Yesterday, Nonesuch Records released Genuine Negro Jig, the second record from acoustic trio the Carolina Chocoate Drops. Singlehandedly, these young upstarts are breathing new life into an extinct tradition: the black Southern string band. Back in the day, when record companies came to control the distribution of popular music, executives decided that white boys would play old-time string band music and blacks would release “race records” — or blues and jazz. This was an artifical division. In fact there was a thriving tradition of black fiddle and banjo music. Hello! The banjo is traceable to Africa, and today’s American fiddle styles owe much to the rhythmic syncopation of early black fiddlers. Not to mention the profound influence of country blues on today’s highly stylized bluegrass music.
Band member Rhiannon Giddens: “It seems that two things get left out of the history books. One, that there was string band music in the Piedmont, period. And that . . . black folk was such a huge part of string tradition.” The Drops trained under the tutelage of Joe Thompson, who at the age of 90 is believed to be the last living performer from the Piedmont string band heyday. But their repertoire goes way beyond old-time fiddle tunes, incorporating joyful jug-jazz, soulful blues, Anglo-Celtic ballads, and modern works as well. Listen close, and you can hear the lonely wail of a wayfaring stranger, traveling though a wearisome land, so far from home.