As literary endorsements of musicians go, it’s hard to beat Mark Twain’s praise for Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette. Stephen King has pronounced his love for AC/DC and the Ramones, and Thomas Pynchon wrote liner notes for ’90s indie-pop whozats Lotion. But those laurels wilt when compared to Twain’s statement that Miller’s quartet was “wonderful” and “the only thing the country can furnish that is originally and utterly American.”
It’s easy to see why Sam Clemens was smitten: Miller was a fascinating turn-of-the-century character. The son of a plantation owner in Prince Edward County, Va., he served in the Confederate Army and later created the still-going Sergeant’s brand of pet care products, named after his favorite hunting dog. By the time he was in his 50s, Miller’s nostalgia for the antebellum South led him to create the Old South Quartette “sometime between August 1899 and April 1903,” according to the liner notes of Tompkins Square’s new compilation. His group had a provocative cast for post-Reconstruction days: Miller was a white man leading a group exclusively of black men.
It was also a group whose lineup changed as often as Menudo’s and Spyro Gyra’s. “I never discharged one of them for a fault, but they had to give up for other reasons, such as illness and ‘throat trouble,’” Miller once said. He claimed to have employed 20 men he recruited after seeing them singing on street corners or in bars. Having been exposed to black gospel music and culture as a youth, Miller sought to introduce that music to “most exclusive social clubs” and universities throughout the eastern United States. During their extensive touring, the group had met Grover Cleveland and other men Miller called “big bugs.”
But if Miller launched the group under curious pretenses—essentially, he missed his childhood on Daddy’s plantation—his attitude toward blacks was often deemed dangerously progressive by newspapers of the day. He praised his singers’ class and sophistication as much as he did their singing abilities. He defended them from charges of being “stuck-up,” by saying that, despite meeting heads of state, they were always “considerate” and not “some pumpkins.” Racial tensions, in both the North and South, ultimately led him to stop touring and break up the group in 1912. He had grown tired of the prejudice, the threats, the near-riots, and the constant need for police protection.
Miller intended to draw a distinction between his singers and the negative caricatures of blackface minstrelsy, though sometimes Miller’s choice of material seemed to frustrate his own goals. “The Watermelon Party,” for instance, traffics in exaggerated black dialect, sung by the quartet, as well as base racial stereotypes. Similarly frustrating is “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” which, as Doug Seroff writes in the CD’s liner notes, “is reported to be the most complete version of the Confederate battle anthem waxed by a Civil War veteran.” From a historical and musical perspective, the song is a marvel, thanks to its gorgeous vocal harmonies. But it’s unsettling to hear an all-black chorus proclaim, “Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights, Hurrah!”
The songs collected on Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette come from just two recording sessions, 19 years apart. The first produced seven songs captured on Edison cylinders in Miller’s native Richmond, Va., in 1909. Considering the source material, the sound is remarkably crisp; the hiss and crackle is inevitable, but they add to the song’s long-ago mystique. Miller knew enough to get out of the way and showcase the quartet’s beautiful harmonies. When he does step in, as on “What a Time,” a joyous gospel song, he keeps it simple, offering spare banjo accompaniment.
The second session was recorded in Queens in the summer of 1928—15 years after Miller died. Seroff speculates the Old South Quartette “may have entertained in or around New York City for the next two decades.” Though the personnel for the 1928 sessions is unknown, Seroff uses photographs and musical similarities to surmise that “some correlation between the 1909 recording group and the 1928 quartet seems extremely likely.” One of the highlights of the second sessions is “When De Corn Pone’s Hot,” a musical rendition of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dialect poem. What distinguishes the song from the caricature of “The Watermelon Party” is the inherent dignity in Dunbar’s words (and the quartet’s version of the lyrics), which tap into a universal nostalgia for childhood that transcends race: “How yo’ gloom tu’ns into gladness,/ How yo’ joy drives out de doubt/When de oven do’ is opened,/An de smell comes ooz’in’ out;/Why, de ’lectric light o’ Heaven/Seems to settle on de spot,/When yo’ mammy says de blessin’/An’ de co’n pone’s hot.”
Miller wasn’t perfect; by clinging to the Stars and Bars and placing his name at the top of the bill while members of his Quartette often remained nameless, he proved he wasn’t ready to let go of the plantation days and the romantic notions of slavery. But his group was born out of the notion that he could bridge the racial gap by introducing white audiences to it. After he announced his musical retirement, an editorial in the Richmond Journal suggests he had an impact: “(Miller) more than any other individual, has inculcated abroad a feeling of friendship and sympathy between the two races.” As he mourned a bygone era, he found that the old-time music healed the wounds and helped narrow the divide, even if just by a little bit.