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Music Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig

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Sometimes, the history of music is full of surprises. Another way of looking at it: I'm surprised by my own ignorance. When I think of the South and old-time music, the blues, whites, and blacks, I tend to think of the musics as being mostly separated, with old-time music being a purely white phenomenon while the obvious African influence makes the blues a black specialty.

Except that 'obvious' influences don't necessarily lock the outcomes into the simplest of endpoints. Country music and the blues are closely related, so overlap of both social issues and the music are inevitable. Duh!

Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson make me glad that the musical world has so many facets. They multi-talented musicians met at a gathering of black banjo players, and our ears are all the better for it.

The trio do some beatboxing, play banjos, guitars, autoharp, the fiddle, various bits of old-timey authentica (bones, jugs, kazoo), and can sing their asses off — especially Rhiannon, who has some opera in her past. While the Drops are paying tribute to music from another era, Genuine Negro Jig proves that the band has no intention of becoming the Black String Band Historical Society. A quote from Ms. Giddens says it all: "Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians."

Indeed. Skip to the very end of the record for a fine reading of Tom Waits' "Trampled Rose." Now back up to "Hit 'Em Up Style," a 'traditionalized' take on Blu Cantrell's R&B top 40 hit of relationship revenge.

As for the truly traditional material, it is all gorgeously rendered. "Trouble In Your Mind" stomps its way to the right philosophy, "Cornbread and Butterbeans" illuminates the simple life, and the slinky "Why Don't You Do Right?" puts the lament on a misbehaving man. The title track, "Snowden's Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)," is an instrumental with the fiddle taking the spotlight.

My first listen to this release had me convinced halfway through the opening selection, but it was Rhiannon Giddens version of "Reynadine" that totally knocked me out. I felt compelled to switch on 'repeat,' allowing the song to take up the better part of half an hour. On paper, you might not think that a traditional English ballad would fit in here. On the contrary, not only does it dovetail perfectly (while showcasing Giddens' beautiful voice), but it serves as introduction to the closing Waits cover.

I'm hoping that this record will not only put the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the map, but will also draw new listeners in to the genres of old country and blues. It's a big 'ole world out there, one that still can manage to pull out a surprise.

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