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reading tiger

no arithmetic at this time

I picked up Nick Tosches' Where Dead Voices Gather as part of a woolgathering research jaunt I am on for my next project, but I am not sure that I am going to be able to read it all the way through. I'm kind of hoping that the first chapter is just throat-clearing and it will get better, but. Where Dead Voices Gather is about Emmett Miller, and also about Tosches' pursuit of the details of Emmett Miller's biography. Miller was one of the last blackface minstrel singers; he had an odd, high, nasal, yodely voice (you can hear it here, and see some stills of Miller in blackface too), and he was apparently enormously influential on a wide range of white performers, especially but not exclusively early country and western -- and jazz; Miller's 1920s recording backup band The Georgia Crackers included Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey.

Tosches rightly points out that blackface minstrelry was born and popularized in the North, not the South as we tend to lazily (and all too conveniently) assume, but he also more or less rejects the notion that blackface was any worse than any other form of ethnic caricature. In a similar vein, he makes a lot out of the fact that black performers participated in blackface, too, and that's OK because they got paid and they didn't stay in persona when offstage.

And as he makes his case, he does not neglect to sneer at academics as being all up their own ass, too. All academics, because they're academics. And most other pop commentators on minstrelry, too, because they follow the academics. Only Tosches is going to give you the real lowdown, you know.

And all this before I get to the end of the first chapter. I'm trying to hang in, really. I'm giving it the old college try. (Academics, he sniffs.)

Comments

Well, that sounds like an opportunity missed. It's really sad how people exonerate terrible things because somebody that they admire is somehow involved in them.

There is something interesting about black people in blackface, but it isn't that it excuses the dynamics around blackface. A look at Bert Williams' life & career is pretty damning, even though he personally did pretty well with it. There's so much that's terrible in that history.

I found Bert Williams when I was researching the song "Nobody's Business," which is one of those black-and-white songs with convoluted history and lots of interesting revelations tucked in.

There is a disturbing photo of a young Lenny Henry appearing in "The black and white minstrel show" in the late 70's. He has commented that he was so naive at the time he didn't realise he was being exploited.