Retelling the History of Black Music: Adventures in Retro-ism
Rightly or wrongly, black audiences have always tended to chase musical innovation, not musical reverence.
Wax Poetics Anthology,Publisher: Wax Poetics
Subtitle: Volume 1
US publication date: 2007-10
The story of black music in America is often told as a continuum of evolution. From the first drummers, rural performers, and recital hall chorales, we now have major ensembles and acclaimed visionaries. From piano players in juke joints and rent parties, we now have solo virtuosos on concert stages. From guitarists picking up change on street corners, we now have incredible pyrotechnic displays in packed arenas. And in the most influential mash-up of technology, economics, sociology and culture of our time, anyone with a sampler can recall and repurpose any piece of all that history at the touch of a button.
All well and good, except that as we wind down the first decade of the 21st century, all that restless artistic innovation seems to have ground to a halt. The black pop, gospel and jazz of 2007-08 doesn’t sound radically different from that of 1997-98. Where the black music of, say, 1988 sounded little like that of 1978 (which sounded a little like 1968, which sounded a little like 1958, and so on), there aren’t too many obvious differences between what we’re listening to now, and what we were digging in the recent past. For various reasons I’ll leave for others to unpack, this isn’t an era of bold musical leaps forward. There are outstanding talents on all levels, certainly, and individual restlessly creative spirits as well, major artists whose work we will enjoy for years to come. But no movement or trend has emerged just yet to take any strain of black music to the next level, whatever that level might be.
So it probably shouldn’t be too surprising that in a year that didn’t have a lot of noteworthy new musical statements to offer, two of the more intriguing CD releases of 2007 looked backward more than forward. Outside of their general existence apart from the black pop culture mainstream, they have virtually nothing in common, except for their devotion to styles long since abandoned by that mainstream. They’ve both been warmly received by their core audiences, which are both mostly white but with (slowly) growing numbers of blacks. And as they both call attention to the richness of black musical creativity over this last century-plus, they also give rise to the same musical question: how much do black people in 2008 really know about the heritage of black music? And further, how much do they care?
Let’s start with an outfit that wears its retro heart proudly on its sleeve. After years of working the hipster/indie rock circuit, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings finally broke into the mainstream last year – sorta. For the uninitiated, they’re the flagship band of the Daptone label, a Brooklyn-based establishment devoted to recreating the soul and funk sound of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. But they’re not giving new work to artists who first played this music back then; most of the bands are younger musicians making new explorations into the genre.
Of all the Daptone acts, Jones & co. clearly constitute the best story. Jones grew up with the music and sang wherever she could scrounge up a gig, but never got love from record companies until she hooked up in the mid-‘90s with Gabriel Roth, Daptone’s proprietor and the Dap-Kings’ leader. Ever since then, they’ve been churning out retro-soul with almost obsessive attention to detail, down to the recording techniques and cover art. And they’re damn good at it: the first time I heard their cover of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” I momentarily thought the song had first been done in 1966, not 1986.
The year 2007 saw the band’s release 100 Days 100 Nights get written up in big-time media, and even score impressively for an indie product on various sales charts. But it was another Dap-Kings effort that garnered the bigger hype. They were the backup band for most of Amy Winehouse’s notorious Back to Black (Universal), and supported her on those live shows she was able to fulfill. Winehouse and her producer, dj Mark Ronson, are kindred spirits with the Daptone crew when it comes to ‘60s soul worship. The end result crackled with freshness, sounding every bit of the moment even as it referenced ‘60s pop-soul icons from Dusty Springfield to Ashford and Simpson.
But the music’s heart was rooted in an era long ago and far away; thus every time Winehouse’s insouciant declarations of “no, no, no” rang out from coffeehouses, Grey’s Anatomy placements and wherever else “Rehab” was in rotation, Daptone stealthily advanced its mission of making the world safe once again for three-minute slices of orchestrated sass, tight arrangements and blissful disregard of any musical trend that happened after, say, 1971.
