…It was late in the night, they were fast asleep / Little Margaret appeared all dressed in white, standin’ at their bed-feet.
…saying, “How do you like your snow-white pillow? How do you like your sheet?” / …saying “How do you like that pretty fair maid, lays in your arms asleep?”
Rhiannon Giddens sings unaccompanied in “Little Margaret” – hauntingly, like the ghostly visitation she relates. Her tone hardly wavers through the tale, as the character William, struck by his nighttime vision, realizes he loves not his new bride but Little Margaret, and later, as he discovers Margaret “laying in a long black coffin with her face turned toward the wall.” Giddens’s voice softens very slightly for the final couplet:
…Three times he kissed her cold, cold hand, twice he kissed her cheek / and once he kissed her cold, cold lips, and he fell in her arms asleep.
“Little Margaret” stands out on the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ debut collection of North Carolina’s old-time music, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, not only for its eerie subject, but also as the only song performed without instruments. The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ sound is primarily built on the banjo, fiddle, and guitar. The three young members of this string band – Giddens, Justin Robinson, and Dom Flemons – hail from North Carolina and deeply love the traditional music of the region. Here, they offer fourteen selections in performances that could date (were it not for the CD’s overall clear sound) from the early decades of the twentieth century. The standard of musicianship is high – witness Flemons’s harmonica at the conclusion of “Old Cat Died” and the percussion that pervades “Black-Eyed Daisy” (played by Sule Greg Wilson). A forerunner of bluegrass, this old-time music has a rich history, stemming from folk idioms both of Africa and of the British Isles; unfortunately, the liner notes for Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind offer very little information about it.
One of the most memorable tracks on the album is “Tom Dula” (pronounced “Dooley”). This banjo-driven folk ballad, in the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ rendition, presents the story of a brutal murder in a comic fashion (with some passages even played deliberately out of tune). More accurately, it seems comic until the curious listener researches the story’s origins and finds that it is true… “Short Life of Trouble” shines as one of the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ slower songs. It immediately draws attention to itself as the only selection in 6/8 time on Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, and its choruses feature expressive yet subtle vocal harmony.
At times it seems that the Carolina Chocolate Drops put their preservationist duties ahead of more artistic concerns. A few selections (the title track, “Ol’ Corn Likker,” “Dixie”) would benefit by more energetic performances, and their album as a whole does not offer enough textural variety. Too often the fiddle dominates at the expense of the other instruments, and its similar figures throughout the album suggest a degree of redundancy. Songs that give the fiddle a rest, or at least achieve a more equitable balance among the instruments (“Tom Dula, “Short Life of Trouble,” “Little Margaret”), are all the more welcome.
Caveats aside, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind is a respectable first effort, and one cannot help but admire these musicians’ devotion to their work. Their website lists concert dates (primarily in the Carolinas and bordering states), and is expected soon to provide information about the group’s educational efforts. Finally, Music Maker, their record label, deserves mention as a non-profit organization that aids the South’s many impoverished custodians of traditional music.
Posted by John Reef