Polk Miller's Old South Quartette
- by Jas Obrecht
NOTE: Below is a copyrighted article from Victrola and 78 Journal. It may be duplicated only with the author's permission.
By 1910, an abundance of black performers had been recorded in Cuba, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. Pete Hampton, who recorded in Germany and England, could well have been the most prolific African American recording artist before Bessie Smith. On the U.S. mainland, though, sessions featuring African Americans were still rare and integrated sessions far rarer. With their 1910 Edison Amberol and Standard cylinders, Polk Miller's Old South Quartette provided a very notable exception.
A white man, Polk Miller was from Prince Edward County, Virginia. "I was raised on a plantation where ~niggers~ were thicker than hops," Polk wrote in an undated newspaper sketch found among his papers, "and it was there that I learned to 'pick upon de ole banjo'." During the Civil War he served as a Confederate artillery man and hospital steward. According to a biographical sketch written by his son Withers Miller for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Polk himself furled the Confederate banner at Appomattox. Afterwards Miller farmed for a while, and then ran a successful drug store and animal remedies company in Richmond. After a hard day's work, Polk enjoyed entertaining family and friends with his banjo and voice. His son Withers recalled: "He was thoroughly fond of music, having a good voice, his singing being one of his many accomplishments. In story telling he had few equals, if any, and no superiors. In interpreting the Negro dialect he excelled, and it was through this channel that he achieved his greatest fame."
In an undated newspaper clipping found among his scrapbooks, Polk Miller explained his reasons for launching his performing career in 1892: "On coming to Richmond in 1860, and entering upon the career of druggist, I was soon so mixed up in 'physics' that I didn't have time to keep up with my music. Indeed, I wouldn't tell anybody that I even 'knowed how' to play the banjo, because it was looked upon as a 'nigger insterment,' and beneath the notice of the 'cultivated.' For years I longed for the time when it would 'come in fashion' and I could play on my favorite musical instrument without disgracing myself in the eyes of my city friends. . . . I do play the 'nigger banjer,' and now and then as I pass along the road. . . I delight in getting behind a Negro cabin and singing a plantation melody 'jes' to see 'em come a crallin' out to see who is dat out dar a-playin' on dat banjer.'" A year later Miller gave up pill peddling for life as a musician and "darkey dialectician."
Mark Twain, for one, was convinced Miller made the right choice. An October 15, 1894, article in the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette recounted Twain's introduction of Polk at Madison Square Garden. "Mr. Miller is thoroughly competent to entertain you with his sketches of the old-time Negro," Twain reportedly said, "and I not only commend him to your intelligent notice but personally endorse him." Twain particularly admired Polk's storytelling abilities. The stentorian-voiced Miller embarked on extensive tours of the South and swings through Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Texas. He was particularly fond of playing Confederate reunions and monument fund-raisers.
Although he did not perform in blackface, Polk sometimes billed himself as "The Old Virginia Plantation Negro" and performed Negro spirituals and pop and folk tunes such as "Run, Nigger, Run," "Gwine Back To Dixie," and "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny." His old-time pluck-and-strum banjo style was so good, reported Joel Chandler Harris in the Atlanta Constitution, "when Polk Miller plays, you may look for a live nigger to jump out of his banjo"--high praise indeed from the creator of Uncle Remus.
Despite the racist overtones of his press coverage, which were typical for the era, Miller was daring enough to go on tour with four African Americans, the Old South Quartette, beginning around 1900. In a Richmond Journal article dated January 3, 1912, Miller explained that the four, whom he referred to as his "boys" or "employees," had been "singing on the street corners and in the barrooms of this city at night to motley crowds of hoodlums and barroom loafers and handing around the hat . . . . I could get a dozen quartettes from the good singing material among the Negroes in the tobacco factories here." The clipping indicates that Polk and his quartet played colleges and military schools, as well as the "most exclusive social clubs" in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. Their two-hour show featured dialect stories and recitations, coon songs, and displays of Polk's prowess on fiddle and banjo. When a visiting European prince missed the ensemble's performance at Carnegie Hall, Mark Twain lamented that he'd "missed about the only thing the country can furnish that is originally and utterly American." Polk's personal clippings also indicate that the Old South Quartette performed at African American churches.
