On occasion, when talented younger musicians attempt to revive fading anachronistic musical styles, they can come across all wrong. These efforts, while mostly well-meaning, can mix the dusty detritus of the archivist with the self-important privilege of the urban alternative artiste, and wind up telling us much more about the latter than they do about the former. Most of the hipster heroes of current American indie-folk fall victim to this effect when they venture deeper into those dark woods (Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Colin Meloy, etc.). The issue can often come down to the inability of these weekend folklorists to subsume their ample creative personas to the simpler demands of the old-timey. Folk music is not an essential craft to artists like this, only a credibility-building bit of sideline dabbling. It may sound naïve to say so, but it doesn’t seem to come from a deeper place.
This is a post-modern problem that could well have wormed its way into the old-time African-American string band sound of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Two classically-trained members (Justin Robinson and Rhiannon Giddens) and an amateur archivist of musical folklore (Dom Flemons) applying their abilities to the now largely-forgotten heritage of the African-American fiddle-and-banjo music of the Piedmont region of the North Carolinian Appalachians may feel more like appropriation than appreciation.
But Flemons, Robinson, and Giddens pull off the trick by sinking imperceptively into the rustic ether of the string rhythms. Though the music is not without personality, it is never overwhelmed by hints of the players’ modern origins. I’m far too cynical about the deluded cultural discourse over authenticity to call it “authentic”, but the truth is close enough to that idea. The band’s roots in the Piedmont region and their tutelage under string band legend Joe Thompson (with whom they released an album last year) get the Carolina Chocolate Drops as close to the folky epicenter of their chosen style as is possible in the 21st century.
Genuine Negro Jig is the Drops’ third record on their own, and first on Nonesuch (besides the album with Thompson, they also contributed to the soundtrack of the Denzel Washington feature The Great Debaters, and Flemons has released two solo albums of his own). Featuring mostly traditional songs alongside two originals and two modern covers, the picking, stomping and sawing is all expert and entirely diverting. Tunes like “Trouble in Your Mind” and “Sandy Boys” have been staples in the band’s live set for some time, and they skip along at a decent clip on record as well. The country dances tend to blend into one another, though not at all in an unpleasant way.
A few numbers will be most notable, especially to modern audiences. The album closes with a hill-country version of Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose”, an apparent cover favorite among folksy acts (Alison Krauss sung it more hauntingly than Robinson on Raising Sand, her Grammy-winning record with Robert Plant). Meanwhile, Giddens’ vocal prowess is front-and-center on a capella English ballad “Reynadine”, a conspicuous stab at a whole different musical tradition.
The album’s indelible moment is a lithe string-band take on Blu Cantrell’s finger-wagging R&B single “Hit ‘Em Up Style”. Pulled precipitously from the fires of jokey irony by Giddens’ passionate blues growl, the cover smartly reverses the group’s usual flow of cultural history. The lyric’s contemporary references to driving BMWs and shopping at Neiman-Marcus clash harshly with the cotton-picking and cornbread-baking of the rest of the album, but the themes of infidelity and payback run through the veins of African-American music. The tune is not an appropriation so much as a reclamation and a recasting. It’s this immersion in their cultural history and their willingness to engage it with their cultural present that sets the Carolina Chocolate Drops apart from the indie-folk dilettantes. Their Negro jig is as genuine as it gets in these fragmented and disingenuous times.