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The alchemy of Emmett Miller's music is as startling today as it was when he wrought it. Definable neither as country nor as blues, as jazz nor as pop, as black nor as white, but as both culmination and transcendence of these bloodlines and more, that alchemy, that music, stands as one of the most wondrous emanations, a birth-cry really, of the many-faced and one-souled chimera of all that has come to be called American music. The very concept of him -a white man in blackface, a hillbilly singer and a jazz singer both, a son of the deep South and a rouÈ of Broadway -is at once unique, mythic, and a perfect representation of the schizophrenic heart of what this country, with a straight face, calls its culture.
I first became intrigued by the elusive figure of Emmett Miller in 1974. I may have been vaguely aware of him before then, but it was I Love Dixie Blues, the album Merle Haggard dedicated in part to Miller's music, that truly whetted my curiosity. In the bargain bin of a record store on Eighth Street in New York, I found a copy of an album whose stark and drab cover was ugly even by bootleg standards: title misspelled in plain black lettering on plain yellow stock. But this cover belied not only the beautiful disc of clear green vinyl that lay within, but more so the wonder of what that green vinyl held. Issued by the Old Masters label in 1969, Emmet Miller Acc. by His Georgia Crackers had been the first in a series of limited-edition pressings for jazz collectors; the spelling of Miller's name was obviously not as important as the fact that these recordings featured rare performances by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Eddie Lang, and Gene Krupa. Subsequently reissued on common black vinyl but with Miller's name spelled right, in black on white, this album remained the sole available collection of Miller's work for more than a quarter of a century, superseded only in 1996 by Emmett Miller: The Minstrel Man from Georgia, a Columbia/Legacy CD that included six recordings more than the earlier album.
When I heard Miller's actual voice, forthshining from the coruscations of those slow-spinning emerald grooves, I was astounded, and my search for information on him began in earnest. What little I found was included three years later in Country. "It is not known exactly when Emmett Miller was born or when he died," I wrote. "Nor is it known where he came from or where he went. We don't even know what he looked like, really."
For a long time, these statements remained true. In November of 1988, eleven years to the month after the publication of Country, another book -bigger and more lavish, but with a similar title -brought forth the first published photograph of Miller. The book was Country: The Music and the Musicians, produced by the Country Music Foundation and Abbeville Press. I wrote the chapter on honkytonk, in which I devoted two paragraphs to Miller's influence on Hank Williams; and it was in this context that the photograph of Miller, middle-aged and in blackface, appeared as an illustration. Five years later, Abbeville published a parallel volume called Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians, in which a second picture of Miller, also in blackface, accompanied four paragraphs on him, as an influence on Jimmie Rodgers, in a chapter by Charles Wolfe on white country blues. But beyond these curious masked images, the mystery of Emmett Miller remained largely unsolved, and the words I'd written long ago remained largely true.
In 1994, in a Journal of Country Music article called "The Strange and Hermetical Case of Emmett Miller," I set forth all that had been discovered regarding Miller since the writing of Country. And yet, even then, it could not be said with certainty exactly when or where he was born, or exactly when or where he died, or even whether Emmett Miller was really his name. The paragraphs on Miller in Nothing But the Blues stated with an air of certitude that "Miller was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1903." This assertion would be repeated by Wolfe a few years later in the notes to the Minstrel Man from Georgia CD: "Emmett Miller, we now know, was from Macon, Georgia, born there in 1903. His parents were longtime residents of the area, and owned a nearby farm." But no evidence for these "facts" was offered, and I chose to doubt them. As it turned out, I was right to doubt: Emmett Miller was not born in 1903, and drinking milk was probably the closest his family came to owning a farm.
But for all my sensible doubting and senseless searching, the mystery of Emmett Miller, after twenty years, remained unsolved. And who cared? Indeed, when I stopped to think of it, I wondered what end this search could serve, except, as it did, to distract me from more meaningful and lucrative pursuits. Unfinished poems, an unfinished novel, magazine assignments were pushed aside, and for what? To follow a ghost? This distraction from more meaningful and lucrative pursuits had, for me, a strong, perhaps pathological appeal; but that did not explain it, for there are other far more enjoyable distractions. Ultimately I did not and could not, I do not and cannot, explain it. I can say that the search, the mystery, was twofold. Who was this guy -when was he born, when did he die? And what was the source of his music, vanished in the undocumented darkness and the lost and unknown recordings of an unexplored subculture? Whether seen as detective work or archeology, as serious investigation or deranged folly, the case of Emmett Miller was not without its gratifications, its thrills and satisfactions of discovery and of learning.
As for its being without meaning, it now has occurred to me, in the few sentences since my mention of more meaningful and lucrative pursuits, that, after all is said and done, meaning is the biggest sucker's-racket of all; and any regard for it, no matter how fleeting, befits a middle-aged fool like me. So meaning be damned; on with these words.
