Roots music treasure: Hundred year-old recording of Polk Miller

Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette

Tompkins Square


Recorded in 1909, the Edison cylinder sides of Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette are something of a Holy Grail for aficionados of American roots music. Miller, an artilleryman for the Confederacy and successful pharmacist during postwar reconstruction, returned late in life to his interest in music. Beginning in the 1890s, he toured as a lecturer on “Old Times in the South,” performing as a banjoist with a quartet of African American vocalists. Miller displayed affection and respect for this material, presenting it without any patronizing or Minstrel show artifacts.

His 1909 recordings with the Quartette are an important early example of an integrated musical act presenting folk material in authentic fashion. What’s more, there’s some glorious singing here – “Oysters and Wine at 2 AM,” “Rise and Shine,” and “Jerusalem Mournin’,” are all rousing, timeless treasures. Despite the unadorned presentation, there’s plenty of subtlety in the material; “The Laughing Song” uses laughter as a percussive device. “Bonnie Blue Flag,” a secessionist ballad, mixes Scottish influences with Southern folk styles and deft banjo-picking, adorning the result with supple call and response vocal harmonies. The crowning achievement of the collection is a thrilling version of “The ‘Old Time’ Religion;” essential listening for anyone with an interest in American vernacular music.

 Polk Miller

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