Friday, October 10, 2008

If it was good enough for Mark Twain….

The release of Polk Miller and His Old South Quartette represents a turning point of sorts. “Race Music” and “Racist Music” of all sorts have appeared on disc before, but this is a release of music that represents a crossroads of race relations. Polk Miller was a White entertainer and promoter who traveled with a quartet of Black singers and they performed on stage together offering his version of “Old Times Down South.” The social context of this release is so foreign to modern sensibilities that some may mistake it for racism, but it actually presents one of the first attempts to bring these two worlds - Black and White - together for the purposes of education and entertainment. The fact that there was a mixed-race group performing and being recorded at the turn of the 20th century is revolutionary enough, but the further revelation that it is such fulfilling musical and social documentation is even more remarkable. The songs range from topical to humorous to novelty to Gospel and the performances are vibrant and enjoyable throughout. Much of the material was taken from Edison Cylinders yet the quality of the recordings is uniformly excellent.
It is hard, in the modern world, to know exactly how to take this release. There is so much baggage associated with any mention of those more racially charged times, but one is left with the distinct impression that Mr. Miller’s intentions were benign, and perhaps even reforming in nature. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of exploitation, rather a sometimes misguided attempt to offer a depiction of how things used to be. The unpleasant aspects of this past time are left aside and replaced by what appears to be a yearning for harmony and understanding in the new century.
In what is probably its greatest point of advocacy the liner notes contain quotes from Mark Twain extolling the virtues of these performances and their place in American history. My suspicion is that if anybody would recognize and call out racism it would have been Mr. Twain. This release is an indispensable piece of the puzzle that is modern American history. Are we more enlightened? One would certainly hope so, and this release beautifully illustrates some historical steps in that direction.

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