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Polk Miller

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  • Born: Prince Edward County, VA
  • Years Active: 1910s


Biography All Music Guide

All Music Guide:

One of the oldest "old-time" performers on record is Polk Miller, who fought as an artilleryman in the American Civil War on the Confederate side and, according to his son, is said to have furled the confederate flag at Appomattox. Settling in Richmond, Virginia in 1868, Miller opened a drugstore and specialized in pet remedies. He marketed them under the name of his own prized pet dog, Sergeant, and as Sergeant's Pet Care Products the company Polk Miller founded continues to sell many of these same remedies today.

Miller's professional involvement in music began late in life; although he learned the banjo before the Civil War, he laid it aside during the postwar years, citing that his choice of instrument "was beneath the notice of the cultivated." However, in 1892, he had a change of heart and began to tour with his banjo, singing old Southern and African-American songs. Miller was an immediate hit, and garnered endorsements from celebrities such as Mark Twain and Joel Chandler Harris.

Around 1900, Polk Miller added four black male singers to his show, whom he called the Old South Quartette. The lineup of this group was constantly changing and, according to Miller, recruited from Richmond's street corners and bars. One member who proved more lasting than others was the bass voice, James L. Stamper. Stamper helped Miller arrange some of the Old South Quartette's material, and ultimately became known as a popular songwriter in his own right. While the group was a huge success in Northern cities, the group's appearances in the South were less common and sometimes held in black churches, appropriate as they were heavily reliant on gospel material. Although the Old South Quartette performed songs and skits that were drawn from the minstrel tradition, Miller did not wear blackface and the quartette dressed in ordinary work clothes.

In November 1909, Polk Miller and the Old South Quartette made seven cylinders for Edison, including versions of "The Bonnie Blue Flag," "The Old Time Religion," and "Jerusalem Mournin'." These were well received in rural markets, where cylinders were still king in 1910, but did especially well in the West -- a Kansas City phonograph dealer suggested to Edison that a thousand such records should be made! But the seven titles would remain the only recordings made by Polk Miller. In 1912, Miller parted company with the Old South Quartette, and Miller himself died not long after, in October 1913. In a newspaper interview made shortly before his death, he declared that he was forced to take leave of the group as racial attitudes toward them had made touring impossible, saying, "In some places I had to call upon the police to guard my men."

Nonetheless, the cylinder recordings made by Polk Miller & His Old South Quartette are of crucial historical importance, documenting the shared musical heritage between white and black Southern songsters in a style that jumps right out of the 19th century.