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A Negro Jig Of The Genuine Kind

08/28/2010

String Band circa 1900

I am in no way, shape or form a stranger to Bluegrass Music. When your upbringing places you smack dab in the very heart of Western North Carolina; Asheville to be exact, you become more than aware of Bluegrass at a very early age.
Now before you click the other tab and go back to Bookface, Twitter or that new prOn site you just found, give eyes and ears to what I’m about to lay down for you…

Back then there weren’t any Urban radio stations. No Radio One. No Clear Channel. I mean of course there were radio stations. We weren’t THAT far out in the Boonies, but they didn’t exactly cater to R&B, Hip-Hop or anything very grooveable. The choices boiled down to Country, Bluegrass, Lite Rock, Classic Rock or Gospel.

For the record, there was also no Centric or TV One back then either. Hell, B.E.T. hadn’t even been conceived in Bob Johnson’s mind yet. The funny thing is, my exposure to Bluegrass or anything with a decidedly country twang to it, just seemed like everyday Carolina living to me.
I fondly remember watching Hee-Haw & The Dukes Of Hazard as a Saturday night ritual and The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres & Petticoat Junction were religiously viewed during the week.
Mornings before catching the bus for school, my Great Grandmother would sometimes have the radio tuned to the local Country station. There was many a day I’d be eating my oatmeal and humming along to
 
   

Don’t ask me why I remember these types of things. I’m the  Black Cliff Clavin…minus the Postman Uniform. I also own a copy of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Not only because I like the movie but also because “I Am The Man Of Constant Sorrow” is my ish. Soggy Bottom Boys…FTW!

On my countless coming of age exploratory walks & bike rides through Downtown Asheville of the past, it wasn’t hard to walk past a shop or store and not hear the pickin’ of a Banjo, the rustic sawing of a fiddle and sometimes even a exuberantly strummed jaw harp in accompaniment. Sometimes it would be playing on a radio inside of T.S. Morrison’s, other times a car, driven by someone lucky enough to have a tape deck and not an 8-Track, would have the window down and I’d catch faint strains of a harmonica backed by the unmistakable clacking of “The Bones”. More often than not, I’d hear it live whenever I’d walk by a certain restaurant close to City Hall.

Bill Stanley’s Barbecue & Bluegrass it was called & they prided themselves on the playing of Bluegrass with your meal of Carolina style BBQ.

I never ate there as my Grandmother was always quick to point out that people of our… darker complexion, never seemed very welcome within the establishment. My young age at the time, can’t attest to whether that was fact or not. But it sure sounded and smelled like they were having a good time in there whenever I chanced to pass its doors. It traded owners back in 1990 as Mr. Stanley sold it to an older couple and then transplanted himself into a County Commissioner gig. The new owners re-opened it as just plain ol’ Stanley’s but from my internet trolling research, seems it never quite reached the same pinnacle of success it did before the “Great Hepatitis A Debacle” of  88′.
People have a tendency to not forget when 77 tourists and some of the cooks and wait staff fall ill from the food. It has in more recent years been converted into Pack’s Tavern, which I’ve also never been to.

Yes, Bluegrass is known to me but until now, only by birthplace association. Until I had good reason to do some research, I was quite unaware of some of its African-American String Band roots and how they are still being carried forward by groups like The Ebony Hillbillies (they are based in, of all places, NYC) and the Sankofa Strings.

 

The Bone Player by William Sidney Mount, 1856

Or how musicians like Danny “SlapJazz” Barber and Leland “Spoonful” Collins still perform traditional music forms like “Juba Dancing” (more commonly know as Hambone) or body percussion and the all but lost art of playing the bones (spoons).

Lesley Riddle

The same holds true for me of Bluegrass’ parent, Country Music. Granted, though Country Music told me more than I wanted to know about token Charley Pride and Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of the late Ray Charles cultivated my interest in his Country roots, it still neglected to introduce me to a host of African-Americans that have greatly contributed to Country, Bluegrass & other types of Folk music such as Arnold SchultzDeford Bailey & Lesley Riddle.

