Where Dead Voices Gather


By Nick Tosches

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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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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 roué 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 honky-tonk, 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.


Emmett Miller came out of the minstrelsy tradition. Yes, out of that tradition so named, since at least the thirteenth century, in its archaic and poetic sense of making music and song, the art of the minstrels, a word from the Old French, from the age of those minstrels whose music filled the castles and the air and the poetry of the age of Dante. But more so out of that particularly American tradition like-named since the 1840s. Strange, perhaps, even to call it a tradition, since it flourished for little more than eighty years, the mere span of a fortunate human life. But in a culture whose own age is barely thrice that, American minstrelsy, the longest-lived emanation of that culture, had by its autumn become a tradition indeed.

That tradition, which dominated American music and show business from the middle of the nineteenth century until after the turn of the twentieth, was—simply, bizarrely, inexplicably—a form of stage entertainment in which men blackened their faces, burlesqued the demeanor and behavior of Southern blacks, and performed what were presented as the songs and music of those blacks. At first confined to small performances in Manhattan, minstrelsy shows grew into immense touring troupes that were the most popular mass medium of an age before phonograph recordings, flickering images, and electrical broadcasts removed the element of geography from the commerce of entertainment. And in that later age, some of the earliest stars of those recordings, flickering images, and electrical broadcasts—Al Jolson foremost among them—were born of blackface minstrelsy.

It was a tradition whose documented roots can be dated to the performance of Lewis Hallam, blacked-up as Mungo, in Charles Dibdin's comic opera The Padlock at the John Street Theatre, New York City, on May 29, 1769. Thirty years later, on December 30, 1799, at the Federal Street Theatre, Boston, the German-born Gottlieb Graupner sang "The Gay Negro Boy" in black caricature in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. It was a tradition that was born in the North and died in the South.

The first celebrated blackface singers rose to fame in the late 1820s and early 1830s. George Washington Dixon was said to be known as early as 1827 for his Albany performances of "The Coal Black Rose" and "My Long-Tail Blue," which he brought to the Lafayette Theatre in New York on July 19, 1828. (The "long-tail blue" was the swallowtail jacket emblematic of the wardrobe of urban black dandies—zip coons—of the early nineteenth century. Dixon's "Zip Coon" celebrated such a dandy in 1834, and the engraving on the cover of the sheet music portrayed a zip coon in just such a jacket.) Dixon is believed to have been jailed frequently for slanderous writings and acts of civil disturbance, and it was written of him that he "later became notorious as a filibuster during the Yucatan disturbances, and died in New Orleans in 1861." Thomas Dartmouth (Daddy) Rice (1808–60) was known by 1831 for his song-and-dance routine "Jim Crow."

In the Petersburg, Virginia, Farmer's Register of April 1, 1838, William B. Smith published an account of his experiences at a "beer dance" held by slaves on a neighboring plantation. He described their dancing, recorded bits of their song and speech, and concluded with the observation that "Virginia slaves were the happiest of the human race."

Not quite five years later, on February 6, 1843, the Virginia Minstrels, the first regularly organized blackface group, made their debut at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York. Bills for the show that Monday evening announced "the novel, grotesque, original and surpassingly melodious Ethiopian Band entitled THE VIRGINIA MINSTRELS"; and it was not long before all blackface performers came to be called minstrels.

It was with the Virginia Minstrels and their successors that blackface minstrelsy became the heart of nineteenth-century show business, the first emanation of a pervasive and purely American mass culture; though, like most subsequent emanations of American culture, its vogue soon spread abroad to England.

Collections of minstrelsy date to the publication in 1843 in Boston of The Celebrated Negro Melodies, as Sung by the Virginia Minstrels, arranged by Thomas Comer (1790–1862), a popular Boston music-man who also published in that year his arrangement of "The Tiger Quick Step." The first serious survey of the subject, Allston T. Brown's Early History of Negro Minstrelsy, came in 1874. Brown (1836–1918), who worked as a theatrical agent and journalist in New York from 1860 until his death, was the author of the 1870 History of the American Stage, which he would later expand into the three-volume History of the American Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901. (In the same year that Brown's Early History of American Minstrelsy was published came, from the same publisher, R. M. DeWitt of New York, Charles Day's Fun in Black. It was the house of DeWitt that had published Richard Drake's Revelations of a Slave Smuggler in 1860.)

