WAYNE BLEDSOE: CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS EDUCATES AND ENTERTAINS
March 9, 2012
By Wayne Bledsoe
“Leaving Eden,” Carolina Chocolate Drops (Nonesuch)
Since 2005 or so the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been reclaiming the long-abandoned heritage of African-American string band music. It wasn’t called “country” then, but the music that blacks and whites in the country were playing in the 1920s and ’30s wasn’t very far apart, if at all. An Appalachian fiddle didn’t know or care what color the fingers were playing it and neither did audiences. As the years went by, though, the term “country” became an insult in the black community, and black string band players were marginalized as “country” became commercial.
Thankfully, the Chocolate Drops (whose name is inspired by the Knoxville-founded 1930s group the Tennessee Chocolate Drops) embrace their heritage and present it as something to be celebrated and built on in the new century. The group’s 2010 disc “Genuine Negro Jig” put the group squarely in the spotlight with the band turning the Blu Cantrell hit “Hit ‘Em Up Style” into a folk tune that could’ve been heard 70 years earlier.
“Leaving Eden,” which marks the departure of member Justin Robinson and the addition of Hubby Jenkins, continues the Drops’ mission. Rhiannon Giddens proudly sings about her rural background on “Country Girl,” and the band revives songs popularized by 1920s pop great Ethel Waters (“No Man’s Mama”), Appalachian singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens (“Pretty Bird”) and Grand Ole Opry performer Cousin Emmy (“Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?”), along with traditional jigs, vintage tunes from the Sea Islands and South Africa and some originals.
The trio, Giddens, Jenkins and Dom Flemons, are all multi-instrumentalists who go for the grit and heart of the song.
Flemons may be singlehandedly reviving the use of the bones as an instrument. And the grunts and vocalizations of human beat box Adam Matta (who now plays with the group) gives the music an even earthier feel.
The overall sound of “Leaving Eden” is rougher than its predecessor. Sometimes tracks almost sound of field recordings.
“Kerr’s Negro Jig” (the tune was found in an 1870-era songbook) is delivered on gourd banjo and bass drum with the sound of summer insect songs as accompaniment.
The best trick the Drops pull off is making their music relevant and entertaining rather than simply becoming musicologists.
“Leaving Eden” is once again a good place to feel the history while enjoying the present.