Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Genuine Negro Jig is the fourth album of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, one of the few African-American string bands playing today. Its label debut was released on February 16, 2010, while its vinyl version, which included the album on 140-gram vinyl and CD, was released on July 13. This is the first and so far only album the band has recorded for Nonesuch Records. It was highly successful, reaching the top ten on the Billboard Folk chart and the top of the Bluegrass chart.
Like most of the Carolina Chocolate Drops' work, the album, a mixture of traditional folk songs and recent pieces, is part of the Chocolate Drops' effort to celebrate the string band music of the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, and the influence of African-Americans on this music. On NPR, band member Rhiannon Giddens pointed out that "it seems that two things get left out of the history books. One, that there was string band music in the Piedmont, period. (And that) black folk was such a huge part of string tradition." Although the music the Chocolate Drops play is quite eclectic, the band members claim that early 20th-century African American string bands also drew from a wide range of genres in their musical repertoire. In describing the music, Giddens discusses how she was inspired but not bound by the genres in which she works - "Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians."
Genuine Negro Jig was well received by critics. Blogcritics writes that "our ears are all the better for it" and is "hoping that this record will not only put the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the map, but will also draw new listeners in to the genres of old country and blues." The 9513describes Genuine Negro Jig as "an album of feistily complex, yet endearingly soulful songs that have ages of history behind them and a bright future as well." Paste magazine calls the Chocolate Drops "the genuine article" whose "enthusiasm for the tradition is obvious."The Guardian writes that the album is "well worth checking out."
The album was nominated for a 2010 Grammy in the best traditional folk album category.
"Two years on from their debut album Heritage, Carolina Chocolate Drops are now recording for a more high-profile label, have acquired a more high-profile producer (Joe Henry, who has worked with Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello) but are sounding as fresh and enthusiastic as ever. When they first emerged, they were inevitably seen as something of a novelty - a young black trio determined to show that black musicians played an important role in the history of American string band music - but the strength of their playing and singing showed that they meant business. If anything, this set is even better and is certainly more varied. There are driving new arrangements of traditional songs like Trouble in Your Mind and Sandy Boys, showing off their rousing fiddle and banjo work, a stomping treatment of the standard Cornbread and Butterbeans, and the good time jug-band piece, Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine. Mixed in with all this are the ¬surprises. Blu ¬Cantrell's R&B song of female ¬revenge Hit 'Em Up Style is ¬reworked with taut ¬fiddle backing, and there's a fine unaccompan¬ied ¬rendition of the folk song Reynadine from ¬Rhiannon ¬Giddens. They are well worth ¬checking out." - Guardian
"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." - The9513
Rolling Stone (p.71) - "[The album] features exuberant treatments of antique party favors like 'Cornbread and Butterbeans' and 'Papa'..."
Spin (p.83) - "[T]oe-tapping versions of traditional tunes like 'Cindy Gal' peel away nostalgia to reveal a bracing vitality."
CMJ - "'Cindy Gal' is composed of loud fiddle and five-string banjo playing in conjunction with Dom Flemon's deep vocals..."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.99) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[They] play old stringband music with both stylistic authenticity and modern sensibility..."
Paste (magazine) (p.55) - "[T]he trio spans from traditional arrangements to self-penned works and stringband makeovers of modern-day works..."
Audio Mixer: Ryan Freeland.
Recording information: The Garfield House, South Pasadena,CA (01/09/2009-01/16/2009).
Photographer: Julie Roberts .
The problem with flirting with old music styles in the digital speedway of the 21st century is the curse of revivalism, a tendency to reduce contemporary stresses and pressures to a perceived better time in the safe and distant past when things were simpler, clearer, and, well, more pure. But of course it's always now -- it's never then or when -- and musical revivalism can suffer from a kind of strictly enforced and ultimately empty artifice. A facsimile is still a facsimile -- it can never, by definition, be the thing itself. This is the dilemma for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a contemporary string band trio who, under the watchful eye of mentor Joe Thompson, re-create the look, feel, and sound of a 19th century black North Carolina fiddle and banjo band. Oh, and they do it well, with passion and integrity. But the problem is that it's not that hard to find the original recordings of the old black string bands, so why re-create them? There's the crack in the ice of music revivals. The original stuff -- this is the 21st century, after all, and the whole history of recorded music is readily available -- is still out there. Genuine Negro Jig doesn't rise above this conundrum, but with Joe Henry's clear, open-spaced and sparse production, it has a wonderful warmth and immediacy. The classic "Trouble in Your Mind," even with the flashback approach and instrumentation, sounds relevant to today's troubles. The gentle street ragtime of "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" would sound just fine in any era, as would the delightful romp of "Cindy Gal," or the easy, natural blues of "Why Don't You Do Right?" Genuine Negro Jig is perfectly recorded, balanced between the best sound this century can deliver and the rustic, throwback feel of an old-time string band in action at a picnic, dance or rent party in the '30s. That's the accomplishment here. The next step, if the Carolina Chocolate Drops are willing to go there, is to stretch things from being a great facsimile to being a natural extension of an ongoing tradition. That's when revival changes into evolution. ~ Steve Leggett
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