The last ten years have witnessed a renewed interest in pre-World War II American recordings, especially in such “roots” genres as blues, gospel, and country. Though hampered by restrictive US copyright laws concerning recorded sound, several domestic labels have made widely available a lode of sources that were previously confined to private collections. Among the most recent of these releases is this anthology of the complete recordings of Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette, which highlights several important issues in the history of American music.
Polk Miller (1844–1913) had a varied career. By the age of forty-six, he was a veteran of the Confederate Army and the owner of a successful pharmaceutical business in Richmond, Virginia, about fifty miles from the tobacco plantation where he was raised. Then, driven to promote and celebrate the cultural values of the “Old South,” he entered the entertainment business. Beginning in 1890, Miller told stories, sang, and performed sketches, and earned a good reputation as a performer. His childhood fascination with slave culture, especially music, had led him to learn the banjo and guitar, skills that served him well in his new vocation. Between 1899 and 1903, he expanded his act by creating a vocal ensemble comprised entirely of African American male singers called the Old South Quartette. This new configuration allowed Miller to harness the diverse and powerfully nostalgic quartet repertory from black-face minstrelsy, including sentimental ballads, spirituals (and parodies of spirituals), and other dialect songs.
Miller and his group recorded seven songs for Edison in 1909 in one of the few integrated sessions from this period. He toured with the quartet (the membership of which shifted with some regularity) until 1911, when racism hampered the booking of performances by this integrated ensemble. Yet a group called the Old South Quartette resurfaced and recorded in 1928, and it seems likely from a publicity photograph and close listening that some of the original quartet members were involved in that later session. No clear explanation survives for the group’s return to the recording studio in 1928, though it might have been inspired by the renewed interest in quartet singing among entertainers and audiences that began in 1925 with a regional quartet contest on the Keith vaudeville circuit.
This new release by Tompkins Square Records includes all of the recordings from both the 1909 and 1928 sessions (original copies of which are exceedingly rare). The quality of the transferred 1909 recordings is higher than any other commercially available source; their sound is crisp and clean, with little noise, allowing listeners to hear previously unintelligible lyrics and subtleties in the arrangements. The packaging of this collection includes a brief introduction by Ken Flaherty, Jr., and a detailed essay by Doug Seroff, along with reproduced photographs, recording labels, and advertisements for period performances, all of which supplement the usefulness of the recordings for teaching.
This anthology provides a timely challenge to two prevalent assumptions about music of this period. The first is the notion, still common to popular representations of genres like barbershop and gospel, that quartet singing was an amateur practice before the emergence of groups like the Mills Brothers and the jubilee quartets of the 1920s. As recordings such as this one evidence, quartet singing (of both sacred and secular repertory) enjoyed significant [End Page 335] popularity in such commercial contexts as minstrelsy, vaudeville, and early recordings. Quartets were also uniquely suited to the demands of recording technology during this period, since all four singers could gather more closely and conveniently around the recording horn than could a band, for example. Despite this logistical advantage, recording quartets posed significant challenges, especially the requirement that all performers sing at high volume. The effects of this on ensemble tuning and blend were sometimes detrimental, as can be heard on the 1909 recording of “What a Time” in this collection, in which the quartet gradually drifts a half-step sharp of Miller’s banjo.
Second, the recordings in this collection testify to the breadth of repertory performed...