August 1992

The Earliest Negro Vocal Quartets, 1894-1928. Document DOCD-5061, 1991.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

This is an important reissue that deserves notice from collectors and archives. Unfortunately it is also a thoroughly botched job. The 22 tracks by the Standard Quartette (1894), the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet (1902), the Apollo Male Quartette (1912) and Polk Miller’s Old South Quartette (1909 and 1928) are extremely significant sound documents which to this reviewer’s knowledge have never been gathered in one place. In fact most of them have never been reissued at all. This unfortunate CD is our first chance to hear them, and quite possibly our last for a long time to come.

First, the good news. The mere existence of this reissue should alert scholars to at least some facts concerning the history of early black recording, a subject that has been widely misunderstood and frequently misrepresented in print.[i] Discographers, including the estimable Dixon and Godrich (Recording the Blues), have maintained for years that the first authentic black quartet recordings were those made by the Dinwiddie Quartet for Victor in 1902. A scholarly article in the Annual Review of Jazz Studies in 1989 even stated that no black recordings of any kind were known from the 1890s! Most black archives and students of black history seem to know nothing about the subject. Perhaps the appearance of the Standard Quartette’s remarkable Columbia cylinder, a commercially issued gospel performance from 1894, will begin to change that.

Most of the other tracks on this CD are highly sought-after as well, and will be welcomed by students of the field. Five of the six titles recorded by the Dinwiddie Quartet are here, along with all seven known Polk Miller Edison cylinders and all seven QRS discs made by Miller’s Old South Quartette in 1928 long after the showman’s death. (Miller was white; his quartet was black.) The two Columbia-issued sides by the little-known Apollo Male Quartette are also included.

One other track appears on this CD. It is unintentionally hilarious, and the first indication that the compilers, for all their good intentions, may not have been entirely knowledgeable about this field. This is “The Camp Meeting Jubilee,” said to be performed by an unknown male quartet and recorded for the Little Wonder label “c.1910.” Little Wonder was not founded until 1914, but more importantly the voices that come booming out are unmistakably those of Arthur Collins, Albert Campbell and the rest of the Peerless Quartet doing a boisterous parody of black dialect in one of the “coon” recordings so common at the time. What on earth is a Peerless Quartet “coon” number doing on a reissue of early, serious black recordings? Did the compilers actually believe that this was a black group?

Then there are the liner notes. We are told that the Standard Quartette cylinder is the only known surviving recording of the 22 recordings they made in 1894. As pointed out in my 1990 ARSC talk, there is at least one other, “Every Day Will Be Sunday Bye and Bye,” in the hands of an East Coast collector. The quartet actually made at least 23 recordings (probably more), and some of them date from after 1894.

Ray Funk’s notes also tell us that “almost all the earliest aural artifacts of music by African Americans (before blues) were quartet selections.” This is nonsense as witnessed by the scores of early solo recordings by Bert Williams, Carroll Clark, George W. Johnson and others. We are told that the CD contains “all known examples of these extremely rare (black quartet) recordings.” This ignores the many recordings by the Fisk Jubilee Quartet, not to mention a rare but extant cylinder by the Unique Quartette of the 1890s. And what about the “lost” sixth title by the Dinwiddie Quartet–“My Way Is Cloudy” (Victor 1724)? I have had a tape of it for years and suspect that others have as well. The compilers could have located this material had they simply asked in a published forum. I hope that students who come across this CD do not take these notes too literally.

Finally we come to the transfers. One does not expect high quality from source material this early and rare, but the intermittently heavy filtering, pops, rumble and even tape squeal on these tracks is appalling! It would appear that the compiler has simply taken any nth generation tape that fell into his hands and slapped it on to this CD. State-of-the-art digital technology is used to preserve all the sins of bad audio taping. Which brings up another issue: the misappropriation of “rough dubs” made for circulation among scholars with no credit as to their sources. The owners of these original recordings may be distressed to see the amateur dubs they made privately for other researchers turning up on an Austrian CD, horribly reproduced. Apparently no attempt was made to contact them, either to obtain better transfers or to give them credit for sharing this material with the research community. Such behavior will simply discourage collectors with other rare and important recordings from sharing them at all.

A better dub of the Dinwiddie’s lively “Down on the Old Camp Ground” (Victor 1714) can be found on Richard Spottswood’s LP “Religious Music Congregational and Ceremonial” (Library of Congress LBC 1). I am not aware of any currently available reissues of the other selections on the set.

The Earliest Negro Vocal Quartets, 1894-1928 is undeniably important because of the material it contains. Until someone undertakes to do the job right, this is all we will have. Compiled and produced by Johnny Parth, Eipeldauerstr. 23/43/5 A-1220 Vienna, Austria. Available in the U.S. for $19.50 plus S&H from Roots & Rhythm (formerly Down Home Music), 6921 Stockton Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530.



[i].That history and its misrepresentation was the subject of a talk given by this reviewer at the 1990 ARSC Conference in Ottawa; a cassette of that talk, with recorded examples, is available from ARSC.

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