String band sensations stretch the map a little further.
Ninian Dunnett 2012-02-28
The 93-year-old fiddler Joe Thompson died a week before this album was released. He had been a hero of old-time music in Mebane, North Carolina, and they used to say he was the last of the African-American string band players. And he could likely never have imagined his dusty tradition crossing not just the hills of the local Piedmont region but the world’s wide oceans, until he began to mentor a trio of young enthusiasts. Carolina Chocolate Drops have stretched the musical map a notch – and this high-profile follow-up to the Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig kicks off loyally with a stomping tune from Thompson’s repertoire.
It’s strong medicine, too, on an album that takes a less-compromising tilt at tradition than its predecessor. Reports and reviews will tell you about the prickly instrumentation: blowing jug and sawing fiddles, the mouth music of the beatboxer, the gut-string banjo and clacking cow bones of 19th century minstrelsy (“Saturday night femur,” ran one headline). But they don’t convey the tough, unnerving gusto of the music, and Buddy Miller’s production doesn’t smooth off any of the rough edges. The recording crackles with gasps and natural echo, and the virtuosity and imprecision of an ensemble playing full-tilt together. And it’s plain terrific.
Dispelling the myth that black music began with the blues, the Chocolate Drops have reclaimed a swathe of the musical styles that enlivened the South a hundred years ago. Their musical archaeology has taken them to documents like the 1870 songbook that provided the gourd-banjo instrumental Kerr’s Negro Jig, and to old-timers like Joe Thompson. In its early days, too, the group was fostered by Tim Duffy of the wonderful Music Maker Relief Foundation – a unique North Carolina institution that tracks down and supports forgotten musicians – and West End Blues is a mulish banjo tune from Music Maker’s Etta Baker (born 1913).
There’s artful variety; the band may have a particular approach, but they’re no purists. Ragtime, jug band novelties, calypso and even folk-rock jostle among the hoedowns and jigs. And Rhiannon Giddens’ compelling, often strident voice has never been more soulful than on the touching title-track.