Album Review

Miller, Polk & His Old South Quartette – “Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette ” – [Tompkins Square]

ArtCrimes   10/28/2008   CD, Country

Not many acts that made recordings could claim to have Mark Twain as a fan, and even less of them featured white and black members back in 1909. Banjo playing storyteller Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette met both those requirements. As the first integrated group to record — and probably the last until the jazz age rolled in — Miller’s group brought stories and sounds of the Old South to the rest of the states until he grew weary of the bigotry his bandmembers faced in both the North and South. He then left the Old South Quartette to launch their own career. Both periods are covered here, with seven Edison recordings from 1909 with Miller and the Quartette and seven 1928 recordings with the Quartette on their own (there are a few new versions of some tunes from the Miller era, with little changed in 20 years). It wouldn’t be fair to say that Miller considered the Quartette to be equal partners — the liner notes explain how he hired and fired singers at will, and considered them his employees — but he did bring his audiences fairly authentic black ensemble singing in an era when white performers in blackface were still presenting a clumsy pastiche of the sounds of the old South. Thankfully, the sound is terrific given the source material here.

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