Review: Where Dead Voices Gather by Nick Tosches

Nick Tosches sets off in search of Emmett Miller, the voice of 1920s America, in Where Dead Voices Gather

Where Dead Voices Gather
by Nick Tosches
330pp, Jonathan Cape, £12.99

Nick Tosches is the most singularly gifted of the writers who began developing their literary muscles as music critics in rock-based periodicals over the past 50 years. The 52-year-old American author has long proven himself capable of working outside the constrictive limitations of his original calling, publishing credible tomes of his own poetry as well as two feisty noir novels about the Mafia; but - for die-hard fans - Tosches is still best represented by Hellfire, his biography of Jerry Lee Lewis published in 1982.

In it he managed to conjure forth all the high-minded academic context needed to explain why the scary, trouble-prone Lewis was indeed a great American artist, while writing as though he was strapped to the very gut of his subject's darkest mood-swings. Hellfire remains probably the best rock biography ever written.

Over the past 10 years, Tosches has made a point of keeping a higher profile around the literati. He has become a Vanity Fair roving reporter and has turned out several books, including the disappointing The Devil and Sonny Liston (2000) and a 2001 anthology of his writings - The Nick Tosches Reader - which suffered from self-indulgent editing to the extent that the same pieces of text would sometimes turn up in different sections of the book.

Where Dead Voices Gather finds Tosches returning to a root obsession that appeared twice in the very first book he ever had published - Country - 25 years ago. There, readers were introduced to Emmett Miller, a black-faced white Southerner who performed in minstrel shows during the first half of the 20th century and who possessed a remarkable "trick" yodel to his voice that can still be heard on recordings mostly made in the 1920s. These recordings - only pieced together recently and remastered for a CD release in the late 1990s - have been haunting Tosches for decades.

"[This] startling and mesmerising music," he enthuses in the opening paragraph of Dead Voices, "seemed to be a Rosetta Stone to the understanding of the mixed and mongrel blood-lines of country and blues, of jazz and pop, of all that we know as American music." In Country, the writer pinpointed Miller's potential influence on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams and even Bo Diddley (whose seminal voodoo rocker "Who Do You Love" steals some of its lyrical content from an old Miller black-face comedy routine). But when it came to describing Miller's life and times, he found himself engulfed in mystery: no photographs, an incomplete discography, the few still alive who knew him giving vague, conflicting accounts.

In Dead Voices Tosches has at least located more pieces of the puzzle: he turns up Miller's date of birth, and all the Miller 78s he previously lacked. Someone even gives him a photo of Miller - bald and puffy-looking from too much booze - taken during his twilight years, which ended unspectacularly in 1962. But it's still not enough to make Miller's ghost truly come alive. Tosches readily admits this at the end of the book, going so far as to refer to his ongoing obsession with Miller as a ruinous curse.

Instead, Tosches takes his reader on an eccentric trek through the forgotten graveyards of US culture in the early 20th century. We learn much about the broader social and moral issues lurking behind the whole minstrel tradition. Tosches rightly notes the influence of minstrel songs in the ever-evolving music of American singers as diverse as Bing Crosby and Bob Dylan, goes on to show that certain classic blues songs were stolen from Irish folk ballads and - before you know it - starts quoting Homer and Ezra Pound in his attempts to define the elemental rhythms of timeless American songcraft.

"To follow 'Lovesick Blues' from Tin Pan Alley to Emmett Miller to Hank Williams," he concludes, "is to saunter along some forgotten shore of history... to go on a journey, the nuances and essential truths of whose cultural meaning we are just now beginning to understand." Except Dead Voices is less of a journey and more of a long, intermittently entertaining and revealing ramble.

· Nick Kent's most recent book is The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music (Penguin)


Nick Kent

The GuardianTramp

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