Tompkins Square revisit a piece of America’s
racially divided past.
By Brian Creech
In what they are billing as “Mark Twain approved music,” the
archivally-friendly label Tompkins
Square is releasing a series of recordings of the
early 20th Century traveling plantation singer Polk Miller and his Old South
Among audiophiles and historians, these Polk Miller recordings
represent an odd and telling time in American history. During a time when America was defined by racial
segregation, Miller played black music reverently without resorting to a
Polk Miller was born James A. Miller, near Burkeville, in Prince Edward
County, Virginia on August 2, 1844. He picked up the
banjo early on and grew up learning the music of the slave quarters on a large Virginia plantation.
Miller, the son of a wealthy Virginia
family, created The Old Virginia Plantation Negro the Old South Quartet, a
group of four African-American men who would perform early African-American
spirituals alongside popular folk tunes, without resorting to farce or
The show glorified the plantation music and spirituals, making
MIller one of the first men to bring black music to a popular audience. He died in 1913, but the Old South Quartet
continued without him, at least until 1928.
Mark Twain, upon hearing Miller and his Quartette exclaimed,
“I think that Polk Miller, and his wonderful four, is about the only thing
this country can furnish that is originally and utterly American.”
Enough history, let us come back to the present. Tompkins
Square will release a CD of seven 1909 Edison cylinder records and seven 1928 QRS/Broadway disc
recordings. These are some of the
earliest recordings that Thomas Edison made shortly after inventing the
phonograph. The booklet includes photos
and memorabilia with notes by African-American music scholar Doug Seroff. The
CD package is designed by Grammy-nominee Susan Archie.