A Review of Leaving Eden by the Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Carolina Chocolate Drops recently performed at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium in Washington, DC and they just released their latest album, Leaving Eden. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…That’s the end of this story. Not the beginning. To do justice to this tale, we’ve got to go way back — before Rock and Roll, before the Blues and before Jazz. We’ve got to go back to the very beginnings. Because this story really is about how the traditions of Africa and Europe overlapped to create the birth of American music.
Let’s start in 2011 and work backwards from there. In early February of that year, the Carolina Chocolate Drops won a Grammy award for the Best Traditional Folk album. They had just released Genuine Negro Jig, their first major label release for Nonesuch Records. And while they had already dropped a few similar albums on the Music Maker label, Genuine Negro Jig was the culmination of their years spent reinterpreting the music of traditional black Piedmont string bands.
What’s a Piedmont string band? Well, the Piedmont is a region that generally refers to the foot-lands east of the Appalachians and west of the coast in the Carolinas. And before Country music and even before Bluegrass, there were string bands. The backbone of any string band was the fiddle and the banjo. And long before this instrument combination became associated with white American music, fiddles and banjos were the instruments of slaves. Especially around the Piedmont.
Slave musicians would play for plantation balls and festivals but they were also responsible for playing for fellow slaves. Over generations, the musicians absorbed the polkas, marches, and jigs of various European traditions while keeping their syncopated rhythms and minor tonalities from Africa. After Emancipation, black string bands still played for parties and dances — for whites and blacks. A good string band could be in demand 6 nights a week. The music that each band played was highly specific to regional and family ties. Songs were passed from generation to generation. And while we in modern times normally associate this style of music as “white music,” the real history of it all is much more complicated and fluid.
One of the last surviving black Piedmont fiddlers was Joe Thompson. Rest his soul, Joe just passed on February 20th of 2012. He was 93 and he had been playing fiddle for over 87 years. He learned his songs from his father just as his father had learned his songs from his father, a former slave. As a young boy, Joe formed a string band with his brother Nate and his cousin Odel Thompson on banjo. The trio was in high demand until WWII. When Joe returned home from Europe after serving, American tastes had shifted and strings bands had fallen out of favor. Joe went on to work in a furniture factory for 38 years before being “rediscovered” by Kip Lornell, in the 70’s. In 2007, Joe Thompson was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Take a look at him playing with his cousin Odel:
When Odel died in an automobile accident in 1994, Joe continued to play with the internationally renown Bob Carlin. Bob had learned the distinctive “clawhammer” style of playing directly from Joe’s brother, Nate Thompson. Listen to this:
In 2005, well before the life-long knowledge and wisdom that Joe had accumulated was lost, he began teaching the old ways to 3 young musician: Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson — the original members up of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They had met earlier in the year at the first annual Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. In 2006, they recorded many of Joe’s songs on Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind and in 2009 they released Joe Thompson and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Both these albums should be considered for any serious collection.
After the success of Genuine Negro Jig, they toured even more incessantly opening for Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Bela Fleck while still studying with Joe and staying out on the road for more than 150 tour dates. It’s important to note that while they’re steeped in tradition, they’re young musicians with modern tastes. They interpret the past while staying true to the spirit. But they’re not prisoners of a bygone era; they are students. And now with Joe’s passing, they’re the teachers.
Which brings us back to Leaving Eden, which is an album of growth and evolution. While their first albums have been truer to Joe’s family music, Leaving Eden is more about their music. It’s broader in its musical composition and styles. The Chocolate Drops are still a string band at heart and they always will be — but now they’re able to incorporate more ingredients into the recipe. This album has influences of fife and drum. There’s a lot of jug band sound throughout but it’s mixed and tempered by Adam Matta’s work as a beatboxer. There are early vaudeville influences and there’s now even a full-time cellist performing with the band. All the while, the core sound stays true to all of their previous works.
Leaving Eden was produced by Buddy Miller who has recently worked with Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, and Solomon Burke. The album was recorded at Miller’s home studio in Nashville where they capture the energy that the band has during its live performances. Many songs were recorded as a group with everyone siting around in a circle swapping instruments. Some songs were even cut out on the porch. Those cicada tracks are the real deal. Just like when the music was played a hundred years ago.
Click on the album artwork above to go directly to the Nonesuch album page where you can grab the album in FLAC. And don't forget to click through over to their Genuine Negro Jig page. Nonesuch offers that album in 320kbps along with a free bonus 7 track live album.
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Mike Dias is a huge fan of music, of telling stories, and of laughing. And lucky for him, he’s somehow managed to make somewhat of living from all of this. He designs funny and creative apps for the iPhone. He is the music supervisor for Ultimate Ears and he writes about music and the music industry. He’s always happy to talk about artists, apps, and headphones so feel free to reach out about any of those topics. Email him directly.
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Edited by Mike Dias - 7/30/12 at 11:36am