Following Brown's 1874 work, the chronicling of minstrelsy began anew in earnest in 1909, with Edward Le Roy Rice's little booklet 1000 Men of Minstrelsy; 1 Woman, which preceded his full volume, Monarchs of Minstrelsy, from "Daddy" Rice to Date, published in 1911. Since then, shelves of books have been written about minstrelsy. In recent years, much of an interpretive nature has been written of this first indigenous American theatrical form, and of blackface as its central element. Michael Rogin, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, writes in Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1996): "Seen in blackface and from the South, the United States is at once a Herrenvolk republic, where racial subordination hides class inequality, and a capitalist society permeated by longing for a lost, pre-industrial, feudal home."

Rogin's study is valuable, interesting, and often astute, but the sort of fatuous nonsense here quoted is typical of the pseudo-intellectual parlor games endemic to such interpretative exercises. As noted and as we shall further see, blackface minstrelsy was born not of the South but of the North, and its vision, though embraced by the South, was of the urban Northeast; and as we shall also see, the popularity of blackface minstrelsy, America's first cultural export, was as great in England as at home. To speak with a straight face of minstrelsy in terms of Herrenvolk, the Nazi concept of master-race, or in terms of ancestral feudal memories is to illuminate not so much the subject at hand but rather the essential folly of academic thinking. When the scholar here quoted invokes Jacques Lacan in his analysis of Jolson Sings Again, we enter a realm of fantasy beyond that of minstrelsy itself, an intentio-lectoris sideshow as vapid and as ridiculous in its pretensions as Sartre's misreadings of Faulkner.

The scholar under scrutiny is not alone. I have books here with titles such as Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy (1996), Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World (1997), Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (1998), and A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song (1999), which attempts to reconcile the Jewish takeover of latter-day blackface minstrelsy—through performers such as Al Jolson and coon-song composers such as Irving Berlin—with the problematic but cherished expiatory notion of a common bond between the black and Jewish "experiences." All these books have value, albeit not always equal to their list prices, but in every case that value is undermined by specious theory and academic gibberish. Eric Lott in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993), sees minstrelsy as emblematic of "cross-racial desire," as "less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure." The New York Times captioned its review of Lott's book "Minstrel Tradition: Not Just a Racist Relic," as if to imply that the blackface caricatures of minstrelsy were somehow more racist than the insidious stereotype of today's popular entertainment; as if to imply the playing of blacks by whites to be more demeaning or momentous an absurdity than the playing of Italians by Jews and WASPs, from Little Caesar to The Godfather, and every other manner of ethnic fraud upon which our popular culture has to this day been based.

Yes. Minstrelsy was a form of stage entertainment in which men blackened their faces, burlesqued the demeanor and behavior of Southern blacks, and, above all, performed what were presented as the songs and music of those blacks. But it was not so simple as that. Not all minstrels were white: many of those who blackened their faces in burlesque were black. And while the songs and music of minstrelsy were indeed usually far from black in origin, the impact of those songs and that music was profound upon the inchoate and gestative forms of blues and jazz. As for the grotesquerie of minstrelsy, there were many, both black and white, who found it no more offensive than the comedy built upon any exaggerated ethnic stereotyping. As late as 1922, a debate was carried on in earnest in the pages of the New York Herald as to whether blacks or whites were better at playing blacks: "Your correspondent who signs himself 'Negro' makes a mistake in taking issue with Herbert S. Renton on the comparative merits of white men and negros as blackface performers." And it must be remembered that minstrelsy was born in the anti-slavery climate of the emancipatory North, in the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan city of America.

If minstrelsy is to be understood, it must be seen neither with myopic simplicity, as a "racist relic"—a phrase no less applicable to the Times than to the subject under review—nor as a textbook manifestation of ideology or psychology.

