- Another Man Done Gone
- Wayward Gal
- Don't Get Trouble in Your Mind
- Black Eye Blues
- Georgie Buck
- Earl King
- Jack O' Diamonds
- Short Life of Trouble
- Po' Lazarus
- Rickett's Hornpipe
- Cornbread and Butter Beans
- Bye-Bye Policeman
- Real Old Mountain Dew
- Sittin' on Top of the World
- Banjo Dreams / Jalidong
Few people realize just how involved African American culture was in the development of early roots music. The banjo, an instrument most often associated with white country and folk music, is descended from the African banjar, an instrument brought to America with the slave trade. What even fewer people know is that jug-band music, a distinct mixture of blues, old-time, jazz and ragtime, was originated and developed by black musicians in living predominantly in Memphis. Sadly far less black string-band music was recorded than white but thankful The Carolina Chocolate Drops are carrying this unique tradition into the 21st century.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005 after the members met at The Black Banjo Gathering, an event held in Boone, North Carolina. Their first album, Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind, was released the following year. The Drops learned much of their repertoire from Joe Thompson, a ninety-five year old black fiddler, and from pre-war recording artists such as The Mississippi Sheiks, The Tennessee Chocolate Drops, The Memphis Jug Band, Gus Cannon, and Papa Charlie Jackson.
Heritage, the second album from the Chocolate Drops, sees them branching out. While Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind was primarily made up of old-time string band music Heritage includes styles as diverse as a cappella, blues and spoken word.
The album opens with two songs sung by Rhiannon Giddens. The first, “Another Man Done Gone”, is a traditional song about the horrors of the chain gang performed in a chilling a cappella arrangement. The second, Wayward Gal, is an acoustic blues song. Already the Chocolate Drops have displayed their range in interpreting traditional music, the two numbers being as different as can be but both equally compelling
Things are ramped up a notch or two with “Trouble in Your Mind”, a driving old-time breakdown about, well, not getting trouble in your mind. The track is taken from a live show and features some interesting vocal accompaniment from Dom Flemons, as well as a hearty round of applause at the end.
This is followed by Black Eye Blues, with features some great jazzy four string banjo and the jug playing the bass line. After that its time for Georgie Buck, a banjo-driven fan favorite learned from elder fiddler Joe Thompson. This track once again features the jug taking the place of the bass is it did on countless Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon recordings in the 20’s and 30’s.
Up next is the atmospheric “Earl King”. A ghost story, this song features only Dom Flemons and his four string banjo and appeared a year earlier on his solo album but is none the less a compelling song. The lyrics are taken from a poem of the same name by Franz Schubert.
The Chocolate Drops version of the traditional folk song “Jack O’ Diamonds” is without a doubt one of the albums standout tracks. It is accompanied by only fiddle and hand claps and features Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson trading vocals. I can almost certainly guarantee you have never heard anything quiet like this.
This is followed by another live song (“Short Life of Trouble”) and another a cappella (“Po’ Lazarus”) before we reach one of my personal favorites. Rickett’s Hornpipe is a traditional fiddle and banjo instrumental but it’s the percussion that really makes it unique. The song is driven along by Dom Flemons’ military sounding snare drum which gives it a unique quality similar to Mississippi’s fife and drum tradition. After this we’re treated to another fan favorite (“Cornbread & Butterbeans”) and a second solo Dom Flemons performance, this time accompanied by guitar (the “old-time hip-hop” of Jim Jackson’s “Bye-Bye Policeman”).
The next song is somewhat of an oddity. It’s the Chocolate Drop’s interpretation of The Real Old Mountain Dew, an Irish folk song written by Edward Harrigan and Dave Braham in 1882. It’s an interesting example of how the traditional music of the British Isles eventually mixed with the traditional music of Africa to form the basis of much of America’s roots music. This is followed by an old standard, “Sittin’ On Top of the World”, originally written and recorded by The Mississippi Sheiks, a black guitar and fiddle group popular in the 1930’s.
The album closes with “Banjo Dreams: Jalidong” and “Gambia”. “Gambia” is by far the most African influenced track on the album while “Banjo Dreams” is a spoken word piece. “In my dream history falls in on itself and in my dream there is no blackface, no misappropriation, no misdirection, no diasporic disconnect from the hammering of our great grandfathers’ fingers. Instead banjo sounds frequent the air waves like the most insidious hip-hop beat.” A fitting conclusion to an album that strips away the stereotypes and clichés of old-time and jug-band music while still remaining true to the traditions it is built upon.