Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Infatuated with the Past: Carolina Chocolate Drops' Leaving Eden

The new Carolina Chocolate Drops CD Leaving Eden (Nonesuch, 2012) is an album that seeks to acknowledge the American past with its eclectic mix of jig, blues and ballads, where the historical roots even go far back to the 1870s. Sepia images not only grace the cover and liner notes, the instrumentation is banjo, jugs, fiddles and bones used for percussion. I’m not entirely certain of the band’s intentions regarding their image, but as far as the music is concerned, producer Buddy Miller has captured the soul of a band infatuated with the past and not afraid to show it.

American roots music has much to celebrate in the 21st Century as a new generation of musicians seeks out a tradition that is old and as un-hip as one could imagine. For the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who bill themselves as progenitors of Negro Jug Music, the whole notion of being fashionable takes on an image completely removed from the mainstream. In many ways, this North Carolina trio goes beyond categorization. Rhiannon Giddens (vocals / banjo / fiddle), Dom Flemons (vocals / percussion / banjo) and Hubby Jenkins (guitar / banjo) came together in 2005 while trading instruments and playing a particular brand of music associated with the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina. The Piedmont region covers an area from New Jersey to Georgia, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia. It was in these foothills that Piedmont blues, a mix of ragtime, folk songs and African American spirituals, was born. By the 1920s, guitarists such as Blind Blake developed a sound that was eventually captured on record, thanks to the work of Alan Lomax, the historian who travelled the world with his reel-to-reel tape recorder. His recordings made for the Library of Congress are essential to understanding the history of American roots music.

Photo by by Rich Gastwirt
The Carolina Chocolate Drops released three albums before being signed to the Nonesuch label in 2010 for Genuine Negro Jig. It was a decent record that introduced the band to a larger audience, topping the bluegrass charts and winning the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk album of the year. That record was produced by Joe Henry, and while good, it sounded too stiff to be “genuine” to my ears. The band played the music but failed to stir the deeper feelings essential to playing the Piedmont style. Leaving Eden is a much more exciting and spirited record that leaps out of your speakers from the start. Recorded at Buddy Miller’s house in Nashville, the album is fully realized by an “off-the-floor” rawness that best captures the immediacy of the band. This is a group interested in researching and playing post Civil War compositions as earnestly as possible. Miller has captured that dedicated effort very well, producing an album of foot-stomping, high energy music from the foothills of North Carolina.

Highlights include the traditional songs “Riro’s House,” “Read ‘em John,” and “I Truly Understand that You Love Another Man,” first recorded by Shortbuckle Roarke in 1927. Ironically the songs that stand out for me are from the modern era: “No Man’s Mama” and “Leaving Eden,” the latter composed last year. Ethel Waters recorded “No Man’s Mama” in 1925, and Rhiannon Giddens sings the song with just the right degree of relish. It’s about the freedom a woman enjoys after being divorced, and is far removed from the jug music repertoire. It’s a great version begging the question in my mind as to why her songs aren't covered more often.

“Leaving Eden” is the strongest song on the record because it’s so contemporary. It’s the story of a mill town in America losing out to globalization. While the band covers music going back several generations, it’s interesting to hear a song whose subject matter offers new opportunities for the group’s consideration. It is this paradox that I think Carolina Chocolate Drops are trying to sort out. Perhaps they are considering the lament of a nation in 2012 that seeks to understand itself and its own history. For these young musicians, who are barely into their 30s, the stark idealism of America is as much a nightmare as it is a dream.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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