Thursday, November 5, 2009
The Earliest Negro Vocal Quartets Vol. 1 1894-1928 (Document, 1991)
Although it would be impossible, the ultimate dream come true for a researcher of culture in the United States would be to discover the "Big Bang" of American music - that is, the exact moment in time when British Isles ballads and religious songs collided with African rhythms and improvisational sensibilities. This probably occurred in an 18th or 19th-century tobacco or cotton field on a Southern plantation when a slave of African origin combined those two musical influences and belted out the first field holler. From that, of course, emerged African-American gospel music, blues, jazz, and, eventually, rock 'n' roll, R&B, soul, funk, etc., etc.
Since we don't have recordings of any such field hollers from the 1700s or 1800s at our disposal, we must focus our attention on examples of subsequent developments in the evolution of uniquely American music. With the importance that sanctified music has held throughout black American history, it should not be surprising that some of the first African-American musicians to enjoy popularity with both whites and blacks were vocal quartets. Often referred to as "Negro Quartets" or "Colored Quartets," these groups from the late 1800s and early 1900s featured four-part harmony singing and usually performed unaccompanied religious material, although there were notable exceptions to this rule. The material typically performed by such quartets was often much more dignified than the repertories of other popular contemporary black entertainers who specialized in "coon shouts" and other degrading forms of music that emphasized negative stereotypes of the race. But again, this was not always the case.
The Earliest Negro Vocal Quartets Vol. 1 offers a fascinating glimpse of the ultimate in proto-blues, some of the earliest recorded examples of not just African-American music, but American music as well. Although it is difficult to hear much beneath the surface noise, the Standard Quartette's "Keep Movin'" is especially significant for its early recording date (1894!) and the occasional bursts of vocal exquisiteness that seep through the static like the wailing of a lost ghost in the mists of time. A popular touring act in their day, this quartet recorded a total of 22 cylinders, but only this recording has survived. The Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, formed at the John A. Dix Industrial School in Dinwiddie, Virginia, waxed six one-sided records in 1902, five of which - "Down on the Old Camp Ground," "Poor Mourner," "Steal Away," "Gabriel's Trumpet," and "We'll Anchor Bye-and-Bye" - have been discovered and are presented here. These are all powerful a cappella gospel performances marred only slightly by the recurring introduction "(Song title) by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet" uttered by what sounds like some white guy (their manager perhaps?) before each song. Nothing is known about the Male Quartette or the Apollo Male Quartette who recorded their sanctified material respectively in circa 1910 and 1912.
As good as this CD's first nine tracks are, the remaining material by Polk Miller and/or his/the Old South Quartette is what's really the most compelling. No need to adjust your computer's monitor; you are seeing the above photograph correctly. Miller was a banjo and guitar-playing white pharmacist from Virginia who enjoyed a successful second career as an entertainer and leader of the "Old Times in the South" touring show. This nostalgic production featured Miller reciting stories spoken in an "authentic" black dialect as well as musical material of Southern white and African-American origin performed with the accompaniment of his Old South Quartette (which included James Stamper and Randall Graves as well as two other singers whose names are unfortunately lost to us). Such was the popularity of what was arguably America's first biracial musical group that they recorded seven cylinders for the Edison Amberol and Standard labels circa 1909-1910, and what variety these recordings demonstrate. "The Bonnie Blue Flag" was a Confederate war anthem from 1861, although not as well known as the more familiar "Dixie." One cannot help but note the irony of a group of black men singing the chorus, "Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights hurrah! Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star" as Miller strums his banjo and handles the lead vocals which detail how Southern states
left the Union one by one during the 1860-1861 secession crisis. "Laughing Song" is a truly bizarre novelty tune that features some exquisite vocal harmonies and details the pleasures of having "oysters and wine at 2:00 a.m." On this recording and subsequent numbers, one might assume these to be the work of an all black group, so convincing are Miller's singing mannerisms. Perhaps Miller and the Quartette's finest number, "What a Time" is a powerful gospel performance with a driving one-two beat that will get even the most ardent atheist in the spirit. "The Watermelon Party" is a "coon shout" that would certainly be considered distasteful in this politically correct age, but it is still a fascinating historical document nonetheless. On the next set of cylinders - "Rise and Shine," "The 'Old Time' Religion," and "Jerusalem Mornin'" - Miller puts aside his banjo and guitar and performs a cappella with the group on sanctified material that is nearly the equal of "What a Time."
Miller's death in 1913 did not prevent the Old South Quartette from continuing to perform and record in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, they waxed seven sides for the QRS label in 1928, their style essentially unchanged since the 1890s. "Oh What He's Done for Me" and "No Hiding Place Down Here" are two more top-notch gospel performances, while remakes of "Watermelon Party" and "Laughing Song" (retitled as "Oysters and Wine at 2 A.M.") are nods to their recorded past. "Bohunkus and Josephus" is another strange novelty piece with rather oddball words sung to music of "Auld Lang Syne." "Pussy Cat Rag" seems to be a bawdy song with double entendre lyrics, while "When De Corn Pone's Hot" is similar to "Watermelon Party" but much more respectful in tone and subject matter. In the words of early black music scholar Doug Seroff, the song is "a musical arrangement of a Paul Laurence Dunbar dialect poem, full of the most gorgeous folk imagery." Be sure to read his fascinating article on Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette in the accompanying post of 78 Quarterly No. 3.
1. Keep Movin' - Standard Quartette
2. Down on the Old Camp Ground - Dinwiddie Colored Quartet
3. Poor Mourner - Dinwiddie Colored Quartet
4. Steal Away - Dinwiddie Colored Quartet
5. Gabriel's Trumpet - Dinwiddie Colored Quartet
6. We'll Anchor Bye-and-Bye - Dinwiddie Colored Quartet
7. The Camp Meeting Jubilee - Male Quartette
8. Swing Low Sweet Chariot - Apollo Male Quartette
9. Shout All Over God's Heaven - Apollo Male Quartette
10. The Bonnie Blue Flag - Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette
11. Laughing Song - Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette
12. What a Time - Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette
13. The Watermelon Party - Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette
14. Rise and Shine - Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette
15. The "Old Time" Religion - Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette
16. Jerusalem Mornin' - Polk Miller and his Old South Quartette
17. Oh What He's Done for Me - Old South Quartette
18. Watermelon Party - Old South Quartette
19. Bohunkus and Josephus - Old South Quartette
20. Oysters and Wine at 2 A.M. - Old South Quartette
21. Pussy Cat Rag - Old South Quartette
22. When De Corn Pone's Hot - Old South Quartette
23. No Hiding Place Down Here - Old South Quartette