Caveat: Several of the century-old passages quoted in this article are racially offensive. The fact that these quotes use common parlance for the era in which they were published does little to diminish their ugliness. For the sake of historical accuracy, though, I’ve kept the quotes intact. My apologies to those offended.
Why cover Polk Miller at all? Because despite the racial overtones in his music and press, the man deserves credit for his pioneering efforts to integrate American music. I’m convinced that at his core Polk Miller was motivated by a profound admiration for African-American music. On with our story.
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 the era of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. On the U.S. mainland, though, sessions featuring African Americans were still rare and integrated sessions far rarer. With their 1909 and 1910 Edison Amberol and Standard cylinders, Polk Miller’s Old South Quartette provided a very notable exception.
A white man, Polk Miller hailed from Prince Edward County, Virginia. “I was raised on a plantation where ‘niggers’ were thicker than hops,” Polk stated in an old 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, Virginia. 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.”
Despite the racist overtones of his press coverage, 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.”
Thanks to Ed Knights, a primary care physician in the Boston area, we know that in addition to performing with the Old South Quartette, Polk Miller also toured with an integrated medicine show. In his youth, Dr. Knights was taught several of Polk Miller’s routines by his grandfather, and he’s graciously volunteered to share this information with readers of this blog: “My grandfather, K. Brooke Anderson, worked off of the back of a patent medicine wagon owned by Polk Miller. He was a raconteur, played the bones, did soft shoe, and sang. He taught me a number of those songs and stories. My grandfather was born in 1892 and was a teenager at the time he worked for Mr. Miller. He used the money to help pay his way through the University of Richmond. He was part of a performing group of several blacks and whites whose job it was to draw a crowd. They taught him to play the bones, which he used not only with the music but also as a form of percussion while doing soft shoe, and as a way of illustrating things like knocking on a door during a story. The only dance I remember the name of was the Pigeon Wing, and the specific story I remember him using the bones for was a somewhat bawdy version of ‘The Ride of Paul Revere,’ in which Paul ends up abandoning the ride after a young woman answers the door.
“A series of Mr. Miller’s stories referred to ‘The Scaredest Man in Gootchland County.’ Themes included his failure to scare off a nocturnal watermelon thief, an episode where he thought the reins draped over his shoulder were a snake chasing him, and an incident involving his first use of a spyglass, in which he almost caused a panicked Confederate retreat when he thought ‘the damn Yankees are right on top of us!’ In one of the stories he pretended to be a black talking to ‘Mars Miller’ about the time an English Lord showed up at the resort hotel. This involved him doing a black impersonating a stuffy English Lord, a tricky combination of accents my grandfather made sure I learned before the age of 12!
“The songs they sang included a variety of verses of ‘Liza Jane,’ ‘Who’ll Be the Leader When the Bridegroom Comes,’ ‘Well, Mona, You Shall Be Free,’ ‘Raccoon and the Possum, Climbing up the Hill,’ ‘Hambone am Sweet, Bacon am Good,’ and ‘Tombigbee River.’ Again, he made sure I learned all the verses. Mr. Miller would sometimes buy the big black bass singer a chocolate shake (five or ten cents at that time) as a bribe. There would then follow an earth-shaking version of ‘Rock Me in the Cradle of the Deep.’
“My grandfather never said whether he wore blackface. The wagon was in and around Richmond, and they sold patent medicines between skits and after the show. My grandfather said Polk concentrated on animal remedies once the government began to crack down on the safety and efficacy of patent medicines for people. Polk used to appear in advertisements with a dog, and my grandfather told me that he actually had a dog named Sergeant, but it looked nothing like the dog used in their advertisements. It was just an ‘old mangy yellow mutt.’” Dr. Knights has inherited his grandfather’s love of performance, having been involved in community theater for thirty years. On occasion, he still recreates Miller’s routines at family gatherings.
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, and in more recent years, his cylinder recordings have been anthologized on the CDs Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette and Document Records’ excellent The Earliest Negro Vocal Quartets (1894-1928).
Thanks to Tim Gracyk (http://www.gracyk.com/) and Dr. Ed Knights, MD, for their contributions to this article, and to the Virginia Commonwealth University (http://dig.library.vcu.edu/index.php) for making available historic photographs of Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette. Polk Miller’s 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, including several quoted here. To explore an excellent collection of century-old Polk Miller articles and ads, visit Ken Flaherty, Jr.’s website, http://polkmiller.com/.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.