Monday, February 19, 2007

Polk Miller picture courtesy of Richmond, Virginia: Then and Now


The Old South Quartette - Pussy Cat Rag (Broadway 5031, 1928)

Polk Miller and The Old South Quartette - Rise and Shine (Edison + Edison Germany, Standard 10333; 1909)

Polk Miller and The Old South Quartette - Old Time Religion (Edison + Edison Germany, Standard 10332; 1909)

The Old South Quartette - Bohunkus and Josephus (aka Tobias and Keechungus) (Broadway 5031, 1928)


"Who the hell are Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette?" - Robert Christgau

One of the benefits of growing up with a music historian as a father is that I was exposed as a stripling to a wealth of music that would otherwise (until the relatively young age of the Internet) be utterly out of reach. I listened to many songs for many years at a tender age that, secreted away by scarcity and lack of public interest, I have never yet heard again since I moved out of the family home. It is with great excitement that I discovered, perhaps some twenty years after my last listening, Ken Flaherty's reissue of the complete works of Polk Miller and The Old South Quartette, 'Music of The Old South'. The disc is a remarkable time capsule of fine Southern gospel, ragtime and proto-blues from the birth of recording, but it is the story of Polk Miller, how these songs came to be recorded and the history of The Old South Quartette that compels me to post this music today.

Polk Miller was born on a Virginia plantation in 1844 to a wealthy, slave-owning family. As a child, he learned to play the banjo from slaves and immediately began amassing a collection of black vernacular music to add to his playing repertoire. Polk was something of a prodigy whose skill at mimicry and performance was noteworthy even at a young age; an pre-Civil War diary account from adjoining Augusta County (found at the Virginia Valley Digital Archives) holds a sixteen year Miller up as an exemplar, stating that another white imitator's "beaming face and banjo music and 'darkey' songs could not be excelled by Polk Miller himself." Miller's willingness to embrace certain readily available elements of black American culture apparently set him apart from other, less artful imitators of the time; his ability to vocally and musically blend into a black band is evident in the extant recordings.

Miller joined the Confederate Army during wartime and served as an artillery private. After the war, he founded a pharmacy in Richmond and went on to create a successful company devoted to nostrums and remedies for domestic animals which he named Sergeant, after his hunting dog, Sergeant (Sergeant's continues on today as a popular pet food and medicine corporation, though they're understandably cagey about Miller's Confederate background). Late in his middle age, Polk was a respected Southern gentleman and a prominent businessman, but a restless interest in entertaining would not quit him. In 1892, Polk handed off control of his business to his son and took to the road to began performing full time, exhibiting an act comprised of banjo picking, singing and the revisionist rose-colored retelling of an Antebellum Eden.

The liner notes to Flaherty's reissue CD tell the story of these stage exploits and Miller's intentions better than I can; hereafter follows an edited excerpt:
During the 1890's Miller performed alone, appearing at reunions, business conventions, literary association meetings... He often gave benefits for Confederate benevolent organizations and monument committees. Miller recreated the black slave characters of his nostalgic youth with banjo tunes, dialect stories and lecture, without resorting to farce or blackface make-up... (his) stage presentation was too sincere for minstrelsy and too rich in music to be considered a lecture. (Miller was) quoted in the Greensboro, Georgia Herald-Journal: "If there was anything that my mother used to whip me for when I was a boy, it was for talking like a nigger and I haven't quit talking like him yet."

Miller saw himself as an apologist for slavery. In his lecture he avowed: "It has been my aim to vindicate the slave-holding class against the charge of cruelty and inhumanity to the Negro of the old time". Miller was quoted... in a detailed review that appeared in The Atlanta Constitution: "There is no more comparison between the 'Sarvant Marster,' [sic] ever gentle, ever faithful, ever true, contented and happy old Virginia plantation Negro and the impudent, loud-mouthed, discontented, head educated and heart neglected young Negro of today than there is between the high-toned, honorable refined gentleman and public citizen Chauncey M Depew and the brazen-faced coarse blackguard and public nuisance, John L. Sullivan..."

When Miller made his pronouncements, neither his language or his philosophy was outside of the mainstream. Racial stereotyping and racist slang were commonly used in mainstream American newspapers and magazines. While Miller was touring the southern states, delivering this deprecating, dehumanizing message, the lynching of blacks in the South reached epidemic proportions; a lynching was taking place roughly every second day."
Apparently, Miller's drive for what he likely saw as authenticity forced him to recognize that a solo act could only replicate a limited amount of the black vernacular musical catalogue. Somewhere between 1899 and 1903, Miller took the surprising step of hiring a black vocal quartet to perform onstage with him; creating what may have been the first integrated touring production of the 1900's dedicated to the performance of black music. The addition of the singers, dubbed by Miller as 'The Old South Quartette', was well received critically; again, from the reissue's notes:
A review in the Bristol, Tennessee Courier offered...favorable assessment: "They look like field hands and sing like Carusos. Their music is like nothing else on the platform, for they sing the old songs as the old time Negro sang before the War and not like Negroes trying to demonstrate how much like white folks Negroes can sing".

