March 5th, 2010
Title: Genuine Negro Jig
Artist: Carolina Chocolate Drops
Label: Nonesuch Records
Catalog No.: 516995-2
Format: CD, MP3**
Release date: February 16, 2010
The rise of the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been detailed here since their quiet debut years ago (see Blackgrooves October 2006, December 2007, May 2008). The popular press has paid a good amount of attention to their continuation of black stringband traditions, a tradition largely forgotten or ignored until recently. The great enthusiasm for the Chocolate Drops work, be it musical, historical, or cultural is welcomed with open arms. The energy produced by, and surrounding, this trio of young musicians indicates larger yearnings by players and enthusiasts of traditional American music; namely, that many feel uncomfortable with the racially divisive implications of genres like old-time and R&B, balladry and blues. This enthusiasm, as well as the conflations of genres, is apparent in the early press and chart positions of the Chocolate Drops’ Nonesuch debut, Genuine Negro Jig.
This record, a remarkably diverse, accomplished, and thought provoking work, was greeted with great attention with coverage by national press, including NPR’s All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Paste, Rolling Stone, and countless folk, blues, and old-time magazines and blog leading up to and following its Feb 16th release. The record charted in the top ten on the Billboard Folk chart, and topped the Bluegrass chart. Genuine Negro Jig is clearly popular, and also difficult to place.
This is largely due to the diversity of styles that are represented on this disc. When the Chocolate Drops formed in 2005, brought together by the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, the bulk of their repertoire was given to them from elder North Carolina black fiddler Joe Thompson. This was the content of their debut record for Music Maker (see blackgrooves….), which surprised many listeners who didn’t know black musicians were part of this musical tradition.
Since their mentorship with Thompson, the Chocolate Drops continued to expand their repertoire to include jug band songs, ballads from the British Isles, country blues, and fresh versions of popular songs from more recent eras. While rooted in stringband instrumentation, they pull from a while range of influences and find a way to match their talents to the song, regardless of genre, just like they say stringbands used to do in the early 20th century.
The result of these influences is the genre-busting collection found on Genuine Negro Jig. Square dance style stringband tunes like those featured on Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind are still present here in the rousing “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind,” “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” “Cindy Gal” and “Sandy Boys.” These are high-spirited fiddle and banjo driven songs, with the addition of instruments like the jug and bones (literally, cow bones used as a percussion instrument, which was a popular aspect of minstrel performances). But the Chocolate Drops also bring styles inspired by early 20th century black stringbands characterized by the influence of jazz, such as the Papa Charlie Jackson tune, “You’re Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” and the blues-jazz influence is also heard on “Why Don’t You Do Right?” a song taken from the Harlem Hamfats. “Why Don’t You Do Right?” is a terrific vehicle for Rhiannon Giddings’s tremendous vocal talents. Classically trained at Oberlin Conservatory, Giddens’s voice is extremely versatile. She is able to adapt effortlessly from the slow blues of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” to the English ballad “Reynadine” to the soulful vocals of one of their biggest crowd pleasers, “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”
Following is a clip of the Carolina Chocolate Drops performing “Hit’ Em Up Style” at WDVX’s Blue Plate Special (courtesy of Knox News):
“Hit ‘Em Up Style,” is the most obvious point to notice the Chocolate Drops connections between repertoires, as well as displaying their ideas about traditionality. A cover of a 2001 R&B hit for Blue Cantrell, the song is lead by Giddens singing and playing fiddle, with Flemons accompanying on tenor banjo, and Robinson providing a beat-box. The space that connects “traditional” and “modern” is exactly the territory the Chocolate Drops occupy so well. As explained by Giddens, the song of a women seeking revenge on her cheating man is perfectly resonant with themes of country and blues songs from generations back. It also gets to the heart of the creativity of these three performers, who have no desire to be “preservationists,” as Robinson puts it, but to add their own creative voice to make the songs theirs.
To this end Genuine Negro Jig contains their first original song, Justin Robinson’s hauntingly beautiful “Kissin’ and Cussin’.” While utterly original, this song not only makes fine use of the autoharp (an instrument not commonly featured outside folk and old-time music) but also borrows phrases from American songs from the 1920s in allusions to Richard “Rabbit” Brown’s “James Alley Blues.”
The last song that deserves special attention is the title track, not only because it synthesizes so many of the traditional/modern issues embodied by the Chocolate Drops, such as the creative use of foot stomps, fiddle and bones, but also because of its historical significance. “Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)” was a tune Dan Emmett learned from the Snowden family in Ohio in the late 19th century. Emmett is commonly known as the composer of “Dixie,” the unofficial anthem of the South. “Snowden’s Jig” as an example of both musical and social exchanged between white and black musicians, lead historians Judith and Howard Sacks to further investigate the relationship between Emmett and the Snowdens. This ultimately lead to suggesting that the Snowden’s, rather than Emmett, were the actual composers of “Dixie.”
This hints to the fact that the Chocolate Drops represent something significant. Their success musically, and their popular reception, indicate new territory is being opened in African American music in areas that have largely become associated with white America. Genuine Negro Jig contains new sounds brought about by musicians who seek to educate, but more importantly to create music that speaks to their experience in life, informed equally by tradition and creativity. It is a fantastic lesson, and an endlessly enjoyable listen.
**[Note from Nonesuch]: Customers ordering Genuine Negro Jig through the Nonesuch Store receive the album both on CD and as audiophile-quality, 320 kbps MP3s. In addition, with those MP3s will be a full seven Nonesuch Store-exclusive bonus tracks, all recorded before a live audience at Santa Monica’s famed Village Recorder studio in November 2009.
Sacks, Howard L. and Judith Rose Sacks. 2003. Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Reviewed by Thomas Grant Richardson
Review Genre(s): Folk and Country