The charm of the Carolina Chocolate Drops
Sophisticated New Yorkers will sing along with old-timey fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo-playin’, from those foot-stompin’ and harmonizin’ younguns—provided they are friendly, attractive and talented post-racial post-modernists. Proof was provided Feb. 2 by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Grammy-nominated trio who played the Allen Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.
In a 90-minute set of songs in the color-line-blurring folk style that cohered in America’s rural southeast Piedmont region about 200 years ago, Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson—with a little help from sitter-in Hubby Jenkins—traded vocal leads, passed their instruments around and charmed a largely middle-aged, almost completely pale-faced, obviously cosmopolitan crowd. Sitting and standing to buck-dance onstage before floor-to-ceiling windows, the group plucked and sang such nearly forgotten standards as “The Boatman’s Dance,” a big hit in 1843 for Dan Emmett and his blackfaced Virginia Minstrels. The Drops didn’t downplay the evil of blackface, but they asserted that the music is as entertaining now as it was then. And they demonstrated as such with infectious spirit.
They applied the same down-home acoustic treatment to “Hit ’Em Up Style,” Blu Cantrell’s 2001 R&B/hip-hop song of economic revenge on cheating mates. That tune has become a YouTube favorite (with approximately 466,000 views) for the Drops, which convened in 2005 and could be the tip of an iceberg of revivalist roots ensembles. In today’s fashion, the act is both genuinely refreshing and an ironic novelty. The Chocolate Drops know this, flaunting its unusual profile as a black string band by titling its second album Genuine Negro Jig.
“This is not exactly back porch music,” said Giddens, who played hot violin licks, sang with a strong, appealing voice and, like her bandmates, relied on the power of direct, familiar address. Never mind that few in the five boroughs have a back porch: Maybe we all want the comfort and nostalgia-laced fantasy of friends and family gathering together to hoot ‘n’ holler, admire nimble fingers flying across fretboards, commiserate about love gone bad, celebrate love that’s good, protest social ills and praise the Lord (even the non-believers). Is there better company for such doings than the Drops?
Flemons, a tall, thin, somewhat geeky gent who wore a pork-pie hat, brown shirt and brown pants with suspenders for the performance, flashed his castanet-like rhythm-clickers in sweeping arcs of his long arms, telegraphing the beat. Dreadlocked Robinson, clad in street clothes with eye-catching neon-diamond socks, didn’t need the jug to amplify his human beat-box percussion (at concert’s end, it was announced he will be leaving the band due to tour-burnout). Giddens, in jeans, a loose v-neck blouse and low-heeled ruby slippers that she kicked off (the better to Charleston), is no anorexic glitter queen. Instead, she looks like a student who lives down the block. The three projected confidence, warmth, smarts and fun.
All of them—including Jenkins, whose feature was Robert Johnson’s blues “From Four ’til Late”—believe that the quick, stereotypically high-pitched airs that snobby urbanites may associate with wizened rednecks or the soundtracks to O Brother Where Art Thou and Deliverance are theirs to enjoy, too. They’ve done the homework to know that people of African-American descent were involved in country music from the very start, same as in the birth of rock ’n’ roll.
Consider it settled: American music belongs to all Americans. Racial bigotry that, in this nation’s past, ruled many social exchanges by legal fiat was often enough put aside in favor of musical merit at the county fair fiddle contests, barnyard pickin’ sessions, informal meetings in the hills and dales where laboring families of diverse origin but comparable economic means holed up and tended the land. The Piedmont’s 80,000 square miles from southern New Jersey to Alabama were settled before the American Revolution by immigrants from the British isles, Germany, France, Spain and Switzerland as well as Africans—enslaved or free. Mix up the different skills, preferences and traditions new citizens of a new world brought from their former lives and what do you get? Maybe something like the Drops, who recorded a just-released four-song EP with Brooklyn’ s Luminscent Orchestrii—which Giddens characterized as “gypsy-klezmer-tang-punk-old timey” music.
The Chocolate Drops don’t live here, but New York has its own black string band, the Ebony Hillbillies. Four men—who may not be as young and cute as the Drops but just as cool—who you may have seen play in the subway, certified by the MTA’s Music Under New York program. Just back from a weeklong tour of Bulgaria, they’ll perform for free at Penn Station on the afternoons of Feb. 15 and 22—gigs scheduled in honor of Black History Month.