Eventually Miller and his quartet were joined by storyteller Col. Tom Booker in the program Two Old Confederates In Old Times Down South. The show aimed at pure nostalgia, as seen in a 1910 brochure emphasizing that the Old South Quartette were "genuine" Negroes: "Their singing is not the kind that has been heard by the students from 'colored universities,' who dress in pigeon-tailed coats, patent leather shoes, white shirt fronds, and who are advertised to sing plantation melodies but do not. They do not try to let you see how nearly a Negro can act the white man while parading in a dark skin, but they dress, act, and sing like the real Southern darkey in his 'workin'' clothes. As to their voices, they are the sweet, though uncultivated, result of nature, producing a harmony unequaled by the professionals, and because it is natural, goes straight to the hearts of the people. To the old Southerner, it will be 'Sounds from the old home of long ago'. . . . To hear them is to live again your boyhood days down on the farm."
Polk Miller's Old South Quartette produced four Edison Amberol cylinders and three Standard cylinders at their November 1909 session. For his first recording, Polk plucked and strummed banjo and sang lead on a rousing version of "The Bonnie Blue Flag," a Confederate rallying song. James L. Stamper's quavering, powerful bass led the quartet's well-rehearsed choruses. The January 1910 issue of the trade publication Edison Phonograph Monthly advertised the Amberol wax release, no. 389, as "one of the most popular war songs of the South, surpassing in popularity even the world-famous 'Dixie' in the days from '61 to '65. It was sung by Polk Miller around army campfires and he sings it now at reunions of Confederate veterans."
In the 1914 promotional pamphlet Edison Blue Amberol Records For February, Miller was described as "James Whitcomb Riley, Frank Stanton, Uncle Remus and Thomas Nelson Page, all rolled into one." The company further claimed that "the correct idea of plantation life in the 'Old South' can be better learned from an evening with him than from all the books that have been written on the subject." By then "Bonnie Blue Flag" was offered in celluloid as Blue Amberol 2175.
Issued as Amberol 390 and later as Blue Amberol 2176, Miller's "Laughing Song" had no relation to George W. Johnson's similarly titled releases, other than its use of belly laughs during choruses. Performing on a guitar strung with steel strings, Polk conjured a piano sound by following deft bass notes with quick plucks of his treble strings. Equal parts carnival barker, windbag orator, and drunken fool, he seemed to revel in hooting and hollering above the quartet's deadpan harmonies. "It takes a genuine Southern Negro to sing this song," claimed the January 1910 Edison Phonograph Monthly, "which is typical of the happy darkey nature. The laughter of the quartet is natural and contagious." With its rerelease as Blue Amberol 2176, the company's promotion added this afterthought: "It ought to be natural, for the Old South Quartette was composed of genuine darkies of the 'Sunny South,' trained in music by Mr. Miller."
By contrast, Polk's propulsive delivery of the spiritual "What A Time" was reverential and unmistakably Southern. He began slowly, strumming guitar and singing unison choruses and call-and-responses with his quartet. Then, like a good backwoods preacher, he pushed the music's tempo and sped up his exhortations. By the song's end, the quartet's mesmerizing parts were edging toward African chant. Upon its release as Amberol 391, "What A Time" was described as "a favorite church hymn of the Virginia country negroes, with a characteristic plantation air, quaint and pleasing." For its reissue as Blue Amberol 2177, an intrepid copy writer added: "It reminds us of the revival meetings of the 'Shouting Methodists' and is typical of that noisy but picturesque religion."
