Music of the Old South

POLK006.jpgTitle: Music of the Old South
Artists: Polk Miller & the Old South Quartette
Label: Flaherty Recordings
Cat. No.: F-2006-1
Date: Dec. 2006

In the June 2007 issue of Black Grooves we provided an overview of Lost Sounds: Black and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1918, the companion CD to the book of the same title by Tim Brooks. Anyone interested in the early recorded history of African American performers will also want to check out Music of the Old South, the story of Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette, privately issued by Ken Flaherty, Jr. Polk Miller is prominently featured in Lost Sounds (chapter 15) and between Brooks’ account and that of noted ethnomusicologist Doug Seroff, who provided the liner notes for Music of the Old South, a complete and utterly fascinating story emerges.

Born in Virginia in August of 1844, Polk Miller was a white southerner. While growing up he was exposed to various elements of African American culture and developed a keen interest in the music emanating from the slave cabins on his father’s large plantation. He learned to play the fiddle and banjo by imitating black musicians, while also absorbing the local slave songs, stories, and dialect. After serving in the Confederate Army and operating a successful pharmacy business, he decided to devote his remaining years to performing. Miller’s shows, advertised variously as “Old Times in the South” and “The Old Virginia Plantation Negro,” featured banjo tunes, dialect stories and lectures presented in a fairly serious manner devoid of the blackface and comedic ridicule common to minstrel shows. He became a major hit with white audiences in both the North and the South, and was lauded by none other than Mark Twain. After touring as a solo act during the 1890s, he decided the show would benefit from the addition of “authentic negro singers.” Miller thus formed The Old South Quartette, comprised of various Virginia fieldhands selected through auditions.

In 1909 a series of seven wax cylinders were recorded for the Edison company featuring Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette, with Miller also providing banjo and guitar accompaniment. The greatest curiosity amongst these recordings is certainly “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” otherwise known as the confederate national anthem, rendered here with a black vocal quartet chiming in on the chorus. Also included are: a “Laughing Song;” the spirituals “Jerusalem Mournin’ [sic] (otherwise known as “I’ll Be Ready When de Great Day Comes”],” “Rise and Shine” (sung by Miller), and “What a Time” (the earliest recorded version of this popular work which features a call and response chorus); “The Watermelon Party” (a “coon song” apparently written by the quartette’s tenor, James L. Stamper); and “Old Time Religion.” According to Brooks, “[these] recordings were extraordinary on many levels. Polk Miller was sixty-five years old at the time and one of the few Civil War veterans ever to record commercially. He was probably the only person from the Civil War era who had first-hand knowledge of black music of that era and committed it to record. And, he sang with a black quartet at a time when integrated sessions were highly unusual.”

In 1911 Polk Miller stopped performing; he died two years later. The Old South Quartette apparently disbanded; however a group by that name made several recordings for the QRS label in 1928 and it is generally believed to have included at least one or two members from Miller’s quartette (he had used as many as 20 different musicians over the years). Music of the Old South includes these recordings as well. Of particular interest are the following tracks: “Oh What He’s Done for Me” (a jubilee song with banjo acc.); “No Hiding Place Down Here” (with call and response chorus); “Tobias and Keechungus” (a mock religious service, similar to later recordings titled “Bohunkus and Josephus”); “Pussy Cat Rag” (a novelty song first recorded in 1914); and “When de Corn Pone’s Hot,” based on the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem and possibly the only recording of the song.

While on the one hand Miller promoted black music, enjoyed performing with black musicians, and was generally both respectful and protective of “his negros,” his shows were simultaneously promoting the “good old days” of the Old South and the “ever faithful, ever true, contented and happy old Virginia plantation negro.” As summed up in the intro, “the story of Polk Miller and the men of the Old South Quartette is a quintessential example of the American experience;” i.e., complex and not easily compartmentalized. Of course this is a very brief summary of the Polk Miller story. I would highly recommend Music of the Old South to anyone who teaches African American history, U.S./Southern history, roots music, ethnomusicology or folklore. The plethora of issues raised by Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette would no doubt make for some provocative class discussions.

This is Ken Flaherty’s first CD release (in his day job he’s an engineer for DuPont Engineering Polymers in Detroit), but he has been collecting and researching early sound recordings for over 20 years. According to Flaherty, “I learned of these recordings over 15 years ago and was just amazed that they even existed. There have been sporadic publications regarding Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette over the years. In addition, the Edison cylinders were reissued but with very poor sound quality. My objective was to update the documented history of Polk Miller with high quality transfers of the Edison cylinders and QRS/Broadway 78s in one readable package.”

Flaherty’s devotion to the subject is evident throughout. The extremely handsome and exceptionally well-illustrated 25 p. booklet reproduces many images from the Polk Miller scrapbooks (now at the Valentine Historical Museum in Richmond, VA). The liner notes consist of an article by Doug Seroff, “The Enigma of Polk Miller,” originally published in 78 Quarterly. The booklet alone is a captivating read, and I spent a couple of hours just devouring the content before popping the CD in for a listen. Though the packaging may create some shelving difficulties for libraries (the CD is affixed to the back cover of a 9” x 9” softcover booklet), I certainly can’t fault Flaherty’s decision to ditch the standard jewel case and impossibly small text fonts commonly used for liner notes these days.

If you wish to learn more about Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette, visit Flaherty’s website. Seroff’s son, Paul, also has a terrific and extremely detailed article on his blog, Tofuhut, with additional information about the recordings. You can listen to samples of Polk Miller cylinders on the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project website at the University of California, Santa Barbara Library.

Finally, for all of you dog lovers, I can’t resist adding a fascinating bit of trivia. In his spare time, Polk Miller wrote a popular treatise on dog ailments and his Polk Miller Drug Company marketed various canine medicines under the Sargeant’s brand (named after Miller’s pet dog), which in 1965 pioneered the flea collar. Who knew . . . .

And last but not least, Doug Seroff has just co-authored a new book with Lynn Abbott, Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz, available from the University of Mississippi Press. I definitely need to get my hands on a copy a.s.a.p.

Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss