Album Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig

Stephen Deusner | February 18th, 2010

genuine-negro-jigIt’d be a shame if the Carolina Chocolate Drops were heard as merely an academic undertaking rather than the damn good pickers, fiddlers, jug blowers, and singers they actually are. The band consists of three African American musicians trained in Piedmont traditions and schooled in styles most commonly ascribed to whites: old-time country, Appalachian folk, bluegrass, jug- and string-band. Their albums constitute a kind of reclamation project, deepening out understanding of African American contributions to rural music even as they reset their decades-old sounds in a thoroughly modern context.

On their second full-length, Genuine Negro Jig, the Chocolate Drops mix old tunes like “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with their own originals and covers of songs by R&B artist Blu Cantrell and Tom Waits. What is remarkable about the album is how well these disparate songs fit together, as if there are no distinctions between them—not in time, not in subject, not in style. The band’s repertoire is broad without losing specificity: Genuine Negro Jig covers a lot of territory, from the reeling banjo jig “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind” to the stirring British folk tune “Reynadine,” delivered a cappella by Rhiannon Giddens. It’s a remarkable song, not simply because Giddens is translating a European song to the mountains of America but primarily because she is such a strong singer, with an expressive quality that’s reinforced by her restraint.

Giddens also sings a time-stopping version of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and a righteously angry cover of Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up Style,” two very different songs that show her emotional and interpretive range. And on the high lonesome “Snowden’s Jig,” with her fellow Chocolate Drops stomping out a beat and playing the bones behind her, Giddens bends her fiddle notes dramatically, pulling the melody apart like taffy. The three band members trade off instruments constantly and take turns in the spotlight: Justin Robinson swings on “Trouble in Your Mind” and delivers an ominous original called “Kissin’ & Cussin’.” Despite its title, the song almost sounds like a murder ballad, with its ominous autoharp strums, thundering bass drum, and Robinson’s starkly menacing lyrics: “Well, tell me pretty baby, do you think you’re too sweet to die? ‘Cause we kiss and we cuss and we carry on.”

That bleak tone is offset by raucous versions of “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” and especially “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” which is perfectly suited to Don Flemons’ laidback vocals. While so many other songs acknowledge the financial conflicts that drive a wedge between men and women—again, a historical theme that sounds perfectly and sadly suited to the present—Flemons advocates rural life as the basis for enduring happiness: “Cornbread and butterbeans, and you across the table / eatin’ them beans and makin’ love as long as I am able.”

Never mind that those words were written years and years ago: They echo the sentiments of so many current country songs about small-town life and downhome values. Approaching the past like it’s not even past, the Chocolate Drops have created an album of feistily complex, yet endearingly soulful songs that have ages of history behind them and a bright future as well.

4.5 Stars

  1. Paul W Dennis
    February 18, 2010 at 8:50 am

    I’ve seen this group appear on several PBS programs and on various NPR programs – they are unique and excellent. My only dissent from this review is that I’d give it the album the full five stars

  2. Rick
    February 18, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Thank goodness there are utterly unique bands out there like the Chocolate Drops that are contributing something of lasting value to America’s traditional music scene. I’m also glad there are roots music festivals and an Americana music scene that support such acts and give them exposure to a wide audience and a way to earn a decent living.

    Rhiannon has an amazing voice its it nice this album includes cuts that let her show off her considerable vocal prowess. This is one of those bands that sounds as good or better live than they do on their recordings and has broader appeal than one might expect. They are a delight to see perform live and got a standing ovation one time at the Grand Ole Opry. The CCD’s music is kind of like the H1N1 virus as once you’ve been exposed it’s infectious! (lol)

    PS – I think this thread should be turned into an album give-away contest for “Genuine Nego Jig” for anyone who posts an intelligent comment! (lol)

  3. Walker
    February 18, 2010 at 11:46 am

    If someone hopped in my truck and picked up “Genuine Negro Jig” right underneath my Hank Williams Jr., I feel like I would be obliged to explain something… what, I am not sure.

  4. Jon
    February 18, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Anyone care to explain to me exactly what they see as unique about the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ music?

  5. Jim Malec
    February 18, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    We all know what Jon thinks of the word “unique” (since he’s told us before), but in this instance I somewhat agree with the point he’s trying to make by asking the question.

    Unique means one of a kind, and there’s little about CCD that fits that description. The fact that they’re black and performing this type of music makes it unique, but I don’t think anyone was directly going there. To say that they’re unique would be to say that no one else is making this kind of music–a statement which is patently false.

    Of course, the point, however true it may be, it moot. Answering it serves no purpose other than to point out how X Person and Y Person are wrong in their application of a particular term.

  6. M.C.
    February 18, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Jim, I’d go a step further and say it’s hardly unique for black musicians to play string music, jug music or anything of the like. The Chocolate Drops themselves openly credit and acknowledge older black string players they have studied under and played with, and they will gladly provide a long list of black bands and musicians they’ve listened to, learned from and admire.

    It is, however, a rare choice these days for younger black musicians to play old-time string music, something CCD band members also bring up and like to discuss. They’re not the only ones, of course, but it’s less than common. They have never claimed the music they make to be unique. I do think they are creating something enjoyable and entertaining that’s steeped in a traditional music, and it has their handprint on it.

  7. Rick
    February 18, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    I meant “unique” more from a marketplace perspective due to the much higher profile the CCD’s have in the Americana realm than any other black artists treading similar territory. The success of the Old Crow Medicine Show has motivated many copycat white musicians to jump on the old-timey, jug band bandwagon. In comparison how many high profile (relatively speaking) black groups are revitalizing old tunes from the ex-slave negro population that lived in the Piedmont Mountains in the early 1900’s? Hmm…

    I could see how members of the “Pine Cone Piedmont Council of Traditional Music” might not find the CCD’s so unique, but here in Los Angeles believe me they are! (lol)
    Link: http://www.pinecone.org/

  8. stormy
    February 18, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Jon: They managed to make Hit ‘Em Up Style almost not suck. That’s unique.

  9. Kelly
    February 19, 2010 at 8:07 am

    I’m guessing that Jon had a pretty solid idea as to what they were referring to. It just wouldnt have been any fun to acknowledge that and let it slide, though.

  10. waynoe
    February 19, 2010 at 8:53 am

    If the band were Caucasian, it would not have received the 4 1/2 stars. There, how’s that for not beating around the bush? However, that is not to say they are not good.

  11. Stephen M. Deusner
    February 19, 2010 at 10:17 am

    As the writer of this piece, I couldn’t disagree more with that comment. I debated between a 4-star rating and a 4 1/2-star rating as I edited my rough draft, and I chose the latter because I thought — and still think — it better reflects the quality of music and the quality of my experience and engagement with that music.

    I stand by that rating even now: unlike the majority of the albums I encounter every year, which can be assessed and then shelved without another lingering thought, this one has not left my desk even after I filed the review. It sits here, demanding that I play it, enjoy it, and engage with it, even at the neglect of current assignments. I’m listening to it right now, in fact.

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