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We Got Dem Ol' Minstrelsy Blues Again, Mama
By David Dalton

Minstrelsy (1843-1928): the mere mention of the word is politically incorrect. You know, white performers blackening their faces with burnt cork and performing skits and songs of "Negro life." Blacks later did it, too. You may—indeed probably do—think it’s an embarrassing, racist episode in American history (1620-2001) that has really nothing to do with you, because you are an enlightened person who shuns such humiliating exhibitions of a bygone era. Well, pallie, you got another thing coming. It’s all the-a-tah, Bud, even yer precious ever-lovin’ down-in-the-bottom blues. Show biz is what these United States is all about, and you, Mr. Jones, are about to be exposed as an artificial hipster, indoctrinated by coffeehouse folk music (1941-1965) and sixties super-blues (1961-1973) propaganda so that you actually believe that you know the real thing when you hear it, like Uncle Dave Macon or the deep down Delta blooze.

Nick Tosches (born 1949) is a self-styled tough guy, scholar, poet of the lower depths and the author of Hellfire, The Devil and Sonny Liston, Dino and other tasty tomes. The latter two works made him wealthy enough to indulge in various forms of mild decadence (we won’t here dwell on those endangered-species loafers) but did not, thankfully, divert him from his arcane, mildly mad obsessions, which he here sets before us. Where Dead Voices Gather is threaded on Tosches’ 23-year quest for Emmett Miller (1900-1962), a white musician who performed in blackface and whose career at its height, Tosches tells us, spanned barely three years. He truly loves Emmett Miller’s "trick voice," rhapsodizes eloquently upon his singing and pursues his ghost as if it were his own doppelgänger. But the book’s true theme is something other: the mutt-like interpollination of genres in American popular music, the commingling of black and white styles, borrowings, thefts, appropriations and sonic boomeranging. As Terry Waldo, quoted in Tosches, says in This Is Ragtime: "By the time the ragtime era began in 1896, the cakewalk was being performed by blacks imitating whites who were imitating blacks who were imitating whites."

The quest for authenticity in American popular culture, Tosches insists, is not only misguided, itís irrelevant and at worst a folly, that when mindlessly pursued becomes "the demeaning coon show of the celebration of the primitive, the romance of rusticitas." "The donning of overalls and tattered caps [by old bluesmen] came only later, when young, ‘liberal,’ white America, seeking escape from vacuousness through the delusive psuedonegritude of the ‘raw, hard truth’ of the blues, brought about the grossest and most degrading of all minstrelsies."

Now and then the trainspotting nature of the research and brain-numbing cataloging will get to you, but Tosches generally knows how to reel you back in. After a lengthy comparison between the styles of Emmett Miller and Roy Evans (an even more obscure singer), he cajoles the reader with the suggestion that being able to extemporize on the difference between the two will make you the life of the party: "Loneliness and awkwardness will be behind you; new friends, prospective employers, and the target sex shall flock unto you, as they have unto me." Or, after some willful digression, heíll come on like some literary poker player: "The foregoing is what Quintilian called an excursus. Get used to it, or get out." Quintilian is a name with a nice 1st century ring to it, but an unfortunate choice when youíre skating on the thin ice of pedantry, gratuitous citation-spewing and factoid peddling. Quintilian is none other than the original insufferable pedant, a nit-picking teacher of rhetoric whose claim to fame is having created the school syllabus. A more apt allusion might have been Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), the author of the brilliantly tangential Tristram Shandy, who in that work said, "Digressions are the sunshine."

There were occasions, I must admit, whenóafter pages of musty vaudeville clippings, Minoan laundry lists, musicological jots and tittles, dopey radio interview transcripts, mini-bio limbos and interminable song family trees (that badly need pruning)óI was tempted to fling the book down and say, "Enough, sir, with your insufferable inventories!" Quousque tandem abutere, O Tosches, patientia nostra? I mean, hasn’t the man heard of footnotes and appendices?

But, hey, this isnít the Cosmic Fragments of Heraclitus, and youíre not a biblical exegete (yet!). So float like a hummingbird over these sudate carte and extract the sweet nectar of Tosches’s elegiac prose, because there’s nothing better than seeing a great lost soul like Emmett Miller snatched back from the shades of Erebus, not to mention watching an infatuated necromancer like Nick Tosches do it with words alone.

Where Dead Voices Gather is a little like taking a long railway journey with a curmudgeonly old gent of impressive erudition and piano-bar hipness who insists on expounding his idée fixe ad stupefaciam, luring you in here and there with flashes of insight, challenging you now and then and intermittently seducing you with passages of soaring lyricism—all the while continuing to gnaw on some ancient bone that he will not relinquish for all the tea (or sweet smoke) in China.Dead Voices ranges with unpeeled eyeball (and the frequent longueurs) over all American culture, world culture, in fact, from Homer (circa 900 B.C.E.) to William Faulkner (1897-1962), "one of the last, certainly one of the greatest purveyors [of blackface dialogue]." In the manner of the Odyssey, Tosches goes into Homeric detail about whatever subject he currently runs into—how a wax disk was cut, for instance—just as, when Odysseus decides to set sail, we are told how he actually built his dark-hulled boat (itself frequently alluded to in the Tosches book). There are etymologies of "hip," "pickaninny," "wop," "gay," "pussy," "cracker" and long digressions on everything from cocaine songs to the mystic nature of yodeling to monkey-gland implants to the dark l-sound in Linear B.