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December 4, 2013 / Joanne Yeck

Polk Miller and His Old South Quartet

Miller_Polk (3)

Polk Miller (1844-1913)

Mark Twain was quoted as saying, “I think that Polk Miller, and his wonderful four, is about the only thing this country can furnish that is originally and utterly American.”

Polk Miller was born James A. Miller (1844-1913) at Green Lawn, the Miller plantation near Burkeville, is just across the Nottoway County line in Prince Edward County.  In the early 20th century, he toured both North and South with what was called “An evening of story and song on Old Time Down South.”  Accompanied by a dignified quartet of African American men, Miller’s one-man show included stories, sketches, and songs.

PolkMillerQuartet2

Polk Miller’s Old South Quartet

Publicity claimed that his act was “Absolutely Unique.  The Only Entertainment Of Its Kind Before The Public.” Wherever he went, Polk Miller drew a large crowd. Undoubtedly his benefit performance for the Buckingham County Library on Friday, May 3, 1901 was no exception.

I have yet to find a notice of his appearance in Buckingham County; however, there is evidence that Miller raised funds for other libraries, including Richmond’s Library Fund Broad Street Methodist Episcopal Church.  On November 12, 1901, he performed at the YMCA Hall raising money for the Richmond library.  General admission was $.25.  Reserved seats cost $.50.

13 Comments

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  1. Harry Stuart Holman / Dec 4 2013 4:31 pm

    Dear Readers,

    I think our exposure to Virginia culture is incomplete without an exposure to the music of Polk Miller’s band. This is not only my own opinion, but, it is an opinion I gathered from the statements made by my father, who actually heard the band as a boy while growing up near Cartersville on James River–back in the days of Sen. John W. Daniel and Theodore Roosevelt.

    My uncle would also be insistent that the readers were aware of Polk Miller’s classic book on dog diseases. I remember seeing this in the card catalog at the Virginia State Library . I trust that that book is still in that collection, though I am sure it doesn’t circulate any longer.

    Harry Stuart Holman

    • Joanne Yeck / Dec 4 2013 6:15 pm

      Harry, Many thanks for adding to today’s comments!

  2. Joanne Yeck / Dec 4 2013 1:25 pm

    Bob, According to “Men of Mark in Virginia” (vol. 3), Polk Miller was born in Prince Edward County. “Old Homes and Families in Nottoway,” by W. R. Turnerin states,”GRAPE LAWN, near Burkeville, is just across the line in Prince Edward County. This was the home of Dr. Giles A. Miller, whose first wife was Jane Webster. Their children were: Henry T., Anthony W. (Captain Tony), and Polk Miller of Richmond; Giles A., Jr.; Mollie, who married Charles Crump; Alice, who first married Major Tom Friend Willson, and later married Harvey Wily, Perkins, and Rosa. Captain Tony, Polk and Henry T. all served in the Civil War. Dr. Giles Miller later married Mattie Sloan and had two daughters, Zena and Emogen.” (p. 82-83). I’ve edited the post. Thanks for your help! Joanne

  3. Gregg Kimball / Dec 4 2013 1:13 pm

    Yes, Miller did end up in Richmond as a druggist. He lived across the river in the Bon Air community in Chesterfield County (part of Bon Air was annexed to Richmond in 1970). The Valentine Richmond History Center has a nice scrap book with many broadsides and clippings as well as one of Miller’s banjos.

    • Joanne Yeck / Dec 4 2013 1:17 pm

      Gregg, Thanks for mentioning the scrap book and banjo at the Valentine.

  4. Gregg Kimball / Dec 4 2013 12:33 pm

    I have several of Miller’s Edison cylinders, including a performance of “Bonnie Blue Flag.” Miller was a Civil War veteran–a member of the Richmond Howitzers if I recall correctly. The Quartet was usually known as the Old South Quartet and they recorded for the QRS label without Miller in 1928 or so.

    • Joanne Yeck / Dec 4 2013 12:40 pm

      Thank you, Gregg. I will amend the post, following today’s collected comments. Joanne

  5. Joanne Yeck / Dec 4 2013 12:26 pm

    The recording is marvelous!

  6. Bob Flippen / Dec 4 2013 12:20 pm

    I think he was born at Grapelawn in Nottoway County near the Prince Edward line. He often played in Farmville at the Opera House or Presbyterian Church. There are several songs on Youtube from old cylinder recordings. Here’s my favorite “When the Corn Pone’s Hot.”

    • Joanne Yeck / Dec 4 2013 12:24 pm

      Bob, Should I change to “grew up” in Prince Edward? Joanne

      • Bob Flippen / Dec 4 2013 12:55 pm

        Not sure. I think he ended up in Richmond where he ran a drug store. The name Sergeant in Sergeant’s Sentry flea collars is named for his dog. He certainly had ties to Prince Edward as he often appeared in town for benefits. Bradshaw’s history has an account of a rendition of Unreconstructed Rebel played at the Opera House. It contained some cuss words so permission from the ladies was asked and graciously allowed and how the house erupted in applause upon the last twang of the banjo. Oh to be a fly on the wall and witness this…

      • Bob Flippen / Dec 4 2013 2:41 pm

        Come to think of it, I believe it was Tom Booker from Amelia, that played the show in Farmville’s Opera House that I was thinking of, he would later tour with Polk Miller though.

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