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Where Dead Voices Gather, by Nick Tosches

Where Dead Voices Gather coverI have a couple of novels I haven’t reviewed, but I’m going to leave off discussing those till I have my thoughts gathered. For now, I want to write about the book I finished today, which is <i>Where Dead Voices Gather</i>, by Nick Tosches.

It’s been a funny week, one of those weeks where whatever you’re into kind of shows up no matter where you look — like when you learn a new word and then hear it used a bunch of times soon after — everyone else either just learned it, like you, or else you were walking around in ignorance of something everyone else seemed to know.

Well, it’s not quite like that, because the insights in Tosches are the kinds of things that, when one reads them, one is made to feel as if one has always known those things, but never known quite how to put them into words. He waxes downright poetic when he discusses the lineage of American music, and the wellspring from which it flows. As far as I can gather, there are two sources:

  1. A tradition which is handed down through the generations, which has formed the mongrel culture that is American culture; songs passing from whites to blacks, from blacks to whites, like money that, when passed from hand to hand, accumulates the invisible yet impossible-not-to-feel grunge of decades upon decades, stretching back into the gloomy, misty, preliterate back woods of Kentucky, to villages in West Africa just after the first slave ships arrived, to little towns across the British Isles from which people took their leave when they departed for the New World.
  2. A deeper tradition that is borne on the wind, that carries echoes from whoever was mistily remembered by those we no longer remember who listened to Homer’s forebears under Aegean sunsets; a tradition born of breath, of bodies, eternally part of us an inescapable. The thing that, in human music and song, is inescapable and universal — the yodel, the howl, the trick voice, the eternally repeating stories. (How Poundian!)

Yet this book is, for all that thar, focused on a man: Emmett Miller, a blackface minstrel in an age when the blackface show was dying, dying, dead. Miller, a drunk, a performer, more a clown than a singer, more a singer than a figure. What I suspect Miller really is, of course, is an enigma, a kind of cipher which Tosches embraces in its ambiguity, for the point is not the meticulous research that Tosches engages in — fascinating as some of it is.

The point is that Miller is a shadow, as sure as the blood-ghosts in Pound’s first verse in The Cantos (and Tosches invokes the ghostly voice of Pound, as well); that with a sacrifice, the ancient voices can be made to sing from living mouths. Sometimes, the sacrifice is trawling through the recordings or oral histories of forebears — listening, learning, memorizing, keeping the tradition alive. Tosches discusses this vividly in his discussion of how the word “jump” being dropped from a line of a song made it lose its artistry and inventiveness to a rather disheartening degree. For anyone interested in this — in the stability of texts in an oral culture, as well as the inventiveness of poets and songwriters facing this set of issues, I recommend also Memory and Re-Creation in Troubadour Lyric by Amelia E. Van Vleck (available online, free!). Unlike Tosches, I do not quite rail against academia, though I do with that Van Vleck had the freedom and skill to write with the same style and passion as Tosches. Van Vleck’s book, like Tosches, bears the implicit argument that a form of “remixing” is indeed as old as music itself, as voice itself perhaps.

But one shadow begets other shadows, and by the by, we end up looking out across vistas of time and of song. Miller’s shadowy nature is filled-in, slowly, by Tosches’ research, but also by fancy — and I am not criticizing, for that is what makes the book readable. Tosches works this very well, listening dong title after song title, gig date after gig date, until the reader is dying for some texture, some sense of Miller as a man. And then Tosches fills Miller up with shadows, not just the ghosts of the minstrel show, but the ghosts of earlier Americans, of blackface performers and of negro prisoners singing into the orchestral waves of locust-song, with the song of long-dead poets with gitterns on their knees, playing those ancient Mixolydian blues to the tale of Odysseus and the rage of Achilles. Miller is, by the end, so full of ghosts, so haunted himself, by his failures and successes but also the rise and fall of his chosen venue, so taunted by the contemporary and future successes of Jimmy Rogers, the blue yodeler, and of Elvis Presley, whom Tosches terms “the great mediocrator.”

Tosches’ hatreds resonate with me for they are, in part, mine own; he reviles in all that robbed American music of its spirit, its rootedness, its lustful and lascivious and crash and ignorant vitality — not to say beauty — and gave us instead pretty things, danceable things that have no point, that gave us Elvis and all that would have been unthinkable without Elvis, or Michael Jackson, or any of the other easily-swallowed, easily regurgitated, easily marketed trash. That so many believed Presley still alive for so long, or like to fantasize it in seeing his imitators put on their own strange shows — more blood ghosts singing from living mouths, but these ones impotent and without secrets, their tunes bereft of magic — makes sense, now that I’ve have read this book, and so does the quote from Iggy Pop that Tosches uses as an epigram.

(The epigram put me off, at first reading, but now I understand: the music of those lost shadows was a music of physical, animal urgency; it was about living in a world illuminated by mortality, and driven by the need to mate, to eat, to be fierce, to trip into the world of the spirits while one could still do so at will. To be beastly, as we truly are. The ugly authenticity that feels good because it is what we is, though we are not allowed it in our workaday lives, and cannot allow it to ourselves, at least not too often.)

His other hatred is of academia, and having read his writing once, I can see why; the poetry in his words, the flow, the passionate argument, the invocation of spirit that no academic would dare or condone in “scholarly” work, is what makes the book so penetrating and so powerful. It is an important book, I think, not so much for its coverage of Miller — about whom I still feel as if I know too little — but for its excavation of the shadowy, and willfully-forgotten — forge on which American popular culture was hammered out, a forge that was buried in understandable embarrassment when the minstrel show became unacceptable. I understand why it became unacceptable, and I’m not arguing it’s inoffensive… but I do think that, in its burial, American society has lost a part of its history of which is should be more aware. Like John Strausbaugh, I see the stereotypes and archetypes of a lot of minstrel-show characters onscreen today, being acted out mostly by African-American actors and musicians. If we do now know the past, we don’t recognize when it still has its zombielike hands around our throats; but when it is buried, likewise we cannot learn from it, for its voice is muffled in the soil.

(And what survives doesn’t convey it. Which is why I’m not posting any Miller videos, though you can find them if you look, on Youtube.)

Whether Tosches’ book holds up to scholarly fact-checking is one thing — though I cannot think any scholar would have the gonads to bother — but another is the sense I have of having completed something monumental, something meaningful, and of having deepened my own understanding of American popular culture and its history, which, after all, I come at — for several different reasons — as a kind of outsider, though not so much an outsider as my students are. And as a study of a man who was in the wrong place, in the wrong time, practicing the wrong artform, it’s quite revealing, the first of its kind I’ve ever read. More than anything else I’ve read this year, the book has been both entertaining and a learning experience.

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