Black Bluegrass Music: The Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Genuine Negro Jig”
I don’t care much for country-western music. It reminds me too much of Southern unreconstructed whites, especially whites who turned up the volume of their car radios or phonographs as they were beating or killing blacks, be they civil rights workers or not. It also makes me think of whites who don’t care or relish that they are ignorant or lower class or antagonistic towards people of color or intellectually resistant to anything new.
Notable exceptions in my book are musicians like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. I even like a little Patsy Cline and a little Hank Williams (and sure as hell NOT his son). k.d. lang does not exactly fit the genre, at least to me. These people or their life stories or the quality of their songwriting or music or voice touch me. While I may not have their albums, I do respect them as well as their work; I will listen to them if they happen on the radio or on television. Willie Nelson was a participant at Ray Charles’ funeral. Dolly Parton, long rumored to be bisexual and with a sustained gay following, has recently befriended Queen Latifah, quietly lesbian, in connection with a new Broadway musical about a gospel choir.
This is not to say that blacks isolated themselves from CW, even while in the South. They liked it too, as well as their own gospel or blues or jazz. Sometimes I caught my parents or other adults singing along to stuff on the radio, or singing a portion from a song while doing housework or in the shower. However, one of my stepfather’s favorites during the Sixties was the Coasters’ “Tain’t Nothin’ to Me,” which was recorded live at the Apollo Theater, and played out like an episode from Gunsmoke, Wanted Dead or Alive or The Rifleman, nasal twang and all, to obvious comic effect–and reception. One day, my dad sang and mimed both parts of the gunslingers while in a friend’s kitchen, along with the radio. It must have been KSOL (K-Soul). Of course, it was hilarious. Definitely something that parodied the whole Western schtick.
During the Seventies, I was also aware of the latest swoon, Asleep at the Wheel. They were country swing. I humorously called them Asleep at the Switch. A friend even mentioned them in one of his poems. AATW was hot; at least, that’s what I heard from others. Of course, that was their best and high time. They were nearly dead by the end of the Eighties.
Bluegrass, however, is another matter entirely.
I’m sure that the first bluegrass I ever heard or was aware of was Flatt and Scruggs’ music for the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies. And then there was “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” also by Flatt and Scruggs, in the soundtrack to the violent Bonnie and Clyde. But nothing clicked within me; I could take it or leave it.
Then I made a friend from Texas who was rabid about bluegrass. At first, I didn’t care for it, but I couldn’t help but be exposed to the genre. For her, it was the purest, most authentic of music idioms, better than rock, far better than the country western she had known. Later, I had to admit that I liked it. It was a cleaner sound, not messed over by what I felt was a one-note Memphis crowd. Furthermore, it seemed to have no allegiance to any group, white or black, with an emphasis on what was actually played and sung rather than personalities or regional or cultural differences. The descendant of a slave as well as a poor white could play it and feel a connection.
Being nice, and not just for a special occasion, I gave her an album of one of the first Telluride, Colorado bluegrass festivals; I think that it was from 1979. She was pleased and impressed, saying that several of other friends had remarked on my taste and the quality of the music. Hey, I was merely drawn to the wide-open spaces on the cover, and the fact that it was bluegrass, and I recognized only a couple of the musicians featured that she knew. If she still has it, it is out of print and probably quite valuable.
But there were hardly any blacks that I knew who were doing bluegrass, much less CW. I silently told albums by the likes of Charlie Pride and Freddy Fender, good luck, chums. The impression I received was that they had to win over whites to embrace their music, and there is something about my backbone that just refuses to bend any which away. Let them chase us for the music if they are that arrogant, is my view. Once in a while, I saw guys like the late Papa John Creach, doing fiddle for the Airplane, and other groups, but no blacks doing hammer dulcimers, autoharps, fiddles, slide guitars, banjos. Stuff that I only knew about from grade school teachers besotted with folk music. Not that I knew of. Until now. From their website:
In the summer and fall of 2005, three young black musicians, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson, made the commitment to travel to Mebane, N.C., every Thursday night to sit in the home of old-time fiddler Joe Thompson for a musical jam session. Joe was in his 80’s, a black fiddler with a short bowing style that he inherited from generations of family musicians. He had learned to play a wide ranging set of tunes sitting on the back porch with other players after a day of field work. Now he was passing those same lessons on to a new generation.
When the three students decided to form a band, they didn’t have big plans. It was mostly a tribute to Joe, a chance to bring his music back out of the house again and into dance halls and public places. They called themselves The Chocolate Drops as a tip of the hat to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, three black brothers Howard, Martin and Bogan Armstrong, who lit up the music scene in the 1930’s. Honing and experimenting with Joe’s repertoire, the band often coaxed their teacher out of the house to join them on stage. Joe’s charisma and charm regularly stole the show.
Being young and living in the 21st century, the Chocolate Drops first hooked up through a Yahoo group, Black Banjo: Then and Now (BBT&N) hosted by Tom Thomas and Sule Greg Wilson. Dom was still living in Arizona, but in April 2005, when the web-chat spawned the Black Banjo Gathering in Asheville, N.C., he flew east and ended moving to the Piedmont where he could get at the music first hand. Joe Thompson’s house was the proof in the pudding.
Robinson cautions any would-be fan, “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians.” I am glad for that. Keep on striving, people.
The trio do some beatboxing, play banjos, guitars, autoharp, the fiddle, various bits of old-timey authentica (bones, jugs, kazoo), and can sing their asses off — especially Rhiannon, who has some opera in her past. While the Drops are paying tribute to music from another era, Genuine Negro Jig (their new album) proves that the band has no intention of becoming the Black String Band Historical Society.[…]
Indeed. Skip to the very end of the record for a fine reading of Tom Waits‘ “Trampled Rose.” Now back up to “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” a ‘traditionalized’ take on Blu Cantrell’s R&B top 40 hit of relationship revenge.
As for the truly traditional material, it is all gorgeously rendered. “Trouble In Your Mind” stomps its way to the right philosophy, “Cornbread and Butterbeans” illuminates the simple life, and the slinky “Why Don’t You Do Right?” puts the lament on a misbehaving man. The title track, “Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig),” is an instrumental with the fiddle taking the spotlight.
I like them a lot. I really do.