the most intriguing and profoundly important men in the history of country music." It was a safe bet that most readers had never heard of Miller, who recorded sporadically between 1924 and 1936 and who, by the '70s, had fallen so deeply into obscurity that even his birth and death dates were unknown. Nevertheless, as Tosches puts it, Miller was the Rosetta Stone of country music. His recording of "Lovesick Blues" was, note for note and inflection for inflection, the template for Hank Williams's version some twenty years later, just as his recording of "Right or Wrong" was for the one by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. Miller's "clarinet voice," his refinement of the yodel, his wild broken-field running over a melody, and his willful enjambment of black and white traditions seemingly forecast every development in country vocal practice between Jimmie Rodgers and the countrypolitan era. Miller was forgotten the way prophets always areóawkwardly situated in his own era, he belonged instead both to the future and to the past. This latter detail proved to be something of a liability, image-wise: He was among the last of the blackface minstrels.

Now Tosches has unearthed a few facts about Millerónot scads, but enough to provide an outline of a life. He was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1900 and died there in 1962. From about 1919 to some point in the '50s, he played in minstrel shows, clinging to the form as it suffered a protracted death from asphyxiation and neglect. He never got lucky. He did record, notably in a series of sessions in 1928 and '29 for which he was backed by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Eddie Lang, but he never had a hit and seldom secured top billing or important venues. As Tosches tracked down former sidemen and colleagues, he discovered that few remembered Miller at all; those who did often confused him with somebody else or could only describe him with vague pleasantries. Still, the conjectural possibilities remain tantalizing. Miller's style was unprecedentedówhere did he get it from? What caused the gaps in his chronology? Did he and Jimmie Rodgers get acquainted before the latter's watershed first recording session in 1927, and if so, who influenced whom? Such questions might seem like academic minutiae if you haven't heard Miller sing (his recordings are available today as a collection titled The Minstrel Man from Georgia, on Columbia/Legacy). In Tosches's hands, though, Miller becomes an enigma almost on a par with Robert Johnson and Lautréamont.

Where Dead Voices Gather is not, needless to say, a biography of Miller. Instead, Tosches attempts to locate him on the cultural map of twentieth-century America, and that in large part means trying to account for the phenomenon of minstrelsy. Tosches makes an excellent case for the value, integrity, and racial equanimity of blackface minstrel performance. After all, as he notes, many major black entertainers got their start as blackface performers, and the business must be viewed in the light of a variety and vaudeville culture that indiscriminately promoted ethnic stock types of all sorts.

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