Further evidence of Daptone’s no-stone-unturned, relentlessly on-message adherence to the soul milieu comes on a label sampler included with 100 Days 100 Nights. “Binky Griptite’s GhettoFunkPowerHour” drops excerpts from various Daptone releases into an imaginary ‘60s black radio show, complete with a groovy-talking dj (Griptite, who also serves as a Dap-Kings guitarist) offering smooth chatter introducing the various selections; one wonders if they found black dj airchecks to model the patter after, or if Griptite just has a natural flair for this sort of thing.
The product is an extremely clever conceit – throwback music as programmed by a throwback radio station – that effectively shows off how deeply Daptone has dug into black music’s crates (not just soul, but also soul jazz, boogaloo and even a little Afrobeat). The young Daptone artists have aced their homework, with mighty assists from Jones and other label mates who lived this music the first time around. One senses that if the “chitlin’ circuit” of black nightclubs and theaters still existed, Daptone would take to it like Muslims make pilgrimages to Mecca (in fact, the band marked the release of 100 Days 100 Nights with a concert at NYC’s famed Apollo Theater).
The retro-funk movement isn’t really new, of course. Over on the left coast there’s Ubiquity, the LA-based label that takes its name from vibist Roy Ayres’ bands of the ‘70s. Ubiquity takes a three-pronged approach to its labour of love: licensing and reissuing forgotten soul records; putting out new music from retro-funk bands like Ohmega Watts; and reviving the careers of obscure legends like Darando, the erstwhile singer/ladies’ man/cable access TV star whose handful of ‘70s hits became highly valued collectors’ items.
It would seem that before Ubiquity released in early 2006 Let My People Go, a collection of those classic hits and other stuff found on a long-lost demo reel, Darondo was one of the last people to make a record in the soul and funk eras who hadn’t gotten 15 more minutes of fame. Just about every back-in-the-day artist of note has been reissued, either in a major-label box with exhaustive liner notes or in a multi-disc series that dug up some previously unearthed stuff that no one thought enough of to release when it was new. The minor figures have gotten their due too, with lovingly compiled collections that convincing argue for their place within the broader black music pantheon.
And then there’s the retro-funk bible Wax Poetics, a bimonthly journal devoted to all corners of the funk and early hip-hop universe, with special love and emphasis on the lesser figures. Jones was written up in the very first issue; selections from the first five issues have been collected in Wax Poetics Anthology (Wax Poetics Books).
We can thank rap music for much of this. As hip-hop sampling has brought all manner of obscure beats back into view, a network of djs, collectors and other obsessives has emerged to celebrate those funky sounds excavated from attics, second-hand stores, and wherever else old vinyl has accumulated (in a way, they parallel the work of collectors in the ‘50s who fiended for blues records of the ‘20s and ‘30’s – more on that later). Overall, they’ve greatly expanded our knowledge of soul and funk, not to mention generate some new paydays for folks who could all but surely use the cash.
In little more than a decade, from roughly the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘70s, there was an awful lot of incredible music pouring forth from nightclubs, basement studios, and mini-empires throughout the American ‘hood. Stax and Motown we know, James Brown and Sly Stone we worship, Funkadelic and the Ohio Players and all the other major bands we can still party to for days on end. But there were more regional favorites, one-hit wonders, unlucky dreamers and underground visionaries than those who weren’t around back then might have ever realized were it not for the efforts of these intrepid chasers of the funk.
Yet all this curatorial energy, all this digging in the crates, doesn’t capture a whole lot of attention within the black pop mainstream. Sure, folks understand that rap music plucks beats from older records, but relatively fewer people consider it a need-to-know factoid that, for example, Blue Note has (once again) issued a collection of oft-sampled tunes from its catalog (Droppin’ Science, in case you hadn’t heard). And while 100 Days 100 Nights has done well on the Amazon.com R&B chart (no, I didn’t know they had one, either), try finding it on a black pop radio playlist; you might well starve before finding “Rehab” there, too.
This is not due to ignorance or disregard on the part of black pop audiences, nor is it (entirely) the fault of pigheaded close-mindedness on the part of black radio programmers (all five of them – at Clear Channel, Infinity, Radio One, and the two remaining black pop-format stations in the country that aren’t owned by one of those conglomerates). The fact here, is that while Daptone and its peers do an excellent job of trafficking in black music of yore, black music’s audience of today isn’t particularly interested in revisiting the previous generation – and never has been.
