100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #80.

Polk Miller’s Old South Quartette
80. Polk Miller’s Old South Quartette, “Oysters And Wine At 2 A.M.”
(Traditional)
Broadway 5031, 1928 · mp3
Minstrelsy was the first American entertainment form. This ain’t exactly arguable, much as we’d like to believe otherwise. Everything else was imported; minstrelsy, in all its ugliness, imbecility, and hatefulness, is ours. Bred en bawn in de briar patch, Brer Fox, bred en bawn in de briar patch. We’re a nation that on some level is still pretending to be either Jim Crow or Zip Coon, dumb hick or flashy outlaw, red state or blue state, country or rap. Yassuh. Which isn’t to say that the whole idea isn’t intolerable: of course it is. But on those squalid, incestuous stages were born ragtime, jazz, country, vaudeville, tap dance, and the movies. (What is the Little Tramp but Chaplin’s version of blacking up, of putting on another person in order to entertain — i.e. to be more completely a performer?) One of the less-noted minstrel outfits was Polk Miller’s; a white veteran of the War of Northern Aggression, he put together a black singing quartet to perform music of the antebellum idylls. Which in its own twisted way was still kind of pioneering: they didn’t black up, and they were almost certainly the first interracial act to record. They first cut this song, an adaptation of something known as “The Laughing Song,” in 1909, and Miller died in 1913. But his Old South Quartette continued to perform and record, and even here, as the very last gasps of minstrelsy were scraping themselves onto a handful of records and guttering out, is a sound eerily unlike everything around it, a dim echo of the forced jollity of the corkburnt stage, where a black vocalist in order to escape sounding like a caricature ends up sounding oddly German, a celebration of going out with the guys and hitting little dives where they serve oysters and wine after midnight. (Don’t tell the wife.) Harmonies that predated and influenced barbershop, a waltz tempo played as though it were still a daring and risqué dance, lyrics that were cobbled together from anywhere to fit a bog-standard tune, anticipating the blues to come, and an atmosphere that recalls the roistering wifelessness of early Hearst comic strips. No, it ain’t pretty, but ain’t that America.

2 Thoughts on “100 Great Records Of The 1920s, #80.

  1. We really like this one, oddly. We’re trying to figure out how to make the Bllllblblblblbblrrpt sound so we can cover this in our band.

  2. Ask the guy who does the Nixon voice for Futurama. Lewis Black does it too, to express astonishment.

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