In the spring of 1996, as was I revising and expanding the Journal article to appear as the appendix to the reprint of Country published by Da Capo Press, I received a call from my friend and intrepid cohort Bret Wood.
Earlier Bret had found, amid handwritten records of the Thirteenth Census of the United States (1910), evidence of a thirteen-year- old white male named Emmett Miller living with his family in the town of Barnesville, in Pike County, Georgia, about midway between Atlanta and Macon.
For years I had been unsure that Emmett Miller was the real name of the person whose identity I sought. Poring through the "Minstrelsy" columns of issues of Billboard from the 1920s, on reel after reel of microfilm, I had come across many obscure performers named Emmett. Too many. I suspected that the name of Emmett had been taken commonly by minstrels to evoke the name of Daniel Decatur Emmett, the most celebrated of the old-time minstrels. I thought this might help to explain why no biographical facts had been unearthed regarding the birth, death, or offstage life of Emmett Miller. At the same time, removing the possible baffle of his first name left only a surname so common that his true identity might never be found.
But here was an actual Emmett Miller. The Barnesville census was enumerated on April 27, 1910; the thirteen-year-old Emmett Miller was listed as the son of one Walter Moore. Why his surname, like that of his four siblings, was different from his father's was a perplexing detail; but any detail, no matter how perplexing, was welcome amid the vaster perplexing vagueness of the search for Emmett Miller. For all my doubts regarding the accepted "facts" of Emmett Miller's origin, I shared the assumption, based on a 1928 published reference to him as "the young man from Macon," that Macon was indeed his hometown. But I figured now that Miller might have named that nearby and well-known town as such instead of small, little-known Barnesville. The census record would fix his year of birth at 1896 or 1897. There seemed to be no other documentation of an Emmett Miller that presented itself as a possibility. A thirty-year-old mulatto house-mover boarding in Macon was found in the census of 1920: an unlikely candidate. While Bret drew no conclusions, I rashly did, and offered them just as rashly in the letters section of the Journal of Country Music, Vol. 17, No. 3. This proposed evidence, I dare say, met with no little acceptance by the esteemed and eminent community of Millerologists at large; and I felt that a search of nearly twenty years was nearing its end. But alas, as they say in the funnybooks, alas.
Then, on April 4, 1996, in the state archives at Atlanta, Bret found the document that would at long last truly serve as the key to the mystery of Emmett Miller.
There would be no record of Emmett Miller's birth. We knew that much. Birth certificates, registrations of birth, were not legally required in Georgia until 1919. Until that time, they were rare, especially for children born at home, as most were. Though access to existing birth records in Georgia is restricted to the persons whose records they are, a worker at the Bibb County Health Department in Macon was both able and kind to confirm that there was, as expected, no birth certificate in the name of Emmett Miller. The offices of the health department are located on Hemlock Street: an irony here compounded, for it was through Emmett Miller's death, and not his birth, that the story of his life opened to me.
The revelatory document that Bret found in the state capital was a certificate of death, Georgia State File No. 9378: a record of finality that might serve as well, I hoped, to seal and lay to rest an obsession.
There was time to incorporate only the barest elements of this discovery into the Country appendix. That done, Bret and I arranged to travel to Macon, to where the clues of this document beckoned. "Emmett Miller: The Final Chapter," an account based on what we gathered, the missing pieces of the life of Emmett Miller, was written for the Journal of Country Music. Though I was the author of that account, it could not have been written without the work of Bret Wood, for whose inspired research skills I here express my profound respect, and for whose selfless dedication to this loss-intensive project, my profounder gratitude.
The article proved to be far from a final chapter. Even as I readied it for publication, I knew that there was more to be discovered, that further exploration lay before me. What follows, these years later, is a synthesis -a bringing to harmony, a bringing to culmination-of all that I have written regarding Emmett Miller, and of all that I have learned regarding Emmett Miller. Above all, it is a bringing to an end of a mystery -and the bringing to light, however dim, of a far bigger mystery, and the journey to solve that bigger mystery in turn: through kerosene lamp and light of neon and no light at all, through palimpsest and shards, the echoic whisperings of ghosts, howls from hidden vanished places, loud electric crackling rhythms and cries of seers and fools, all-telling breezes, no-telling winds.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Nick Tosches
Posted December 1, 2012
Where Dead Voices Gather is Nick Tosches account of his life long interest in the minstrel/blackface singer Emmett Miller, who Tosches regards as a unique talent in the early days when the lines between jazz, country, blues, and popular song were blurry or nonexistant. The best part of this book is Tosches' defense of the minstrel show as a legitimate part of the american musical continuum, rather than the racist relic it is often portrayed as by modern pop culture studies. The book's examination of the history of the minstrel show as the alembic in which black and white music merged alone makes this volume worth reading by anyone interested in American music. As is the case with Tosches' dreadful novel In The Hand of Dante the more he drags his hipster bard persona and substandard poetry into the book the worse it gets. Tosches often must be "read around" to get what is worthwhile from his books.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 25, 2010
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