Extant documentation provides depressingly little information about the members of Polk Miller's quartet or insight into Miller's treatment of them. Miller claimed to have employed, "about twenty men in all, I reckon, since I first began to use a Negro quartette... I never discharged one of them for a fault, but they had to give up for other reasons," such as illness and "throat trouble." "It was always troublesome to break in new men, but if a Negro had any music in him - and the most of them have - it didn't take them long to catch on."
In 1909, Miller and The O.S.Q. recorded seven 'sides' (though cylinders don't technically have sides) for Edison Records. Miller appears to have been something more of a special guest on these cuts than a leader; he sings on only four tracks and is clearly willing to allow the quartet the bulk of the attention. These cylinders apparently sold quite well but are most noteworthy as historic milestones; as the CD reissue's liners point out, "few if any biracial vocal recordings of comparable American vernacular music were heard again until the rock and roll era."

Racist times would call to an end for this sort of lop-sided camaraderie. In 1912, Miller disbanded the O.S.Q., citing audience resistance and harassment in a Richmond Journal newspaper article:
There is a deep seated, cruel and foolish prejudice in the North... a thing which I have never been able to account for (since they brought troubles upon both the whites and blacks in the South), against the Negro as a race of people. Perhaps the "bad nigger" that left here for the good of his country and went North is responsible for it all, but they visit upon the entire Negro race the hatred which we have only for the bad ones. Some of the Northern towns which wanted me would write, "We are exceedingly anxious to have you, but our people don't want The Quartette, as our people do not like Negroes..."

There is a certain class of whites in the South, whose ancestors never owned Negroes and who never enjoyed as I did the kind ministrations of the old Negro mammies and Uncle Toms of Antebellum days. This class of people made it very uncomfortable for my Negroes. My solicitude for the comfort of my men, and many times for the safety of them in going from the halls to their quarters, worried me very much and unfitted me for my work... this fact, with the inborn dislike of the Negro on the part of the hoodlum element, intensified my troubles when on the road and in some places I had to call on the Police force to guard my men.
For the following year, Miller continued to perform his act with another accompanist: a white Confederate veteran named Tom Booker. Booker was a banjo player and friend of Miller's; together they toured for a short while with a similar program to the one Polk performed with The Old South Quartette under the name 'Two Old Confederates'. Polk Miller died in 1913 and was buried at Hollywood Cemetery.

No written record of what became of The Old South Quartette has been discovered, but in 1928, a band of the same name reappeared in a studio in Long Island to record seven more sides on the QRS label. While neither the names of the "twenty men" who comprised the original Quartette nor the '28 incarnation are known, pictures of both groups and the unmistakable similarity of sound suggest that, even though almost two decades had passed since their last recording session, some of the same members and/or management connect the two groups. No documentation remains to suggest that the group toured. They would never record under The Old South Quartette name again.

Ultimately, what are we to make of Polk Miller? He attempted to popularize and legitimize black vernacular music decades before it was acceptable to do so, but he also openly longed for the days of slavery. To the best of his ability, Polk tried to bring black culture before white audiences as honestly as he could, but all of his efforts are badly marred in the contemporary eye by dint of his unmistakable paternalistic racism. Miller toured with a black band at a time when associating with blacks as contemporaries was potentially punishable by beating or hanging, but he seems to have viewed them (at least in public) as interchangeable inferiors. Miller is a difficult man to understand by today's standards and his legacy is not simply summed up. I can only suggest you listen to the songs I have posted today and try to enjoy the music without prejudice. It is a sentiment that both Polk Miller and the regrettably anonymous members of the Old South Quartette would undoubtedly have hoped for.

The gentleman above is a member of the 1928 iteration of The Old South Quartette.
His name is unknown.
Photo courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University Library Digital Collection

about the music on the page...

Two of the songs from today's post hail from the 1909 recordings: 'Rise and Shine' and 'The Old Time Religion'. Miller sings lead on both tracks; 'Rise' also features his excellent banjo accompaniment. 'Rise and Shine' is performed here as a bouncy, upbeat spiritual; 'Old Time Religion' is sung entirely a capella and is a more nuanced and deeply moving take on the gospel classic.

The two tracks taken from the 1928 Old South Quartette recordings are joyous musical novelties. 'Bohunkus and Josephus', set to the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne', is a silly anecdote told in call and response that neatly showcases the band's considerable skill at choral harmony.

Of the four of these, 'Pussy Cat Rag' is the one that still speaks to me most, both now and back when I first heard it as a child. The Quartette's minimal guitar accompaniment buoys up their astonishing vocal theatrics; also note the song's almost imperceptible but rousing tempo increase. 'Pussy Cat Rag' is a meowing, barking train with a now-and-forever place in my favorite songs of all time.

Cover of a tobacco tin, circa early 1900's
Picture courtesy of Banjo On My Knee, an excellent resource for all things banjo

a brief aside before we hit the linkage

The liner notes I've extensively quoted from above come from the pen of my father, ethnomusicologist and occasional Tofu Hut contributor Doug Seroff. Pops and his writing partner Lynn Abbott have just published their second book on the history of black American music, Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, 'Coon Songs,' and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. The volume boasts a gorgeous cover, designed by fellow ragtime-geek Chris Ware.