Deford Bailey

Of course, I don’t listen to either of these genres on enough of a regular basis and I readily admit that in my younger years, I tried to avoid them at all cost for fear of being labeled “a lame” by my peers for liking them. But I can now honestly listen and appreciate them for the history they embody, the memories they invoke when I hear that familiar twang and the catchy hooks that days later will lazily stroll across the medulla. But that’s enough about my history with the genre. I’ll allow you to click the names above and get some education on the subject at hand of how Bluegrass just re-entered my life.

Earlier this week, while I was robotically performing the mundane task of manipulating a TPS report at my day gig, Wifey called me on my office line, as she’s prone to do at any given time during the course of the day. Sometimes it’s to inform me of some task that I need to accomplish at some point in the near future, some days it’s to admonish me for neglecting to remember to accomplish said task. Other times it’s just to hear my voice and to tell me that she continues to love me, although she is quick to point out that she doesn’t always like me.
There’s a difference between like and love” she says. “I love you always but I don’t always like you“.
I can appreciate that statement from her as we have a type of relationship that allows us to be candid and open with each other without a loss of love or mutual respect. Since seeing her number on the caller ID didn’t jog my memory of anything pressing that may have slipped it, I assumed her call was of the “I kinda miss you today” variety. Which it was, but her next line caught a long forgotten & recessed fold of my lobe. “I was just speaking to one of my past Professors on Bookface about different types of music and she told me there a few black groups out there doing Bluegrass.”

Wifey knows her husband well. She understands my history with and love for music as she herself shares my passion. She also knows my roots, so her first instinct was to inform me…after she listened to it first herself. We talked about her conversation and immediately my interest was piqued when she told me the group’s name.

So once my commute home ended, I placed myself in front of yet another PC and began my research. After a few good reads on Wikipedia and a now bookmarked site, I was now genuinely interested in hearing the entire album. Not only due to the Bluegrass aspect, the word Carolina in the group name or their impressive and spot on interpretation of Blu Cantrell‘s “Hit ’em Up Style (Oops!)

 

but also because of WHO was creating within this genre.

#sidenote: You can’t front on that video. They took Ms.Cantrell’s jawn and smashed all over it with only a Banjo, a Fiddle and a dude Beatboxin’.

Just the fact that they were indeed of African descent was mind-blowing to me.

Not in a negative sense, mind you. Far be it from me to ever think black people couldn’t play Bluegrass. Plus I’d just clicked & read a multitude of links that would blow that misconception completely out of the water.
It’s just that historically, Bluegrass has always been seen as a
genre normally associated with late night gatherings of shotgun toting, dingy coverall wearing, inbred hillbilly’s all crowded around the large front porch of a rickety shack made of various sticks and other unidentifiable debris, playing forlorn songs of hard luck and heartbreak on instruments fashioned from whatever happens to be lying about, an old inverted, rusted out metal washtub (that Paw Paw took his yearly bath in before he finally had the Riggins boy over in the holler, install indoor plumbing) with a 2×4 sticking out of the top and a rubber tube of some sort tacked to that forming a makeshift Upright Bass. A well-worn Lumberjack saw that Billy Jo salvaged from somewhere and now strikes with a small hammer to produce an ample amount of sound.

Every so often, Mee Maw gets in the spirit(s) and pulls out her spoons, click-clacking the back of them together and creating a rhythm that John Boy can catch hold to with his Banjo (the only store-bought instrument in the bunch) From then on, after drowning themselves all day with illegal corn squeezing’s (the likes of which even Daisy “Granny” Moses couldn’t stomach) from the distillery they hide in the woods from the Revenuers, their rheumy eyed bloodhound, aptly named Buford, drowses in front of Ol’ Jebs homemade tree branch rockin’ chair as he leisurely leans all the way back, strikes a match on the bottom of his grungy bare foot and lights the corn cob pipe he smokes To’backy out of.

