Real Old School
There's nothing like pulling up to a stop light with your window down, right next to a dude bumping so much hip-hop bass that his ride vibrates like an alien orb, and realizing your own car stereo is playing an early 1900s tune called “The Watermelon Party,” filled with racial stereotypes sung by a dead white guy from Bon Air alongside black street-corner singers.
This happened to me recently while I was checking out a pair of new old-timey music releases with Virginia connections.
The son of a plantation owner in Prince Edward County, Polk Miller served in the Confederate Army, played banjo and started Sergeant's Pet Care products. But he became famous for incorporating local black men into his musical act, the Old South Quartette, which toured nationwide and played before presidents, notably without resorting to farce or blackface.
Author Mark Twain hailed Miller's group as “wonderful … the only thing the country can furnish that is originally and utterly American.”
I guess ripping off black music is pretty American all right, from Elvis and Led Zeppelin to Eminem and Thug Elvis, a rapper and distant cousin of Presley's who recently pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for running someone over with his SUV. But Miller was something of a forward-thinking nostalgia act, pining for his youth on the slave farm but taking a chance on authenticity in a dangerous climate.
The new disc from Tompkins Square Records, “Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette” features surprisingly crisp-sounding material (some recorded on Edison cylinders in Richmond in 1909). It's an interesting pre-World War I black gospel snapshot that captures the harmonies and vocal arrangements of the period on tunes such as “When De Corn Pone's Hot” (after Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem).
Miller may have been a racist, a man of his time and place, but at least he had the good sense to record the real deal. His ill-fated attempt to forge a biracial musical style was ahead of its time — so it's easy to see why Twain was enamored. Even if the music makes your car feel like a covered wagon.
Mr. Grammy Nod
Another celebrated recent release is on the country tip, “Ernest Stoneman: The Unsung Father of Country Music: 1925-1934,” a two-CD set that comes just after Stoneman's belated 2008 induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Co-producer and audio director on the project is Nelson County's own Chris King, who already won one Grammy and has been nominated many other times. Everything he touches seems to become masterfully restored and beautifully packaged. This is a guy Tom Waits personally invites to his shows.
“Stoneman was the first singer-songwriter in the rural vein. … Everybody from Woody Guthrie to Jimmie Rodgers and from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan would have to acknowledge their debt to him,” King explains. “I became obsessed with putting together this collection after I had finished producing [my previous collection] ‘People Take Warning!’ since [Stoneman] recorded every type of topical disaster ballad on the set … from breakdowns to ballads to blues, the whole spectrum of rural music that was being captured in the '20s and '30s. Add to that the fact that he was essential to the whole Bristol sessions taking place that really started the craze to record country music.”
King notes that he and co-producer Hank Sapoznik feel that “part of what we do when we preserve and produce these projects is revise history, to righten historical wrongs and inaccuracies.” Amen to that.
1. “Apple Option Fire” by locals Hot Lava (check out the review).
2. Robert Scheer's interview with Robert Fisk on http://www.truthdig.org..
3. Jay Reatard at Outback Lodge in Charlottesville, Oct. 29.