I was lucky enough to see galleys of 'Ragged' and found it to be a compelling and fascinating read. The bulk of the research for this book comes from literally years of poring over microfiche prints of turn-of-the-century black newspapers such as The Indianapolis Freeman and The Chicago Defender. It's work that has simply not been done before and it yields a bountiful trove of untold stories about the history of (to quote the introduction) "musical comedy productions, band and minstrel companies in the circus sideshow annex and itinerant tented minstrel shows" at the birth of the twentieth century. Over the course of 350+ pages, 'Ragged' painstakingly details how a generation of forgotten black artists set the stage for the birth of modern American music. The work is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of exceedingly rare illustrations and photos, most of them out of print or unpublished until now.

'Ragged But Right' is available on Amazon at the prohibitive academic price of 75 bucks, but I would strongly recommend it as a necessary read and an unprecedented exploration of overlooked musical history to librarians, anyone with deep pockets and a love for a moving story and any folks who make their living in music industry or criticism; I guarantee that you will come away with a completely new understanding on the role and meaning of minstrelsy.

tell me more about it...

Buy the wonderful new Polk Miller and The Old Southern Quartette collection, direct from Ken Flaherty.

A Lucullan feast for the eyes and the ears, the disc comes sumptuously packaged in a 78 shaped (die cut with spindle hole!), heavy-stock paper, twenty-five page booklet peppered liberally with pictures and documents culled from Miller's own scrapbooks, analysis of the music and a lengthy, heavily annotated essay about Miller and The O.S.Q., finished with a lovely parchment belly band.

The disc itself includes the band's complete recorded output (both with Miller and from the 1928 session) in amazingly crisp and clean transfers; no small feat when you bear in mind that high quality copies of these recordings are at a premium. As if that weren't enough, Flaherty has also overseen the digital remastering of the entirety of the '09 sessions and added these seven cleaned-up tracks as a bonus on the tail end of the album. The clarity of these remasters is a wonder; unburdened by surface noise and hiss, you can really appreciate the artistry of the performances. For comparison's sake, compare the remastered version of 'Rise and Shine' that I have posted above with an unremastered version of the same song. I think you'll agree that the improvement is impressive.

At the moment, the disc and its accompanying book are available ONLY directly through Ken. A burp on Google's part ("polk miller" doesn't lead to "polkmiller") makes it difficult to find the reissue through the common search methods; if you find yourself enjoying this music, help bring some attention to this labor of love by lighting the off ramp to his door and driving some web traffic his way with a link or two.
Itunes, eMusic and Amazon have little or nothing to offer from Polk Miller, but if you happen to have a gramophone around the house you may want to bid on this original Edison Cylinder of 'Laughing Song'.

Ebay also lists a 1929 edition of Polk Miller's Dog Care book, with a cover comprised of this fantastic portrait of Polk with his loyal pooch.
Edison cylinders, for all their scratchy sound and anachronistic content, do have one very good thing in their favor: they're all in the public domain. That means that, obscure as Polk and The O.S.Q are, most of the band's recorded music is thankfully available via Internet archives.

You can listen to and download mp3s of five of Polk Miller and The O.S.Q's songs thanks to The Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at The University of CA, Santa Barbara .

Some of this music deserves a bit of commentary and linkage:
The Document Records reissue of Polk Miller and The O.S.Q's collected works is out-of-print in America but the label's UK site offers a pair of Old Southern Quartette tracks for download: 'Oh What He's Done For Me' and a musical take on the the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem 'When De Corn Pone's Hot'.
Here's a contemporary take on Miller: Jerusalem Mournin', all Moby'd out.
Download a .pdf of a beautifully preserved program from Polk Miller's touring show, one of the many historical documents reproduced in its entirety in the Flaherty reissue.
Read a brief, informative essay on Polk Miller and The O.S.Q. from Victrola and 78 Journal by music journalist Jas Obrecht.
Read a lengthy example of Polk's somewhat vile pre-Emancipation nostalgia, quoted within a lengthy and didactic 1899 memorial for a Richmond doctor.
Historian Tim Brooks' book Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919 features a full chapter devoted to Polk Miller and his accompanying, Grammy-winning two CD-set includes a Miller/O.S.Q track.
The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company Myspace offers 19th century wonders on 21st century stationery.
A Tofu Tip of th' Hat to Locust Street and an especially deep bow to Tinfoil, who helped with the remaster of the original cylinders for Ken Flaherty's project.

Tinfoil is a must to explore for anyone with an ear for the sepia tone; in addition to a considerable archive of free music and loads of information, essays and vintage illustrations, they also sell reasonably priced 24-track year-by-year cylinder CD compiliations.

sorry to have been away last week
Doing research and writing this post ended up requiring a lot more thought and time than I originally budgeted. I should be back on my self-enforced "at-least-once-a-week" schedule from here on in.

Given the sweat I put in on this sucker, any comment on it would be greatly appreciated.

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