Where Dead Voices Gather

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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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Where Dead Voices Gather

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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.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Talk about a labor of love: For 20 years, Nick Tosches pillaged libraries and flea markets, searching for details about the life of Emmett Miller (1900-1962), a legendary blackface singer-performer. Beginning with a handful of old vinyl records and a tombstone, the Vanity Fair editor was able to piece together the story of this Georgia minstrel, whose songs prefigured jazz, country, and blues. Half biography and half detective story, Where Dead Voices Gather makes this obscure yodeler a flesh-and-blood person. Readers of Tosches' equally astonishing The Devil and Sonny Liston will not be surprised by his authorial alchemy.
Library Journal
In this truly remarkable book, noted critic and Vanity Fair contributor Tosches (Hellfire) takes on obscure minstrel/country-jazz singer Emmett Miller. Exploring the whole of American popular performance during the first half of the 20th century, Tosches leaps headlong into the dizzying cross-pollinations of the blackface minstrel show, country, blues, jazz, folk, and Tin Pan Alley. The book is as much about the author's search for Miller's place in American popular music as it is about the man who influenced early country great Jimmie Rodgers and who counted Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey as members of his band in the mid-1920s. Grounding his tale in solid scholarship and critical analysis, Tosches is never dry; his voice combines Greil Marcus, Hunter S. Thompson, and the liner notes of Bob Dylan albums. His only misstep is his tendency to overcorrect cited authors with sic. As engrossing as a great mystery novel, this is essential for libraries with a focus on American popular culture and highly recommended for all university and larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/01.] James E. Perone, Mount Union Coll., Alliance, OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Music critic/biographer Tosches (The Devil and Sonny Liston, not reviewed, etc.) pens a densely informative and striking exploration of race, authenticity, and musical lineage. The peg for it all is the author's 20-year obsession with Emmett Miller (1900-62), a white "trick voice" singer from Macon, Georgia, who became briefly prominent with the failing Al G. Field Minstrels troupe, then recorded a series of "yodeling blues" for Okeh Records before fading into obscurity on the Southern grind circuit. Miller's surviving music epitomized the weird 1920s-era intersections between jazz, blues, and country, despite being marginalized by the qualities Tosches finds haunting, such as its allusions to 19th-century minstrel styles and inclusion of bawdy "spoken word" routines that also were part of African-American oral tradition. Tosches alternates between his painstaking documentation of Miller's milieu and wry commentary upon his difficult search (Miller seemingly produced amnesia in everyone who met him) as well as the necessity of such quests in our time of cultural divisiveness. He traces a fascinating portrait of pre-Depression musical ferment, with artists like Miller, Jimmie Rodgers, Cab Calloway, and Al Jolson freely borrowing ideas from one another, and little-recalled individuals like Italian-American guitarist Eddie Lang forging important links despite the music industry's racial segregation. Miller's best recordings (which survived via bootleg) were made in 1927 with "the Georgia Crackers," a powerhouse ensemble including Lang, the Dorsey brothers, and Gene Krupa. Alas, the amiable Miller was evidently a profligate alcoholic, and his commercial prospects "vanished into the abyssbetween two times, that of the vaudeville singer . . . and that of the crooner, in which he was lost." Like James Ellroy, Tosches uses a staccato style to make provocative points, as when examining minstrelstry and its contemporary incarnation, gangsta rap. Yet his search for Emmett Miller, which ends at the singer's Macon tombstone, also has great poignancy, and his explication of the musical veins that run from Miller and Lang to Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan is extremely striking. An assured hand sifting through the cultural ashes.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316895378
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 8/20/2008
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 340
  • Sales rank: 1,334,698
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Nick Tosches
Nick Tosches
A journalist who has also written three novels, Nick Tosches is an acclaimed biographer whose unconventional books -- Dino and The Devil and Sonny Liston among them -- illuminate some of America's more controversial, overshadowed talents.


A highly praised author who seems to base his choice of subjects not so much on eminence as conflicted greatness, Nick Tosches is the best example of a good rock journalist who set out to transcend his genre and succeeded. Having begun in music mags Creem and Fusion in the 1970s, the author’s career took a large turn upward with the publication of Hellfire, his biography of rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis. It didn’t hurt that Rolling Stone anointed it “the best rock n’ roll biography ever written.”

A few years later, Tosches departed from the rock milieu but maintained his attraction to subjects of undeniable power and questionable – if not downright criminal – character. He chronicled the life and times of Sicilian financier Michele Sindona in the now out of print Power on Earth, then scored another biographical home run with his authoritative Dino, about Rat Pack entertainer Dean Martin.

None of these subjects was begging to be written about; nor was the boxer Tosches compellingly depicted in The Devil and Sonny Liston, the blackface minstrel introduced in Where Dead Voices Gather, or the focus of The Last Opium Den. This is where the author’s talent nests: First in his ability to unearth topics that represent history’s alleyways; and second in the courageous, authentic prose he uses to describe them, including liberal doses of ten-dollar-words and allusions to his own role in the story.

Tosches doesn’t get caught up so much in an individual; he works to create an aura. “The lives in [my biographies] are as much about the forces at work beneath, beyond, and around,” he said in a 1999 interview with Salon. “The Liston book, to a great extent, is about those forces more than it's about Sonny himself. I mean, Sonny's life is there in full, but there are other characters and other forces directly relating to various underworlds.” Tosches will take you to his subject eventually; but he might show you through a few detours first. For example, his search in The Last Opium Den begins, “You see, I needed to go to hell I was, you might say, homesick. But first, by way of explanation, the onion.”

Tosches’ fiction work has existed under the shadow of his biographies, something the author wants to change with the ambitious, portentously promoted 2002 release In the Hand of Dante. His first novel about a Mafia scheme to fix the New York lottery, Cut Numbers, was generally well received but largely forgotten; Trinities, “a battle for evil,” was a New York Times Notable Book of 1994 but is now out of print in the States. In the Hand of Dante is a self-referential, layered story that twists the discovery of a 14th-century manuscript into a modern-day thriller also containing Alighieri himself as a character. Whether In the Hand of Dante will be, as its publisher predicts, “the most ragingly debated novel of the decade,” like the rest of Tosches’ work, it has drawn respect and attention.

Good To Know

In the 1970s, Tosches was a hunter of poisonous snakes for the Miami Serpentarium. He was also a paste-up artist for the Lovable Underwear Company.

Tosches has written a screenplay, Spud Crazy; planned adaptations of Dino (by Martin Scorsese) and The Devil and Sonny Liston (with Ving Rhames in the lead) have been reported but disappeared. Tosches told Salon in 1999, "The people in Hollywood that clean out the urinals know more about the movie status of my books than I do." In 2002, FOXNews.com reported that veteran producer Robert Evans planned to make a film based on Tosches’s Vanity Fair article “The Devil and Sidney Korshak,” about “connected” Chicago lawyer. Tosches was slated to write the screenplay.

Tosches, who was not big on higher education, was “schooled in his father’s bar,” according to his publisher’s bio. He spent his teenage years as a porter at Tosches family’s Jersey City joint.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1948
    2. Place of Birth:
      Newark, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      High school

Read an Excerpt

Many years ago, I wrote a book called Country. Two of the chapters closest to its heart were devoted to the mystery of Emmett Miller, whose startling and mesmerizing music seemed to be a Rosetta Stone to the understanding of the mixed and mongrel bloodlines of country and blues, of jazz and pop, of all that we know as American music.

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

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2012

    Typical Nick Tosches: informative rant

    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.

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