Category: Regional Folk

California Coverfolk, Vol. 1: Here In California
(State Songs, City Songs, Street Songs and more!)

August 4th, 2010 — 12:58 pm

I’ve cheated a little here, penning this a few days in advance just in case something goes awry in our plans, scheduling it to post automatically so you could be here now. But in my mind, it’s Wednesday as I write this, legs up in the passenger seat for a short leg of the long drive from San Simeon to Monterey, where my wife’s relatives will be putting us up at a seaside conference center and resort that boasts such “authentic” rustic environs that it eschews TV and radio, and provides wi-fi solely in the lobby.

Through the windshield, the twisted cliffs part, offering the endless Pacific to our delighted eyes, and I am reminded of the last time I took this journey, untethered and struggling to stay carefree, with a newborn second child, no job and no home to go home to. Now I look at my wife frowning thoughtfully at the road, and at my children playing quietly in the seat behind me, and I smile, comfortable in the knowledge that this, too, shall pass, and it will ever be okay.

We’ve been in California since late Sunday night, flying into LAX in the wee hours, starting our vacation with two nights just North of Los Angeles, visiting my father’s relatives and settling in to the scorched-earth summer landscape; from there, we drove about three hours up the coast, stopping in Santa Barbara for lunch and a look-see, ending the night fireside in a campsite under the stars, thanks to the borrowed tent atop our borrowed station wagon. This morning, we took in Hearst Castle, mostly to serve the spousal preference for grandeur and solitude while the kids and I turned the one-time home to the stars into a playground and scavenger hunt site.

And our grand adventure is still just beginning. Over the next two weeks we’ll be slowly crawling up the coast, visiting old friends and family, never moving more than three or four hours a day, stopping in most cases for two nights at a time, the better to seep in the vastly different environments that comprise this gigantic state. From there, we’ll land in Eugene, OR, for a four-day stay with my brother-in-law and his wife, and fly out of Portland on our anniversary.

It’s my second trip to The Golden State, and our first attempt at a long multi-day driving vacation with the kids, but in the early stages, at least, we’re still happy windowgazing. Promises of giant redwood forests and cave explorations, museums and aquariums, and a day or two more of camping in the long gaps between major cities, help fill the miles, and though the everpresent trucks slow us down a bit on the coastal highway, it’s good to be anywhere, really, three weeks from the school year and under an open sky. Me, I’m looking forward to exploring the smalltowns and subdivisions which, to me, have always offered comfort and cultural epiphany: San Francisco’s Chinatown, Mendocino, Monterey; undiscovered walking villages, hidden oases in the midst of wine country. And since we’ve got plenty of time, it’s a good bet that our journey will bring a few unplanned surprises, too.

The carefree nature of our family vacation lends itself poorly to definitiveness, and anyway, there’s far too many songs of California – of the state itself, and its various locations both intimate and chaotic – to make any attempt at a comprehensive compendium here. Too, for reasons which will soon be apparent, I’m saving a few obvious choices for later in our journey, including the one you’re surely thinking of, and the song which appears in our title above. But here’s a few relatively recent favorites to keep the beat as we drive ever Northward.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday. To listen while you browse, check out our Play! page.

1,835 comments » | California Coverfolk, Regional Folk

Carolina Coverfolk, 2009: The Carolina Chocolate Drops
An African American String Band recreates the original Piedmont blues

April 22nd, 2009 — 01:36 am

Last year’s trip to the American south provided an opportunity to explore the works of Elizabeth Cotten and Doc Watson, two pre-War progenitors of style who, by taking the music of their own communities and reinventing it for the masses, helped define the scope and breadth of modern folk music. I quite enjoyed the research, and though the tracks are long gone, I think the features stand on their own as some of our better work since the blog began.

As I noted earlier this week, this year finds us once again on the outer banks of North Carolina. Rather than mess with a successful formula, our trip occasions a look at some modern inheritors of those traditions. Ladies and Gentlemen: The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

There are two ways to learn music, really: by formal study and by direct transmission. The vast majority of musicians these days learn through the former method, a mixed bag of training, recorded music and noodling, balancing their books on a combination of heart and chords, songbook and soul.

