The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band dedicated to playing the fiddle and banjo music of the Piedmont region, has exposed many new listeners to the music of early 20th-century black string bands. The musicians have become the most visible members of a revivalist movement that, by nature of its existence, is doing away with the cultural perception that old-time music is nothing more than the soundtrack of a racist South. In fact, it’s a style that has African roots and has had African American practitioners since its beginnings.
The Drops, formed in 2005, have always offered a deft mix of artistry with education, particularly in their live shows. To say the band has been bound by tradition is wrong, but, at least in the band’s early days, branching out too far beyond the sound the group was created to play would have been beside the point — band members served as historians as much as musicians. Now, on the group’s second label full-length, “Leaving Eden,” the interpretation feels a bit looser; boundaries are pushed a bit further — more and more; the Drops seem to be saying that keeping this music alive means not just playing it but playing with it.
The album is bookended by the traditional: It opens with “Riro’s House,” a piece the group learned from its mentor, legendary fiddler Joe Thompson, who died just last week. It ends with “Pretty Bird,” written by West Virginia bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens and reinterpreted by Drops member Rhiannon Giddens, her beautiful voice backed by chirping crickets and other country porch sounds.
In between those two pieces, which respectfully begin and end the project by paying literal tribute to the past, anything goes, whether it’s a heavy dose of the blues on a revamped “No Man’s Mama” or the mix of old-time banjo work with just a touch of Highlife on “Mahalla,” a new take on a piece from South African slide guitarist Hanne Coetzee.
The evolution could, in part, be the result of a new lineup: When Justin Robinson left the group last year, the other two original members, Dom Flemons and Giddens, brought on guitarist-singer Hubby Jenkins. But on “Leaving Eden,” there are three musicians where before there was just one: Jenkins, as well as beatboxer Adam Matta and cellist Leyla McCalla.
The originals, new songs written with a nod to old-time, are standout. The compositions show that the Drops are more than just great mimics (a rare criticism), or even just great string band players (a common observation), but artists capable of significantly updating and shifting the music they love.
The group has imposed its style on contemporary artists before — Blu Cantrell and Tom Waits remakes appeared on 2010’s “Genuine Negro Gig” — but as interesting as it is to hear modern music in a roots style, blending the two in a brand new work is far more impressive. The title track, a song about a failed mill that forces a migration to an area with better job opportunities, is a perfect bridge between the then and the now. As cellist McCalla plucks, Giddens sings: “The crows are in the kitchen / The wolves at the door / Our father’s land of Eden / Is paradise no more.”
“Country Girl,” written by Giddens and her sister, Lalenja Harrington, is a subtle reminder that the sharp dividing line in the African American culture wars is no longer necessarily the Mason-Dixon. Giddens gleefully sings, “I am a country girl / I been around the world / And everyplace I been / Ain’t quite nothin’ like / Livin’ in the south,” while Matta makes like Doug E. Fresh, delivering mouth work that mimics a DJ’s cutting and scratching.
The newer pieces aren’t better than the traditional ones, they’re just The Drops’ alone — they belong to them, as much as any piece of music can belong to any group. For anyone who has liked the idea of this outfit but thought it silly to spend time on its music, rather than just listening to recordings of black string musicians such as Thompson or the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, this material should convince them to make time to do both.
Godfrey is a freelance writer.
“Riro’s House,” “Country Girl,” “ Mahalla,” “Leaving Eden”