The Mindful Bard
Books, Music, and Film to Wake Up Your Muse and Help You Change the World
Volume 21 Issue 22 2013-06-14
Album: The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leaving Eden (2012)
Musicians: Dom Flemons (four-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, quills), Rhiannon Giddens (five-string banjo, fiddle, kazoo), Adam Matta (beatbox, tambourine), Hubby Jenkins (guitar, mandolin, five-string banjo, guitar, bones), Leyla McCalla (cello)
Genre: Folk/Americana/Old Timey
“When you want genuine music—music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!”
Invoking the Glory-Beaming Banjo
Sound quests are among the most fascinating of journeys—you never know where you’ll end up or what you’ll be doing at the end of one. Dom Flemons arrived at traditional Southern string band music via a long musical exploration that began with a period of collecting Bob Dylan albums from the ’60s. Rhiannon Giddens came to the same musical subgenre from a classical career that included several operatic roles. She also dabbled in English contra dancing and had a stint in a Celtic band.
These are the kind of cultivated people who populated New Orleans after the Civil War. Were it not for the Jim Crow laws, they might have simply merged with the white upper crust and contributed to the high culture that already existed. Instead they were compelled to channel their refinements into “low” culture, eventually spawning a myriad of new musical genres, including jazz. In the course of all this, the United States developed one of the most vibrant popular cultures in human history.
The two founding members, Flemons and Giddens, have now made it a five-member (and sometimes more) string band with fiddle, cello, guitar, and three kinds of banjo (including the gut-strung minstrel banjo which I’d never heard of before now) as well as the jug, the bones (like castanets), the quills (like a pan pipe), and the kazoo. Their performances include flatfoot dancing.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ repertoire sprouted from the early 20th-century folk tunes and string band arrangements of songs from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, much of it harking back to 19th-century minstrel shows wherein fiddles and banjos figured prominently.
Is there a pattern here? Last week I reviewed Akal, an album by the Moroccan group Izenzaren, led by Igout, a master Moroccan banjoist playing in the Ahwach and Gnaoua styles of North Africa. This led me back to my own sound quest, a perennial exploration of the influence of slaves from northwestern Africa on American music and how parallel musical traditions developed in Africa and the Americas. Coincidentally, while visiting my folks in Canada recently, I retrieved my two dusty old banjos from the attic and brought them back to New Hampshire to play at our Friday night gatherings.
We had discovered early on that we were all devotees of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. When we realized we’d now have both a five-string and a tenor banjo among us, we decided to start learning some of their songs. “Cornbread and Butterbeans” rolled off our tongues like we’d sung it all our lives; it’s the kind of song that’s easy to do at home when you’re having fun, but hard to do well if you let your ego get in the way.
Which makes you wonder how a group of such deeply gifted and rigorously trained musicians can pull it off so well. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are creative intellectuals dedicated to preserving a priceless past by keeping it alive with innovative approaches uniquely their own. Yet not for a moment do they sound like prima donnas; nor is there an ounce of the commercial veneer that renders so much of traditional repertoire false and hollow.
They sing the kind of song I heard growing up: the music of Aunt Nellie on the spoons and Uncle Paul on the hambone and Mom on the autoharp. My experience was not so different from that of rural boomers all over North America, and much of the style and aesthetic of these homely tunes was revived by folk singers of the 1960s—luckily, or they might have faded from awareness.
I’ve heard white folk singer versions of so many Drops songs that I was surprised to even discover they had originated in African-American communities that sooner or later abandoned them. The hard times evoked by these songs were just too painful a reminder to black musicians, who by the 1960s had embraced urban musical genres like soul, rhythm-and-blues, jazz, and funk. I remember hearing an African-American musician in a radio interview saying he hated the word “blues” because for him it evoked all that was nasty, brutish, and short about the life of the African-American.
But full circle we’ve come at last, and here we have a band that’s not only composed of superlative black musicians passionate about this quite narrow segment of traditional American folk music, but that also has the chutzpah to give itself a name that’s dangerously close to a racial epithet. Their 2010 Grammy- winning debut album was called Genuine Negro Jig, the title alone a supremely confident flipping-of-the-bird to political correctness.
Another beautiful thing about this music is that it brooks none of the ethnic boundary lines that in spite of their absurdity we’ve allowed ourselves to accept. The Drops just keep on mixing genres the way normal musicians have done for millennia. They remain true to the original—and incredibly thrilling—bricolage quality of American folk music, while performing the supreme political act of forcing politics to bow its head to art.
So give it a listen; it can only do you good. The music and themes of bare-bones roots music like this are rooted so deep in human consciousness that they can effectively engender authentic and profound art.
Leaving Eden manifests three of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavour; and 4) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.
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