There’s nothing wrong with this, per se: originality, after all, comes of such ownership, coupled with a sense of creation. Indeed, the folkworld thrives on such evolution, depending as it does on a connection to an everchanging culture. Those of us who love modern confessional and coffeehouse folk, not to mention the myriad hybrid forms which have emerged over the last few decades, appreciate the way music stretches and evolves in the hands of such practitioners.

But the transmissionary model isn’t dead. Just as there are audiophiles who insist on the scratchy authenticity of their original 78s, there are still folk musicians who believe that to truly become part of an authentic tradition of music, one must learn the trade authentically, too. From blueswoman Rory Block to Kentucky Appalachian Brett Ratliff, such modern followers of the folkways eschew records and scales, and look to the older ways, seeking out the ancient progenitors of their forms to listen and play along, learning the scratchy, earthy sounds and songs from their elders as if through osmosis.

The result isn’t generally polished, but that’s the point. Instead, such performers tend towards a raw sound, rich in feeling but often sparse in instrumentation, which favors emotional impact over consistent tempo. There’s no gloss here, only timelessness. And folk needs such old blood, too, lest it evolve so far it becomes unrecognizable; lest we lose touch with our origins, and forget that without the old ways to refer to, we cannot have them to reinvent.

Writ large, the Piedmont or “East Coast” blues emanates from a vast swath of rural East Coast America; popular in the early days of recorded music, from the twenties to the forties, its most famous tracks, such as Blind Boy Fuller’s 1940 recording of “Step It Up & Go”, sold as many as half a million copies to blacks and whites alike. Generally, the ragtime-based fingerpicking style which characterizes the once-popular African-American dance music is located as far North as Richmond, VA, and as far south as Atlanta, though of course the emergence of records helped spread the sound much farther in its heyday.

The rediscovery of acoustic blues by folk fans in the sixties brought the music back into the mainstream, bringing many artists out of hiding and into the festival circuit, where they began to trade licks. Today, the Piedmont style and its repertoire can be found in the modern playing of many formally trained folk musicians, from Leo Kottke to Paul Simon.

Modern inheritors of the Piedmont sound, the “African American string band” Carolina Chocolate Drops may have found each other through the newest technology — two of the three met in a listserv and chatspace for Black banjo fans and players — but they picked up their music the old way, seeking out the oldest surviving members of the Piedmont style, learning at the feet of fellow North Carolinans Algia Mae Hinton and Etta Baker, who passed just before the ‘Drops released their debut albums Heritage and Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind in 2007.

Learning from North Carolina musicians magnifies the Carolinan connection in this particular incarnation. Fans of Baker, Hinton, and Carolina Chocolate Drops mentor Joe Thompson of Mebane, NC, said to be the last black traditional string band player, will hear the mannerisms of each in their playing. Even their name, which recalls that of 1920s fiddle-led band the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, pays tribute to the combination of form and geography.

Mountain strings — the banjo, guitar, and fiddle — feature heavily in the Piedmont sound, though not all at the same time; these, plus a smorgasbord of washboards, jugs, combs, and other household instruments round out the Carolina Chocolate Drops performance. But in the end, the instrumentation and the process are subservient to the madcap, heartfelt, almost desperately gleeful energy of the Piedmont style itself, as reincarnated here. It’s dance music, designed to get you jumping, appealing to your basest instincts, your wildest primal hopes and fears.

Here’s a short set of samplers — a modern cover done up old style, a video link to a great version of an old classic learned from Etta Baker, a handful of traditional tracks from their albums, soundtracks, and live appearances — which, in their timelessness and raw beauty, prove the value of the osmotic process, even as they celebrate the eternal spirit of the music itself.

Like what you hear? Carolina Chocolate Drops will be appearing at Merlefest this weekend, way on the other end of the state, but there’s more than one way to support the old ways; musicians can’t survive without fans who buy records, and though they’re not due for a new disk until early 2010, the Carolina Chocolate Drops catalog is well worth owning. Buy direct from the artists, or head out to your local record store; both strategies help spread the word and warm the heart while keeping music small and local.

Today’s Bonus Tracks feature a few more covers learned by and from harmonica player Sonny Terry and blues picker Etta Baker, both members of the older generation of North Carolinan-based Piedmont blues musicians.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • On Race and the Folk Community
  • Carolina Coverfolk, Redux: Songs of the South
  • 1,537 comments » | Blues, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Regional Folk