Aside from those artists (musicians, composers, songwriters, djs, etc.) who seek to bring the work of the masters into a contemporary context, or folks who seek the comfort food-like effect of hearing jams from their youth, retro-anything has never been a path to black pop mainstream success. Simply put, black audiences don’t look back to older styles for current entertainment. They appreciate that it paved they way for the stuff they’re enjoying now, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to create playlists of it on their iPods. Trips down memory lane or history lessons, perhaps, but for expressions of what they’re feeling in the here and now, not so much.
Looking backward has always been a dual-edged sword for black people. On the one hand, there are all those examples of triumph over adversity to build on and admire. On the other hand, there’s all that adversity that we had to triumph over, and no one wants to relive that. There’s the telling moment in Ellen Weissbrod’s bio-documentary Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones (1990) where Ella Fitzgerald shakes her head to the off-screen interviewer, shuddering “no, not today,” before reluctantly being drawn into recounting tales of the hard times black performers experienced touring in the Jim Crow South of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Every generation of black pop has built upon the previous iteration to create a sound that reflects its own reality. As times have changed, their soundtracks have changed to reflect and comment upon the energy in the air. In the ‘40s, bebop’s aloof intricacies supplanted swing’s simplistic crowd-pleasing, but by the ‘60s, free jazz had eclipsed bop as the jazz of the zeitgeist. The electric blues of the ‘50s spoke to its time that the acoustic sounds of the ‘30s did not, but by the late 60’s, all blues music sounded like echoes of massa’s plantation to the Black Power generation. The gritty Temptations of “Cloud Nine” were right for the late ‘60s in a way that the Vegas-ready Temptations of “My Girl” a few short years prior were not.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
Rightly or wrongly, black audiences have always tended to chase musical innovation, not musical reverence. Given the choice between “now” and “then”, they’ve chosen “now” every single time, no matter how powerful or sublime “then” was, or how right for its moment the “then” was when it was the “now”. In the black pop mind, “now” represents the reality of the current day and the hope for, or promise of, better days to come, while “then” represents an unwelcome reminder of harder times and oppression left in the dust.
White fans of older black music, and to an increasing extent younger black connoisseurs, don’t have that same relationship to black history’s dark past. To them, the music does not connote difficult memories of difficult days, or of a black culture less advanced and self-assured than the current world. Unburdened by intimate attachments to, and uncomfortable memories of, the history beyond the music, they’re much freer to accept the music on its own terms (although, often not without some preconceptions of their own – more on that later, too).
So in the retro-black pop world, a song that evokes Otis Redding is a powerful piece of music, not a reminder of how hard life used to be. A mixtape hearkening back to ‘60s AM radio is a cool marketing gimmick, not an unrecognizable relic from a bygone era. Sharon Jones is the Queen of Retro Soul, but in the current-black pop world, she’s all but unknown. Those listeners might like her if they heard her, but she and her crew won’t replace Mary J. Blige or Keysha Cole in the black pop mainstream’s hearts and minds anytime soon. Nothing personal, it’s just that in the black pop music mainstream, time marches on.
So if an outfit that traffics in a music that, while no longer specifically in fashion still sounds kinda like the here-and-now, exists in some other universe, what then is the black pop cultural mainstream supposed to do with the Carolina Chocolate Drops?
Once upon a time, dinosaurs roamed the earth, education was available only to the wealthy, and black people played fiddles, banjos and jugs.
Like much else in America regarding culture and race, the story of how musical strains twisted up with each other is gloriously complicated. European and African traditions found common ground in the American South; thus did banjos (of African origin) mash up with guitars (from Europe), and the stringband became a staple of early 20th century American music. Both whites and blacks played stringband music, which was a cousin to the blues music that began to emerge from another strain of that cultural co-mingling. But while it’s commonly understood that the white stringbands were the forerunners of country and bluegrass music, the black stringband tradition, as exemplified by groups like the Mississippi Sheiks and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, was all but abandoned by history, as blues music came to be known as the black music of the pre-WWII South. The remaining black stringband players stubbornly held on to their tradition as modern times and the music industry left them behind (yes, more about that later too).
