The wave of young people playing old-time string band music continues to grow, with no sign of having reached a crest. In the process, the phenomenon is becoming more interesting and diverse, and, to these old ears, the whole thing is starting to make sense.
On its 2006 album Big Iron World, the Old Crow Medicine Show (featured in the January 2006 issue of Sojourners) solidified its reputation for funky old-time tub-thumpers with timeless spiritual and erotic concerns. This past summer I caught a live show by Adrienne Young, a clawhammer banjo-playing singer-songwriter from rural Florida who has begun to attract a wide audience playing country music and promoting sustainable community-based agriculture. Her newest album, Room to Grow, is more “adult alternative” than old-time, but her live show was still as rootsy as cornbread and turnip greens.
This trend took its most interesting turn recently with the advent of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a North Carolina Piedmont-based trio of young African-American musicians. Their name harkens back to the “race records” of the 1920s, but they play banjo- and fiddle-based music that could have been heard on almost any Southern plantation at almost any time in the 19th century.
American popular music as we know it began with the emergence of the recording industry. In the 1920s, hillbilly and blues artists were recorded and heard by audiences beyond the South. One day in Bristol, Virginia, both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family cut their first discs. Around the same time, field recorders further south were capturing the ur-blues of Charley Patton and black string bands such as the Mississippi Sheiks. And the whole world loved it. The country music industry, the market for jazz and rhythm and blues, and finally rock and roll itself grew inexorably and inevitably from those original roots.
BUT ROCK, RAP, AND the related pop forms, including commercial country, have suffered aesthetic stagnation for more than a decade now. And a slowly dying music industry is more interested in suing its customers than in finding new sounds that say something people might pay to hear.
So maybe it makes sense to look back, as bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops do, to the world before the music business. Maybe that’s where the source material lies for the world that will come after it. The band consists of two classically trained North Carolina musicians—fiddle and banjo players Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, joined by Arizonian Dom Flemons on guitar, jug, harmonica, and the occasional drum.
If American history weren’t such a lost world, a black string band would not be a novelty act. Such bands were all over Southern street corners in the early 20th century. And while my local folklorist informs me that there is dispute over the location of the aboriginal banjo, there is no question that the instrument came to the United States from West Africa.
In fact, the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops met two years ago at the Black Banjo Gathering held in the mountains of western North Carolina. There they also met Joe Thompson, reputedly the last black old-time fiddler still playing. Thompson began downloading his repertoire of traditional tunes to the three young people, and in the process he became their teacher, muse, guru, and life coach. Thompson is pictured with the band on their latest album, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind.
That album’s 16 tracks feature Appalachian death ballads “Little Margaret” and “Tom Dula”—the latter the source of the old Kingston Trio hit “Tom Dooley.” This music knows how to laugh and cry. The Chocolate Drops do a square-dance tune (“Ol’ Corn Likker”) that puts some boogie in your dosey-do, and a work gang holler, “Another Man Done Gone,” about death on the prison farm. And just to shake things up, there’s an instrumental version of “Dixie,” along with some drumming on other tracks that sounds a lot like the legendary black fife-and-drum bands of North Mississippi.
The oldest member of the Chocolate Drops is just now approaching 30, and the others are just 26. They clearly have the savvy and skill to do some interesting things with the tradition they’ve vowed to uphold.
There will be life after the music industry.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.