ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
One hundred years ago, a bandleader named Polk Miller led an unusual recording session. Miller, who was white, laid down seven songs with a black vocal quartet. The recordings have now been reissued, offering a chance to listen to an almost unknown moment in musical history.
Joel Rose has this story of the recordings and Polk Miller, who was no civil rights activist.
JOEL ROSE: Engineers from the Edison company hauled their equipment from New Jersey to Richmond, Virginia, a big deal in 1909. There, they documented one of the first interracial recording sessions in American history.
(Soundbite of song, "Old-Time Religion")
Mr.�POLK MILLER (Singer): (Singing) It was good for my grandfather. It was good for my grandfather. It was good for my grandfather and it's good enough for me.
OLD SOUTH QUARTETTE (Singers): (Singing) The old-time religion, the old-time religion, the old-time religion is good enough for me.
ROSE: The leader was 65-year-old singer and banjo player Polk Miller.
Mr. KEN FLAHERTY (Record Collector): He put together the first truly integrated vocal band that was recorded.
ROSE: Record collector Ken 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.
Mr. FLAHERTY: He glorified black music while at the same time wearing the stars and bars, standing up for the legacy of the Confederacy.
ROSE: Miller fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He even made his quartet accompany him on a Confederate marching song.
(Soundbite of song, "The Bonnie Blue Flag")
Mr.�MILLER: (Singing) Hurrah, hurrah for Southern rights, hurrah. Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag that bears a single star. Hurrah
OLD SOUTH QUARTETTE: (Singing) Hurrah, hurrah, for Southern rights, hurrah. Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag that bears a single star. Hurrah.
ROSE: Polk 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. Ken Flaherty says he took it seriously.
Mr. FLAHERTY: Nobody at the time was really trying to collaborate with blacks. I mean, it was unheard of. It was all cake-walking. It was minstrel-singing. It was, you know, blackface comedy.
ROSE: Miller didn't play black music and culture for laughs, as most white performers did at the time. Tim Brooks is the author of the book "Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry." He says Miller's performances were an anomaly.
Mr.�TIM BROOKS (Author, "Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry): He was the leader. And he would play a song. He would have the quartet sing a song and then he'd talk about it and where this song came from. So, it was a combination of entertainment and education, I guess you would say.
(Soundbite of song, "Jerusalem Mournin")
Mr.�MILLER: (Singing) And youre told about Jerusalem mournin. He asked the lord.
OLD SOUTH QUARTETTE: (Singing) He asked the lord.
Mr.�MILLER: (Singing) And youre talking about Jerusalem mournin.
OLD SOUTH QUARTETTE: (Singing) He asked the lord.
Mr.�MILLER: (Singing) For the (unintelligible) in the lions den.
OLD SOUTH QUARTETTE: Yes, brother.
Mr.�MILLER: (Singing) His head on (unintelligible) colored men.
OLD SOUTH QUARTETTE: (Singing) What did he say?
ROSE: The act was a hit, in part because of the endorsement of Miller's friend, Mark Twain. Producer Ken Flaherty says the group tours widely.
Mr.�FLAHERTY: These guys played Carnegie Hall. They played all the big cities, you know, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, Detroit. They were immensely popular and some of the tickets, I have receipts from the 1890s that were 50 cents a person to get in, which was a considerable amount of money at the time.
ROSE: Still, Polk Miller did not use his platform to call for black equality. On the contrary, Miller used the N-word frequently. He was openly nostalgic for the days of slavery. Nevertheless, author Tim Brooks says Miller did future generations a favor.
Mr. BROOKS: He was preserving what this music, this culture of black America, was really like and what it sounded like in the 1840s and 1850s, when he had been growing up. No one else was doing that.
ROSE: Polk Miller broke up his quartet in 1911, when he decided it was too dangerous to keep touring with an interracial group. Miller died two years later. The music they recorded in 1909 fell out of print for most of the 20th century.
While Miller has been rediscovered, his vocalists remain largely anonymous. Out of the 20 or so singers who worked with him in the Old South Quartette over the years, only two have ever been identified by name: Randall Graves and James Stamper.
For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.
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