Category: Carolina Chocolate Drops

New and (Re)Covered:
Carolina Chocolate Drops, Patty Griffin, and Suzanne Vega

January 27th, 2010 — 07:55 pm

The mailbag is bursting with delight – so full, in fact, that I’ve decided that next week will be New Artists, Old Songs Week here at Cover Lay Down, featuring a whole host of new artists who have kindly sent along their demos, one-off tracks, and pre-releases in anticipation of greater recognition for the next generation. It is, as always, an honor to be able to share these folks with you; I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I do, and pursue the links provided here to support their emerging talent.

While we compile and winnow the wonderful new voices that have come our way in the last several weeks, let’s clear the palate a bit by regrounding our ears in a few more familiar faces and thematically relevant songs which have popped up in the inbox alongside that cornucopia. Here, that means yet another installment of our popular (Re)Covered feature, with news, new songs, and newly-found tracks that have come our way, and should be coming your way, too, now that the new year has turned.

I finally managed to catch the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who we first featured back in April, last weekend at the Somerville Theater, and was utterly thrilled to find they are even more stunning in concert than I had imagined. Their infectious joy in not just recovering but truly rejuvenating a whole set of found song, from old country blues and minstrel-show jazz to stringband and rural jugband classics, is evident in every smile, holler, and nuanced move on an array of authentic instruments, from quills and autoharp to banjo, fiddle, guitar, voice and bones. And as performers and ethnomusicologists, their patter and performance offers a first rate journey through the folk traditions of Black America.

New album Genuine Negro Jig, which will include a studio version of their infamous Blu Cantrell cover and a delicious take on Tom Waits’ Trampled Rose alongside a whole new set of resurrected stringband and old-time jazz and blues tunes done in their inimitable Piedmont style, drops on February 16. Here’s two delightful cuts from the newest – the aforementioned Blu Cantrell cover, and a sweet, wry newly-recorded version of old stringband classic Cornbread and Butterbeans – plus a live cut to keep your feet moving in the meantime; for more, preorder Genuine Negro Jig, sit back, and wait for the magic to arrive.

Patty Griffin‘s new album Downtown Church is a true blue Americana Gospel album, not folk, but I hardly care; despite my ambivalence about her overproduced sophomore release Flaming Red, which recently caused a minor inter-blogger firestorm over at Star Maker Machine, it’s no secret that Griffin is one of my favorite artists, having first featured in our pages way back in our first few weeks as a blog, and several times since. And Downtown Church’s dustbowl gospel is utterly amazing, in no small part because of Griffin’s achingly, hauntingly, drivingly beautiful approach to a series of gospel classics, not to mention stellar support from Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale, and a host of other powerhouse artists.

The result: a true gem of a new album that has the Americana world drooling in anticipation of what may well turn out to be the biggest release of the year. The NPR full-album stream disappeared yesterday upon the album’s release, but there’s a live concert over at No Depression tonight at 8:00 EST, full-length samples at Paste, and of course, you can and should buy the whole thing here. The whole damn thing comes with my strongest recommendation, but I really, really love the sparse piano and voice of final track All Creatures of Our God and King, and the power of the penultimate We Shall All Be Reunited, which, like Heavenly Day before it, has Grammy written all over it, especially now that an appropriate nomination category has been created.

The coverblogger code doesn’t usually consider a remade song a cover if it’s the same artist performing it – else we’d have to count pretty much every demo as an original, and every live performance an incident worthy of note. Wikipedia, however, seems to beg otherwise. And so just this once, I’m going to give honorable mention to the newest from Suzanne Vega, Close Up Vol 1: Love Songs, in which the once-ubiquitous singer-songwriter comes out of the shadows after years of living off residuals to put forth an utterly lovely album of acoustic versions of her own songbook – the first of four rounds of such self-coverage, if Vega’s press release is to be believed.

We featured Suzanne Vega in our first Mother’s Day post way back in ’08, noting at the time that she had decided to focus on motherhood first and foremost after her daughter was born in 1994; it’s good to see her back in the studio, and though there’s a part of me that aches for a new set of songs, her early work is certainly strong enough to support reframing. So while you head over to her website to preorder, here’s a remade “original” from the newest, a pair of older Grateful Dead covers from Cover Freak’s least favorite album, and a few other takes on a personal favorite from the Suzanne Vega songbook for balance.

Looking past the horizon, I note that Carrie Rodriguez, who we first featured here upon release of her 2008 album She Ain’t Me, will be coming out with her first covers album in April, and on first listen, at least, it’s sounding like a practically perfect fiddle-driven Country-Americana Folkpop collection.

We’ll have more to say about this eventually, and a song to post, for sure, but I’ve been asked to keep the buzz and the songsharing on the down low until the date creeps closer. Still, Carrie’s currently on tour with Ben Sollee and Erin McKeown – a great choice of companions for the achingly sweet-voiced Rodriguez – and she’ll also be doing a few dates with Alejandro Escovedo and Los Lonely Boys in the next few, so if your town is on her touring schedule, make it a point to stop in to preview a track or two from the upcoming disc in a live setting.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets each Sunday and Wednesday. And remember, folks: February 1st marks the kick-off date for New Artists, Old Songs Week here at Cover Lay Down, so don’t forget to head on back with your ears handy for a first-rate set of covers from a solid crop of up-and-comers come Sunday.

1,543 comments » | (Re)Covered, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Carrie Rodriguez, Patty Griffin, Suzanne Vega

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