Album Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig
It’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.
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