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 abyss between 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.