An Unlikely African-American Music Historian

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One hundred years ago this past Friday, a bandleader named Polk Miller put together an unusual recording session. Miller — who was white — recorded seven songs with a black vocal quartet. These groundbreaking records have been reissued, offering a rare chance to hear an almost unknown part of African-American musical history. But the man who led these sessions was no civil rights activist.

Engineers from the Edison company hauled their equipment from New Jersey to Richmond, Va., which was a big deal in 1909. There, they documented one of the first interracial recording sessions in American history.

"He put together the first truly integrated vocal band that was recorded," says record collector Ken Flaherty.

Flaherty produced the CD reissue of these recordings. He says you'd have a hard time finding a more unlikely champion of African-American music than Polk Miller.

"He glorified black music, while at the same wearing the stars and bars, standing up for the legacy of the Confederacy," Flaherty says.

Miller fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He even made his quartet accompany him on a confederate marching song,"The Bonnie Blue Flag."

Miller's First Love

Miller grew up on his father's plantation in Virginia, where he learned how to play banjo from listening to slaves. He made a fortune in the pharmacy business after the war. In the 1890s, when he was in his 50s, Miller handed the business over to his son and went back to his first love: African-American music. Flaherty says he took it seriously.

"Nobody at the time was really trying to collaborate with blacks," Flaherty says."It was all cake-walking, minstrel-singing, blackface comedy."

Miller didn't play black music and culture for laughs, as most white performers did at the time. His performances were an anomaly, says Tim Brooks, author of the book Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry.

"He was the leader. He would play a song, and he'd have the quartet sing a song. Then he'd talk about it — where this song came from," Brooks says."It was a combination of education and entertainment, I guess you'd say."...

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