LIVE: CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS AT ROYCE HALL
April 9, 2012
By Randall Roberts
About halfway through the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ gig at Royce Hall on Friday night, singer, stringed-instrument player, dancer and all-around show-stopper Rhiannon Giddens picked up a big, old banjo with a body the size of a hubcap and covered in goatskin. Called a minstrel-style banjo, it’s a replica of an instrument from the mid-1800s, and when played reproduced the same deep, echoed plonk that traveled over from Africa with the slave trade.
Giddens and co-founder Dom Flemons had already swapped out instruments a few times, juggling guitars, banjos, harmonicas, jugs, bones and fiddles among themselves and the phenomenal New York instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins while cellist Leyla McCalla bowed and plucked roaming bass lines. But this minstrel-style banjo was so filled with symbolic importance that it deserved its own introduction, and as Giddens and her kindred spirits plucked out “Brigg’s Corn Shucking Jig,” from the group’s new album, “Leaving Eden,” the sound of early American folk music poured forth.
Throughout the show, the Durham, N.C.-birthed Chocolate Drops schooled a packed hall with such context, offered the ins and outs of pre-World War II country blues, old-time fiddle music, waltzes and minstrel songs via the music of, among others, Hobart Smith, Charlie Poole and “Bogus Ben” Covington. Along the way, the group illustrated the complicated, remarkable history that ultimately gave birth to the blues, country, rock ’n’ roll and virtually every variation that followed, from hip-hop to black metal.
By resurrecting a batch of songs that otherwise could have been heard only via salvaged pop-and-hiss 78 rpm records, or as in the case of a few of them, within the deteriorating pages of old sheet music, they offered a vivid picture of rural folk and work songs, the kind that spread like a wild varietal after being introduced to the culture of the American South in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the decades passed, these styles intermingled with other regional accents both black and white to create the blueprint of American popular music.
All this context and all this history, although fascinating, is nothing compared to the guitar-banjo-fiddle-cello groove the quartet created in the first four bars of the first song, “Kerr’s Negro Jig.” These are not only obsessive music-historians but also expert players whose fret-board fingers traveled miles over the course of the night. On “Hit ’Em Up Style,” they transformed Blu Cantrell’s 2001 R&B hit into an old-time gem. The Drops didn’t even need their instruments, though: During “Read ’Em John,” a song borrowed from an old John Lomax field recording from the ’50s, the only necessaries were rhythmic-hand clapping and call-and-response shouting.
What the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which won a Grammy Award for traditional folk album for their 2010 “Genuine Negro Jig,” delivered was often thrilling. But it also conveyed an important message. A kind of national shame has clouded much of this history, resulting in these slave songs being ignored or intentionally forgotten. It could be one reason why hip-hop producers seldom sample pre-civil rights-era sounds. In such an aspirational genre as rap, it makes little sense to reference the downtrodden rural life, let alone American minstrelsy — the early practice of blackface singing among whites and blacks of the 19th and early 20th centuries — without reflexively (and understandably) dwelling on the stereotyped mimicry at its heart.
But as the group proved Friday, within the history of enslavement can be found incredibly powerful music with a brand of resilience that, unlike the system that ensnared its creators, not only has survived but has also emerged victorious over it. The Carolina Chocolate Drops didn’t just manifest this music but proved how much energy remains within these songs.