Where Dead Voices Gather

Nick Tosches' Where Dead Voices Gather is an unconventional book. Its meandering form, replete with long and sometimes eccentric digressions on the nature of popular music, will alternately frustrate and delight a faithful reader. Tosches unabashedly courts idiosyncrasy; eschewing such conventional aids to the reader as a reliably linear structure, or even chapter divisions, he has instead produced a long and brilliant improvisation, mirroring the music that he loves so well.

Tosches' book is ostensibly a biography. His subject is Emmett Miller, one of the last great minstrel players, a white man who performed in blackface, and who briefly flirted with commercial success in the late 1930's before quickly fading into obscurity. Though left behind by the flow of popular music, Miller has fascinated a small band of aficionados who have seen in his startlingly compelling voice, preserved on only a few 78-rpm recordings, a fountainhead for later musical directions in the blues, jazz, and early country music.

The problem facing students of Emmett Miller is that very little is known of their elusive subject. Miller never fully emerged into the spotlight of fame. Aside from his music, he remained silent. For many years it was not known when he had died or where he was buried. Over the years, Tosches and other devotees have pieced together a barebones account of Miller's life; but all that is known could be told in a few pages. So what Tosches does instead in this book is to impressionistically place Miller and his peculiar art in the context of the ever-evolving course of American popular music. Here Tosches has a lot to say, especially, given Miller's career as a minstrel singer, about the often-surprising ebb and flow of influence between white and black performers and styles of expression. Indeed, if there is any over-arching theme to the book it is that fixating on race obscures what is distinctively American about our popular music.