Where Dead Voices Gather

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9780316895378: Where Dead Voices Gather

A forgotten singer from the early days of jazz is at the center of this riveting book--a narrative that is part mystery, part biography, part meditation on the meaning and power of music.

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Review:

Nick Tosches's new book is aptly titled. On the surface a biography of obscure Southern minstrel singer and blackface comedian Emmett Miller (1900-62), his passionate text at its core is another installment in Tosches's lifelong inquiry into the nature of American popular music. It's a place, in his view, "where dead voices gather" as artists chaotically and indiscriminately pluck tunes out of sources ranging from English ballads to slave spirituals and fashion lyrics from half-remembered commercial releases heard once on the radio or archetypal stories told so often that no one knows who first gave them voice. Miller was a "yodeling blues singer" who performed in blackface, adhering to the minstrelsy tradition that was in its death throes by the time he had his brief moment of fame in the 1920s. Tosches, who first heard a Miller recording in 1974, characterizes him as "one of the strangest and most stunning stylists ever to record ... the last mutant mongrel emanation of old and dead and dying styles, the first mutant mongrel emanation of a style far more reckless and free than the cool of scat." As this sentence suggests, Tosches's prose has calmed down hardly at all since his first book, Country, was published in 1977; you either love his freeform approach or it drives you nuts. Admirers will relish his marvelously dense and detailed portrait of pop music's crazy-quilt complexity, enriched by Tosches's encyclopedic knowledge of American culture. And he boldly stares the race question in the face, though not everyone will be convinced by his assertion that "it is the shared umbilicus of fantasy that sustains and unites ... the polar temperaments of minstrelsy and rap." This is another genre-smashing work from a writer as eccentric, provoking, and wholly original as the music he loves. --Wendy Smith

About the Author:

Nick Tosches is the author of three acclaimed biographies: The Devil and Sonny Liston, Power on Earth, and Dino; of several books about popular music, including Country and Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll; and of the novels Trinities and Cut Numbers. He is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.

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