Hubby Jenkins is sipping Irish Breakfast tea in his Queens home. An avowed caffeine fiend when he’s on tour, he prefers the relaxing attributes of tea when he’s not and when he’s conducting phone interviews. As a multi-instrumentalist member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band that’s managed to bring centuries-old folk music back into popular culture, it seems fitting that he follows another old tradition like tea drinking. Unlike tea traditions, the string band sound had largely died out with its creators until these Grammy-winning, young media darlings re-invigorated and re-introduced the music. Simply calling their multi-layered style “old time,” it’s not easy to briefly explain exactly what they play.
“I tell people that we play fiddle/banjo old time music and that includes old time blues, old time jazz and I always mention that we’re all black,” explains Jenkins. That black part is highly significant as Jenkins point out, “name any other black string band. It’s a big part of American history that’s been forgotten.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops were founded in 2005 after Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemmons and Justin Robinson met at the annual Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina. Honoring the ’20s era black string band, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops and its fiddler Joe Thompson, who schooled the trio on the music, the group set out to present a modern take on a traditional sound. Their 2010 debut, Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch) snagged a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy but it’s their follow up and current release, Leaving Eden (Nonesuch), that showcases the breadth of traditional music and how it can be interpreted for contemporary sensibilities.
A smorgasbord of sounds, textures and influences, the 15-track offering shines with the dynamic energy that’s essential to keep throwback music sounding alive and not mummified. Opening with the traditional house stomp of “Riro’s House,” with fiddles whirling, banjos sawing and snare drums on the downbeat, it serves up an introductory blast of the fine-tuned instrumentation that the band is known for. “We play the roots of other music, a lot of it is pre-WWI, and some is from the 1800s. It’s a different definition of old time. It’s not just banjo and fiddle music, it’s really genre-less,” says Jenkins of the Chocolate Drops’ repertoire. “We play different traditions with different songs; it’s a little bit of everything.”
Everything is a good description for an album that swings from the rousing, hand-clapping, call and response of “Read Em’ John,” to the laconic melody of the 1800′s era instrumental, “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” and then to the country flavor spiced with a beat box, of the original “Country Girl, “where Giddens declares, “Ain’t Nothing like living in the South/I want to shut yo mouth.”
Of course, for blues fans, the standouts are the revelatory interpretations of blues songs. Dexterous Piedmont finger picking highlights Gidden’s vocals on a wondrous cover of Ella Baker’s ‘West End Blues’ but the show stopper is a masterful take of classic period blues. Ethel Water’s “No Man’s Mama” is given an appropriately sassy delivery as Giddens hums along to the whistled opening before belting out an ode to a divorced woman’s freedom: “I know how a fella feels getting out of jail/I got twin beds and I take pleasure in announcing/ one’s for sale/am I making it plain/I will never again/drag around another ball and chain/because I am no man’s mama now.
-Rosalind Cummings Yeates
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