Now that I have ingratiated myself with that arbiter of literary consumerism, let us return to, and dispense with, the question at hand—indeed, with all questions better suited to advertising copy than to a mind freed from the cheap fetters of store-bought, off-the-rack intellect.

Thus: where did minstrelsy come from, and what was it all about? How about: what is the meaning of rock 'n' roll? Hell, it's like the man says: if you've got to ask, you'll never know.

Besides, this is not a book about minstrelsy any more or less than it is a book about rock 'n' roll. Besides, Emmett Miller's was a voice from the death, not the life, of minstrelsy; a voice from Erebus. Besides, this is not really a book about Emmett Miller. It is a book about that Rosetta Stone, a book about that Erebus.

So let us have nothing of the proper thought of fools and mediocrity and misknowing. Let our excavations in the graveyard of data, our journey through the haunted carnival of endless night, be undefiled by thought itself, which, in Miller studies as in life, is the enemy of truth as of the soul.


The leader of the Virginia Minstrels was a twenty-eight-year-old Yankee named Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815–1904), who was said to have first blacked-up at the age of sixteen, in the year of Daddy Rice's "Jim Crow." With him in the Virginia Minstrels were three others: Frank Brower (1823–74); Dick Pelham (1815–76), whose real name was Richard Ward Pell; and Billy Whitlock (1813–78). The group did not last a year; they disbanded following a British tour later in 1843. By then there were the Ethiopian Serenaders, also known as the Boston Minstrels, and the Congo Melodists of British-born James Buckley (1803–72), later known as Buckley's New Orleans Serenaders. In England, where the presence of blacks was all but unknown, the popularity of blackface minstrelsy was immediate and great; and blackface would survive there as a part of popular culture long after it had been suppressed and forsaken in its native America. In a way, England's exposure to American minstrelsy was not without antecedents. Charles Didbin, the author of The Padlock, mentioned above, was a British gentleman whose noble-savage blackamoor songs, popular in the taverns and drawing rooms of late-eighteenth-century England, had portrayed blacks as figures both comical and emblematic of a wistful and pitiable innocence, portrayals not unlike those of early minstrelsy.

Christy's Minstrels, the most famous of the New York shows, were active by May of 1844; and there were the Kentucky Minstrels, and the Ring and Parker Minstrels. In an 1846 article called "True American Singing," Walt Whitman professed a liking for a minstrel group called the Harmoneons: "Indeed, their negro singing altogether proves how shiningly golden talent can be spread over a subject generally considered 'low.'"

Whitman (1819–92) was a devotee of minstrelsy, of what he called "nigger songs." He saw Daddy Rice perform often; wrote of minstrel bands, including the Christy Minstrels, for the Brooklyn Star and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1846–47; considered Stephen Foster's songs to be "our best work so far" in American music. Regard for Foster was shared by Abraham Lincoln (1809–65), who also possessed a fondness for minstrelsy, and by Frederick Douglass (1817–95), who had escaped from slavery in 1838, and who described Foster's songs as expressive of "the finest feelings of human nature."

It should also be noted, however, that Douglass had no such praise for minstrelsy, which he described in 1848 as "sporting over the miseries and misfortunes of an oppressed people." Those so engaged were "contemptible." He named the Virginia Minstrels, the Christy Minstrels, the Ethiopian Serenaders as "the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens."

Stephen Collins Foster (1826–64), a native of Pittsburgh, was the first American to make a living writing songs. What he knew of the South, he learned through minstrel shows—a job as a bookkeeper for his brother in Cincinnati in 1846 had brought him as far south as he had been—and his vision of the South, beginning with his Songs of the Sable Harmonists


On Sale
Aug 21, 2001
Page Count
336 pages

Nick Tosches

About the Author

Nick Tosches (1949-2019) was the author of four previous novels, Me and the DevilIn the Hands of DanteCut Numbers, and Trinities. His nonfiction works include Where Dead Voices GatherThe Devil and Sonny ListonDinoPower on EarthHellfireCountry, and Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll. He lives in New York City.

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