Enter the Carolina Chocolate Drops, three most unlikely champions of old-time music. Their name reflects much: an obvious homage to the past, their current base of operations, and the style of music they play, commonly called the Piedmont sound, in reference to that region of the Carolinas at the eastern ridge of the Applalchian mountains. In 2005, Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemings, and Justin Robinson met at a gathering of black banjo players, and shared their mutual passion for the black stringband tradition. They formed a band, and took on Joe Thompson, one of the last surviving old-school songsters (as they were called, to distinguish them from blues musicians), as a mentor.
What makes these Drops an anomaly within today’s music scene is the fact that they’re way closer to Lil’ Wayne’s age than Thompson’s. Giddens is the oldest of the trio, and she just turned 30. It’s not unexpected for young white musicians to embrace the old-time tradition – it’s been kept alive by everyone from Ricky Skaggs to Iris DeMent to the Hackensaw Boys, who bring a manic, punk-like energy to the mix. But for young black musicians to embrace old-time music when most of their peers have no clue in the world that it even exists? Well, that’s news.
Their debut CD Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (Music Maker) is no mere novelty act. The Drops invest these dozen traditional songs – including an instrumental version of “Dixie” – with skill, clarity and reverence. They’ve learned their lessons from Thompson and other keepers of the flame. Where a project like bluesman Otis Taylor’s Recapturing the Banjo (Telarc) uses relatively modern songs like “Hey Joe” to get today’s crowd used to hearing a banjo in a black music context, the Drops’ CD sticks to the old-time canon (although they’ve been known to work in their take on a Blu Cantrell R&B hit in concert). But it doesn’t sound like an obsessively fussy relic. In fact, as the band calls out the steps on the ring-dance number “Ol’ Corn Likker” or “Little Sadie” barrels head-first towards its conclusion, one might even say they sorta rock.
They’ve become hits on the folk circuit, even performing at a recent anniversary celebration at Chicago’s venerable Old Town School of Folk Music. But that scene’s about as white as the Essence Music Festival is black, so most of their black audiences are at the educational gigs they play, where they introduce youngsters to a long-forgotten piece of their heritage.
Ah yes, that heritage thing. Elders like to bitch and moan that young black folks don’t know their history, and to a certain extent that’s true. But it’s also true that said history has branches and tributaries that some of those elders wouldn’t recognize. The Drops play music that some blacks might denigrate as “hillbilly” or worse, not realizing that black people helped create that music way back when, and helped keep it alive in its lush backyard long after the rest of the world moved on.
I’d love to see the Drops pull up to any busy intersection in any ‘hood, break out their jugs and fiddles, open up the guitar case for change from passers-by, and start blowing. The inevitable puzzled expressions would be a surefire YouTube hit. But I bet more than a few onlookers would stop for a minute, linger for a while, and maybe even tap their feet or clap their hands.
Even if they don’t do that, they’ve accomplished something mighty significant already in their young careers. They’ve reminded all of us that the Southern black musical tradition is bigger than just the blues. Just as Daptone and the other retro-funkateers have helped reveal the depths of black music from 40-odd years ago, the Drops have opened the door to the richness of black music more than 40 years older than that. Just don’t expect many black people not already pre-disposed to old-time music, or to intrepid explorations of the black music diaspora, to walk through that door.
All that earlier stuff about Sharon Jones vs. Keyshia Cole, the “now” vs. the “then”, goes quadruple here: after generations of entrenched perceptions of difference, old-time music just isn’t going to be seen as part and parcel of black culture by the masses of black people, the Drops’ evangelism to the contrary. In the pop world it’s usually youth that’s served, so it’s understandable that the Dap-Kings or the Drops won’t displace Soulja Boy from the top of the ringtone charts anytime soon.
But if we embrace the opportunity for re-discovery these CDs afford us, we just might realize that there’s more to black music than what even the savviest among us might suspect. With a little of the crate-digger’s diligence or the revivalist’s devotion, we can easily discover that the narrative we’ve been handed down through the years about the fullness of the black music tradition has lots of holes and gaps.
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Watch for Retelling the History of Black Music: Everything You Know About the Blues Is Wrong