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Polk Miller - Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette

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Artist: Polk Miller

Album: Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette

Label: Tompkins Square

Review date: Oct. 30, 2008

Polk Miller was born in 1844 to Virginia slave owners. He learned the language and the banjo from the dark-skinned folk in his parents’ possession. Yet, it wasn’t until around 1892, after Miller had handed over his family’s pharmacy and slave business, that he decided to take those old stories and songs to the stage. While he didn’t blacken up in mimicry, he did imitate the slaves he spent so much time with as a boy. His act was educational, entertaining … and nostalgic. See, Miller was a slavery apologist, and was convinced African Americans were better off owned by whites. Not exactly a dissenting opinion in the 19th century.

Miller hired a black male vocal quartet from Richmond, Va., to travel with him in an effort to showcase authentic Negro musicians performing plantation tunes, spirituals and a number of embarrassing coon songs, such as "Watermelon on the Vine" or "Mississippi Sawyer, (which you can still hear fiddled today at any number of summer festivals). Now, this black-and-white tour actually was controversial, so Miller occasionally hired police protection for The Old South Quartette, as they were called. That didn’t protect them from many a slanderous review, but Miller was widely praised for his replication of black song.

The question today is, how comfortable should we feel embracing antiquated recordings of a long dead southern racist? While it’s natural to squirm upon hearing Miller and his Quartette’s rendition of the confederate national anthem, "The Bonny Blue Flag,” it’s worth the jitters, at least from a historical viewpoint. This is simply one of the first examples of a white artist drawing heavily from African-American culture, which remains today both marginalized by white society and looked to for some sort of authentic root salvation.

But the relationship between North American folk and pop music is much more symbiotic than whites simply snagging rhythm and blues from blacks. And even Miller’s songs, recorded almost a century ago, shows this is so.

Miller’s lead vocals are often stiff, and the Quartette’s lyrics are rife with the N-bomb and other pejorative references to watermelon and corn pone, but what they do as singers is highly advanced for its time. The performances from the ’28 reveal the Quartette dealing in syncopation and a loose call-and-response, yet to find its way into the recordings of other black vocal quartets of the time. Elsewhere, Miller’s lead vocal on "Old Time Religion" demonstrates a mastery of the field holler, something most folks simply can’t do regardless of skin color. If there are problems with the whole package, it’s that moments like these are likely to get lost in all the historical significance and the fact that, unlike so many of the great ’20s and ’30s reissues of hardcore folk music, many of the songs – not the recordings –simply sound damned old.

(Note: This material first got the reissue treatment two years ago, when a Detroit-based DuPont engineer named Ken Flaherty, a rabid collector of early sound recordings, released it privately. The Flaherty disc came as a 9"x9" book, featuring the same liner notes by Doug Seroff (originally printed in a 1988 edition of "78 Quarterly"), as well as seven remastered versions of the 1909 cylinders.)

By Bruce Miller

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