Nick Tosches' Explorations Of The Roots Of Today's Music Turn Up Some Strange Characters.
By Russ Tarby
"The masses, recoiling from the mainstream's inundation by rap, have turned to contemporary country as the whitebread alternative, raising it to its greatest popularity. In their international success, Garth Brooks and Michael Jackson have become the Janus paradigm of a sense of authenticity and soulfulness that only a false and soulless age could embrace as its own. Choose your phony accent, your affectation, the Stetson of country or the hoodie of rap. I like the old stuff."
TWENTY YEARS AGO, New Jersey-bred musicologist Nick Tosches wrote his first book, and it was a doozy! Called Country, the 13 chapters--with titles such as "Stained Panties and Coarse Metaphors"--reveled in the dark origins of American music. Da Capo Press recently published an updated edition of Tosches' Country and replaced the old, misleading subtitle--"The Biggest Music in America"--with the more accurate description "The Twisted Roots of Rock And Roll."
When it first appeared in 1977, critics applauded Tosches' entertaining blend of wit and research, fact and fantasy. High Fidelity magazine praised his "tales of drug abuse, murder, racism and brawling...(With) the numbing fumes of alcohol rising from every page, Country reads like a great detective novel."
A shameless shamus, Tosches tirelessly seeks evidence supporting his theme, that--like its people--American music stands as a marvel of mongrelization. In his chapter titled "Cowboys and Niggers," he shows how country guitarists learned blues from blacks, and slide guitar techniques from Hawaiians. Those poly-cultural influences led to the development of the dobro--one of the dominant bluegrass instruments--and of the pedal steel guitar--a trademark sound in country music.
In his "Loud Covenants" chapter, Tosches tries to nail down elusive derivations of the words jazz, juke, honky-tonk and Rock And Roll. Most people think rock and roll started in the mid-'50s, but he cites dozens of blues songs recorded in the 1920s which utilized the R-words as verb forms. And, he points out, the Boswell Sisters performed a song titled "Rock and Roll" in the 1934 movie Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, two full decades before Elvis Presley stumbled into Sun Studios.
Tosches also traces the genesis of songs such as "Black Jack Davy" (the quintessential outlaw ballad) and "Deck of Cards" (Wink Martindale's 1959 recitation hit). "Davy" goes way back to a 16th-century street song called "The Gypsy Laddie," while Tosches traced "Deck" to a 19th-century British folktale called "The Soldier's Bible."
While Country's research allows readers to listen to American music with a new appreciation, its anecdotal content simply amazes. Among the revelations: In 1936, using the name the Bang Boys, strait-laced Grand Ole Opry icon Roy Acuff recorded two smut songs, "When Lulu's Gone" and "Doin' It the Old-Fashioned Way." There's no room for pedestals in Tosches' Country.
Cooley had been the first western swing star to make the transition from radio to television, but he never could adapt to family life. Tosches recounts the bandleader's downfall in a chapter called "You're Going to Watch Me Kill Her," the words he spoke to his 14-year-old daughter as he pummeled his darlin' Ella Mae to death in July 1961 while he was high on booze and bennies. Cooley's theme song was "Shame, Shame on You," but Tosches finds even greater irony in one of Spade's final recordings of the '50s featuring vocalist Betsy Gay on a tune titled "You Clobbered Me."
Tosches' true triumph comes in the appendix of the new edition, however, when he unearths the story of Emmett Miller, the yodeling minstrel man who originally popularized the song "Lovesick Blues." In the 1977 edition of Country, Miller remained a mystery, although his "striking and bizarre" recordings from the 1920s and '30s fascinated Tosches and other record collectors.
In the new essay, having revealed the long-hidden facts of the vaudevillian's career, the author writes, "The very concept of (Miller)--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 culture."
If your bookstore hasn't stocked Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock And Roll ($13.95/softcover), they can contact Da Capo Press, care of Plenum Publishing, 233 Spring St., New York City 10013.
And to hear the freakish vocals of Emmett Miller, check out the 1996 CD, Emmett Miller: The Minstrel Man from Georgia (Columbia/Legacy). It was produced by Columbia's Roots 'n' Blues Series honcho Larry Cohn, the same cat who made Delta bluesman Robert Johnson a household name with his landmark reissue of The Complete Recordings in 1990.
The 20-track Emmett Miller disc, complete with several blackface comedy routines, features a combo of pre-prime musical giants including the Dorsey Brothers, drummer Gene Krupa, trombonist Jack Teagarden and guitarist Eddie Lang. But Miller's otherworldly vocals, harkening back to the burnt-cork bluster of the 19th century, are what make Miller's music defy time and trends.
This article originally appeared in the Syracuse New Times.
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