The litany of Negro foodstuffs assembled in "The Watermelon Party," Amberol 392, was burnt-cork shuck-and-jive, with the quartet singing lines like "Oh you darkies, won't you come along with me" beneath Polk's promises of catfish, persimmons, possum, ham, ginger snaps, sarsaparilla, and other delicacies to "keep the niggers happy." The January 1910 Edison Phonograph Monthly identified the selection as "an original 'makeup' by James L. Stamper, the basso of the quartet, and for which no music has ever been written." With its reissue as Blue Amberol 2178, Edison continued to deny Stamper (now described as "as typical a Negro of the South as could be found") songwriting credit. "No music has ever been written for this selection. . . . Nobody composed this music--like Topsy, it 'just grew.'" In unabashedly racist rhetoric, Miller was praised in same paragraph for doing so much in his lifetime to "to bring to the ruling race an appreciation of the characteristics of the Negroes." According to Edison, Mark Twain called the group's performance of the song a "musical earthquake."
Polk Miller's two-minute Standard Edison cylinders focused on semi-spiritual music. The January 1910 Edison Phonograph Monthly claimed that Polk sang the melody of "Rise And Shine," no. 10332, just as "the old darkies used to sing it on his father's plantation before the war." The publication singled out Standard release 10333, an a cappella "The 'Old Time' Religion," as 'a hymn of Negro origin, but owing to the fact that its words and melody stir the popular heart, the Southern whites have introduced it into their church services."
The Quartette's version of the old camp meeting song "Jerusalem Mournin'," no. 10334, contain these memorable lyrics: "The Good Book says that Cain killed Abel/ He knocked him in the head with the leg of a table."
Randall Graves, the quartet's first tenor, alternated lines with the rest of the quartet. With its spirited amens, choruses of "I be ready," and Stamper's descending, tuba-like phrases, the selection presents the Old South Quartette's most spirited performance.
The Edison Phonograph Monthly for March 1910 reported that "the seven records made by Polk Miller and his 'Old South Quartette,' which went on sale January 3rd, have proven a tremendous surprise. We expected that the demand for these records would be confined almost exclusively to the South, as the request that they be catalogued emanated from that section. In this we were mistaken, for while naturally the demand was greatest in the South, still the North took to them very kindly and some sections of the West simply cannot get enough of them. One enthusiastic Kansas dealer wrote in to the factory suggesting we make one thousand records of the same order. The popularity of the records proves that real "darkey" plantation melody still has a firm grip upon the affections of the American public, irrespective of locality."
Despite the cylinders' popularity, Polk Miller did not record again, and by 1912 he had parted ways with the Old South Quartette. Although he got along with the men--"they were always respectful and considerate in their demeanor towards me," he told the Richmond Journal--touring with African American singers had become too difficult. Over the years, he estimated, more than twenty men had been members of his quartet.
Travel was especially difficult in the South, where Jim Crow was the law of the land and members of the quartet were forbidden to use restaurants, saloons, drinking fountains, lavatories, train cars, hotels, and hospitals designated for whites. It was an era of unprecedented racial violence, with over 2,000 African Americans lynched in the first years of the new century. In their travels, Miller and his quartet no doubt encountered the same angry glares and hand-lettered signs that had caused such dread in W.C. Handy and other traveling musicians: "Nigger don't let the sun go down on you here."
In the Richmond Journal article, Miller indicated that discrimination sometimes held sway in the North as well: "Some of the Northern towns which wanted me would write, 'We are exceedingly anxious to have you, but our people don't want the quartet, as our people do not like the Negro.' There is a certain class of whites in the South, whose ancestors never owned Negroes. . . . 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 to guard my men. . . . I shall never again take a Negro quartet on the road with me." He offered this explanation of the fate of his final lineup: "I farmed them out to a New York man for five weeks. He was so much taken with them that he has taken them for good and all, for which I am profoundly grateful."
Polk Miller drew his last breath on October 20, 1913, and was buried in Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery. His arrangements lived on when a lineup called the Old South Quartette recorded in Long Island City during the fall of 1928. Among their seven QRS and Broadway sides were "Watermelon Party" and a close remake of "Laughing Song" titled "Oysters And Wine At 2 A.M."
A half-century after his death, Polk Miller's animal remedies were still being sold. Today his scrapbooks are housed at Richmond's Valentine Historical Museum. Doug Seroff's outstanding article "Polk Miller And The Old South Quartette" in 78 Quarterly No. 3 is illustrated with many items from these scrapbooks.