Carolina Chocolate Drops: “Genuine Negro Jig”

The title isn’t a put-on, and it isn’t a red herring: Genuine Negro Jig is what it says it is– that is, genuine. Using such a phrase as an album title in 2010– the age of Obama!– may seem like an act of provocation, but it isn’t. It isn’t a statement about race and music, nor is it an irony.

Race, in fact, is never commented on here, explicitly or implicitly, and if any listener thinks it off for a trio of black musicians to be playing hillbilly mountain music in 2010, the Carolina Chocolate Drops choose to let such ignorance go unanswered. The songs here almost go out of their way to avoid answering questions of race– whatever cultural baggage comes from ethnicity or skin color isn’t commented on in any of these songs, which are mostly about lovin’ and cheatin’, universal enough as far as song topics go. The Chocolate Drops know that they belong to a long tradition of black stringband players, and they allow their membership in that tradition to speak for itself.

As with race, so with the whole of modernity; there are virtually no references, either direct or ironic, to modern times, and no concessions to contemporary recording techniques or conceptions of roots music here. This is string music the way it’s always been done– with plenty of banjo and acoustic guitar, hand percussion, fiddle, jug, kazoo. Songs full of heartbreak and humor, hard days at the farm and easy summer nights of singing and romancing. Women who have nothing but money on their minds, and men who are much the same. The raw, unadorned beauty of the human voice. (And what beauty– the group’s two men are both excellent singers, but the standout is Rhiannon Giddens, delivering just the right balance of soul and sass.)

There are, actually, a couple of modern compositions here– a sepia-tinted cover of Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose” and a savvy bluegrass reading of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” the latter’s namedrop of Neiman Marcus being the set’s only hint that it was made in 2010, not some other time in the last sixty or seventy years. Some of the songs are traditional; some are original compositions. All of them are played with down-home vigor and conviction, with no further accompaniment than what the three Drops can provide for themselves. You might say that they’re romanticizing the past, but that’s not quite it; they make this old-timey music because they believe it to have the power to speak to us still– about simplicity, about those parts of human living that are both timeless and timely, about the importance of holding on to traditions like the ones embodied here.

Joe Henry produced the set, and even on that level it’s fascinating: Henry tends to work more with individuals than with self-contained bands, and so this is the rare Joe Henry joint that doesn’t feature his usual cast of studio musicians. It’s almost disarming to hear a Joe Henry production absent the timekeeping of Jay Bellerose, to name but one hired hand, but Jig quickly brings in to relief what’s really at the heart of Joe Henry’s music, and the Chocolate Drops’– the kind of clarity where there’s nothing to distract from song and voice, where the innate wisdom of the words and melodies are given space to come through when we’re patient enough to sit still and listen.

What the music reveals is that some things never change: We might succumb to modern arrogance and say that this is the music of “simpler” times, but the times were certainly no less difficult, nor any less filled with strange, surprising joy. In one song the Chocolate Drops sing of the plight of a hard day’s labor, followed by the sublimity of a supper of cornbread and butter beans, followed by an evening spent making love. What part of that is antiquated, even in 2010? I dare say that old-timey music like this resonates now as much as ever– particularly given how rarefied it sounds in this present age– and in the hands of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, it’s given just the honor it deserves.

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