From Blackface to Balls of Fire

A biography of forgotten entertainer Emmett Miller is really a deep exploration of pop culture.

Nick Tosches has spent more than two decades chasing the ghost of Emmett Miller, an all but forgotten entertainer who flourished briefly in the first half of the last century. Miller's legacy is dicey. Perhaps his best known musical composition was the Nashville standby "Anytime," which was a big hit for crooner Eddy Arnold, among others.

But Tosches argues that Miller's mark is immeasurable if only for the influence it appears he had on country-Western pioneers Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams. If Tosches' estimation is accurate, if Miller foreshadowed those two giants half as much as Tosches suspects he did, then Miller was truly one of the founding fathers of country music.

But that is only a small part of this story.

Miller scratched out a living in a time when the lines between hillbilly, pop and jazz music were far more blurred than they are today. His music contained elements of all of those and more. But the work that brought him his biggest slice of fame and paid most of his bills was his yodeling performances in blackface on the minstrel-show circuit.

Thankfully, Tosches spends no time wringing his hands over this revelation, nor does he apologize on behalf of Miller. He reminds us early on that this devalued chunk of American entertainment had its roots not south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but instead in the Yankee stronghold of New England, where well-heeled, liberal patrons of the arts waited in line for a chance to chuckle at blackface yokels. Equally important is the admonition that as many--if not more--black entertainers made a living "blacked-up" in those days as did white.

It might sting our sensibilities now, but little has changed, he argues. From Al Jolson to Spike Lee, from "Bojangles" Robinson to Ice-T, Tosches reminds us that many entertainers have gotten rich from playing the race card.

"The demise of blackface minstrelsy coincided with the growth of a more pernicious phenomenon," writes Tosches. "[White] aristocracy's patronizing vogue for negritude bloomed into a new and different minstrelsy in which 'real' blacks became the 'picks' of high society. ... From delight in the caricature of the happy darky of bygone days to the delight in the caricature of the suffering Negro--which is more perverse?"

But this book is no headachy examination of race. Readers might begin this book thinking they are following Tosches through the tale of Miller, but at times the singer falls off the page entirely to make room for Mick Jagger, Bessie Smith, Gene Krupa, William Faulkner, Cab Calloway, Virgil, Plato, Lightin' Hopkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Seamlessly Tosches pulls it altogether to create a quilt of American culture.

Almost. It doesn't always work. Anyone familiar with Tosches' books already knows what a chest-thumping blowhard he can be. He sends readers tripping over far too many ancient Latin phrases without concern for their safety and he employs words such as "eschatological" and "metallurgy" with a straight face. (He once wrote an essay titled "Why I Am Great" with an even straighter face.)

But when he is at his best--as in his biographies Dino and The Devil and Sonny Liston--Tosches brings a dark understanding to unfamiliar people and places. The Newark, N.J. native seems right at home as he probes into the lives of people who would have little to do with the rest of us.

Where Dead Voices Gather is a different kind of biography. It's more of a love letter. It is Tosches tying together a century's worth of music and paying tribute to someone who has haunted him for decades. Although most of us will probably not share his fascination, Tosches convinces us that that is our loss.