These are the types of depictions that cross one’s brain whenever the words “Bluegrass Music” come to mind for most people and I have to admit, they’ve crossed mine too. #blamedeliverance

Fortunately, Carolina Chocolate Drops‘ first label release, “Genuine Negro Jig” on Nonesuch Records, gives no room for any of these stereotypes to take root and grow.


Especially when they have been mentored by the one and only, 87 years young, Joe Thompson who STILL plays fiddle to this day!

CCD formed in 2005 during a chance meeting between Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. All three members have varied musical, professionally trained pasts but share a love for Bluegrass & String Band music, which is evident in the time they take honing their craft with traditional instruments such as, jug, kazoo, harmonica & snare drums to complement the banjo, fiddle & guitar staples of the genre.

The jaunty fervor of the album’s first track;
CCD – “Peace Behind The Bridge

takes
this Carolina boy back to those simpler times.

The lion’s share of the tracks on the disc are traditional songs that have been sung and passed down over the ages but there are a few that are original material. At this time I have no clue as to which are which but the mixture of the two gives the album a more organic feel, which works well without coming across as forced or formulaic. With Bluegrass music already being rooted in using whatever is handy to make sounds that complement each other, those less talented than these three could have quickly and easily derailed the entire project’s direction. The last thing an LP of this caliber would need is to feel ridgid or stuck within a box. With every track, whether the topic is fun and light or serious and somber, the trio inject their personalities into them all to the point where their passion for this music is literally spilling over the rim of each sung or played note.
CCD continues in this vein through out but as evidenced with the Blu Cantrell cover, they have no qualms about segueing off the well-worn Bluegrass path quite a bit as Giddens’ classically cultured vocals go unaccompanied on

CCD – “Reynadine
The trio can also bring the up-tempo & extremely catchy vibe to the table with their song selections as well. As I’ve been furiously typing away in my editor,

CCD – “Trouble In Your Mind
 somehow, mysteriously ended up on repeat….ok…I clicked the repeat button. I’m not too interested in changing it right now either.

For me, CCD’s début LP has touched off many a personal memory and given me another great project to add to my Hard Drive of musical gems but more importantly for TSR, it has garnered my deep respect for a cross-section of an oft overlooked piece of musical history.
Now, I’m nowhere near naïve enough to think that everyone reading will make a concerted effort to delve as deep as I have into their music or any of the other String Bands or Bluegrass groups mentioned, nor will I waste time imagining that after the first couple of tracks, you stopped reading and made a beeline for the closest Best Buy to make a purchase but consider this: How much did you really know about this slice of the proverbial musical pie before now?
While you think about that, I’ll go back to my bowl of
CCD – “Cornbread & Butterbeans
 

 

Later,
Square

Need more info? Check these links:

CCD Official Site

CCD @ Facebook

CCD @ Twitter

CCD @ Amazon

CCD @ MySpace

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 07/18/2012 14:13

    Great reading; wonderful stream-of-consciousness stuff. However, what CCD & Ebony Hillbillies & Sankofa Strings are playing is NOT Bluegrass–though that’s what a lot of people say when they see a fiddle and a banjo together. it’s “Old Timey” string band style music–or a modern, three-generations away derivation thereof.

    Bluegrass has a certain flat, straight-ahead drive, with flat-picked guitar, three-finger, metal-picked banjo and be-bop style mandolin and fiddle runs. Bluegrass is Old Time’s speeded-up, urban cousin, or child. It favors speed over funk.

    Listen to elders Nathan Frasier, Murphy Gribble, Joe & Odell Thompson, DeFord Bailey, Andrew & Jim Baxter, Algia Mae Hinton, Cannon’s Jug Stompers, the Dallas String Band, the Memphis Jug Band, Dink Roberts, the Mississippi Sheiks and the McCoy Brothers, and liaison Taj Mahal. They’ll set you straight. Amen.

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