Thursday, May 6, 2010

Frontier Revival, vol. 1: Carolina Chocolate Drops

[Today we debut a new column: Frontier Revival. Every other Thursday, we'll celebrate modern takes on folk, blues, Americana, and more. -FP]

With the release of Genuine Negro Jig, three talented musicians slay the dragon that has terrorized black string band traditions since the late 1800s, when white people put coal ash on their face, picked up banjos, and stomped around the country belting out Stephen Foster tunes. The fifth record by the Carolina Chocolate Drops helps to salve the cultural pain that minstrel music has caused, and celebrates a musical tradition long relegated to the archives of history.

The name of the group and the record evokes hipster irony, an attempt at re-enforcing cultural identity, or a sensationalist re-appropriation of a racist slur. And the album's title accurately describes the music and the players. Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson are African-Americans who met at the Black Banjo Gathering music festival in their native North Carolina. Flemons told the Independent Weekly that the Drops don't intend “any gigantic political message.” The group's name pays homage to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a popular black string band outfit in the1930s. Still, the new record's title defuses two socially explosive words by forcing the public to use them in a non-derogatory context.

Carolina Chocolate Drops - Cornbread and Butterbeans

The banjo plays an essential role in the Drops' music, another reclamation of an African-American tradition. It is essentially a West African instrument, closely related to the ancient string and gourd Ngoni and popularly associated with slave culture. As blacks migrated from southern plantations to northern cities after the Civil War they wanted to shed their bumpkin image. As new urbanites transformed country blues into the electric Chicago blues and jazz, blacks distanced themselves culturally from country and folk music and dropped the banjo for the guitar. Meanwhile, white artists like Earl Scruggs and Uncle Dave Macon filled the void and made the banjo a household sound, promulgating its current association with white artists, from Pete Seeger to Bela Fleck. But when you hear Rhiannon Giddens picking away at “Cindy Gal”, the bad aftertaste of “Dueling Banjos” is replaced by the deliciousness of a chocolate treat.

08 - Cindy Gal by user564399

The Drops also give remedial treatment to folk instruments like the dobro, jug, fiddle, autoharp and kazoo. These “primordial” instruments are renewed in the hands of the classically-trained Giddens and Robinson. With refined phrasing and articulation, they slide all over the necks of the instruments, bend and play with pitches, as they elevate blues inflections and idioms.

The diverse track selection on Jig demonstrates the Drops' rich variety of influences. The album features old-timey classics like “Trouble in Mind” and “Cornbread and Butterbeans”, songs about “picking cotton” and “hoeing corn” played without snark, only apparent joy for the music. Original songs include “Kissin and Cussin”, a mellow auto-harp lament that might be found on an Indie-pop playlist. The Celtic-flavored a cappella “Reynaldine” showcases Giddens' operatic vocal chops and goes beyond the borders of Dixie. Similarly international, their treatment of “Snowden's Jig” features a pedaled modality and hand cymbals, which evokes gypsy campfires or Central Asian Koranic droning. The thoughtful 5/4 banjo intro to a cover of Tom Waits' “Trampled Rose” is a satisfying change from the four-on-the-floor feel of the other up-tempo pieces. And the hit single is a folksy, beat-boxing remake of Blu Cantrell's 2001 hip-hop hit “Hit 'Em Up Style” and is now burning up college and public radio stations across the country.

04 - Hit 'Em Up Style by user564399

The Drops come from a long musical tradition of Piedmont string band music born and made popular in Western Carolina in the 1800s. In their formative stage, the Drops traveled every Thursday to play and study with old timey fiddler Joe Thomson, whose Piedmont pedigree goes back several generations. But the authenticity of the music transcends the repertoire, instrumentation, and packaging. The Chocolate Drops recall the pre-World War II Americana music made by people like Bukka White, The Mississippi Sheiks and Mary Mac, but without all the hisses and pops of the original recordings. Finally: a modern take on old timey music that evokes the same kind of wistful, bubbly, devil-may-care feelings. Carolina Chocolate Drops don't seem to be imitating a style or simply applying folk sounds to pop tunes as gimmickry. Though young, they have a found a genuine expression of an old musical tradition.

06 - Snowden's Jig [Genuine Negro Jig] by user564399

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