Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Art-For-Art’s-Sake Theatre:
The Carolina Chocolate Drops

Time once again for our weekly midday Wednesday feature. For this month, we continue our special series for Black History Month.

It would surprise many, black and white, to learn of a tradition of African-Americans playing what was once known as "hillbilly music." For those who would not be surprised, particularly in the Black community, this would be identified with the shameful antebellum era, with ostensibly contented slaves placating their white masters with stereotypical "minstrel show" performances and other self-depreciating routines. The truth is far more complex than that. And if this really is a "post-racial era," isn't it time to take measure of those preconceptions?

The first Black Banjo Gathering was held in Boone, North Carolina, in April of 2005. Sule Greg Wilson and Dom Flemons flew in from Arizona, where they met Rhiannon Giddens. Two months later, they began performing as a trio. Wilson was eventually replaced by Justin Robinson. Today, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are turning heads, and tearing down the walls that define various forms of "roots music."

Among those who may not be as suprised, are those people of color who hail from the Piedmont region -- southern Virginia, and part of both North and South Carolina -- and are themselves the products of centuries of intermarriage between blacks, whites, and native Americans (especially Cherokee). This cross-pollination extends beyond marriage and music. Customs such as "jumping the broom" as the highlight of a marriage ceremony were not confined to indentured servants from Africa, as Scots-Irish whites in the southern Appalachian mountains had a similar practice, due to the infrequency of circuit-riding Baptist and Methodist preachers. (See "Folk Songs of Central West Virginia," Michael E Bush, 1969, self-published.)

But hey, back to the music, right?

Our second clip is a preview of their Nonesuch debut album for the Nonesuch label, Genuine Negro Jig, capturing live performances, and interviews with all three band members. Also included are a few words from the album's producer, Joe Henry, who might want to explain why a full version of this isn't available as a DVD. Our third is a full rendering of "Cornbread and Butterbeans."

What is known as "old-timey music" originated in fiddle tunes from the British Isles, developed in New England and the southern mountains around the dance floor, and was rarely accompanied by lyrics. Bluegrass music, on the other hand, is a relatively modern derivative, mostly as a performance art, which developed around the microphone, and was unsuited for square dancing (which would be lost on many who play Bluegrass, in this writer's experience). Tunes of the sort featured here were more common by the early days of radio, and form a sort of bridge between two very similar yet very different genré.

In more recent news, Genuine Negro Jig was nominated for a Grammy award in the best traditional folk album category. Seeing them get this award would be worth doing a jig, don't you think?

Or don't you?

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