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Chasing the Frolic — Uncovering The Roots Of American Music

post #1 of 44
Thread Starter 

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.





Read an AMAZING interview with Joe Thompson featured in Strings magazine:

Get Joe Thompson's Family Tradition album:

Learn more about the Music Maker Relief Foundation:

Listen to the solo works of Leyla McCalla, the new cellist for the Carolina Chocolate Drops:

Learn more about the new project from Justin Robinson:

Interested in teaching your kids how to play any of this music, get the Song Book!


More in-depth music reviews? Check out these other music features:

A Review Of The "Essential Albums: Isaac Hayes" Bo Set. The Best Organ Solo Ever Laid Down On Wax

Some People Are Destined To Sing: A Review of Fatoumata Diaware

Bäverstam/Finehouse — The complete Brahms Sonata No. 1 for piano and cello in E Minor, op. 38



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.


If you enjoyed this piece, you’ll probably like some of the other things Mike does too. Get more music recommendations at @michael_a_dias or read more interviews and artist profiles on his Facebook Page. If you’re in the mood for a good laugh, download Mike’s latest free app, Mad Lips, and make all of your photos come to life. And if you’ve ever thought about owning custom Ultimate Ears, talk to Mike first. He’ll answer all your questions in an honest and funny way.

Edited by Mike Dias - 7/30/12 at 11:36am
post #2 of 44

Great thread!  One of my favorite movies dealing with this subject is 'Songcatcher'.  While the film deals largely with English, Irish and Scotch ballads, there is no doubt Africa had a significant influence on American music in all forms.  Another interesting bit is how American music was repatriated back to Africa and developed into 'Highlife'.



Some examples of music incorporated into daily African life, modern and historical:


Edited by Anaxilus - 4/8/12 at 8:59pm
post #3 of 44

Another fabulous read and education, Mike, and now I understand what you were alluding to in our earlier conversation about the trans-Atlantic musical influences and how they go both ways.  Can't wait to get home with some good sound and listen to the links you posted!


EDIT: Ended up buying all the albums.  This stuff is great!  Reminds me of the music at the Old Fiddler's Contest and Reunion in Athens, Texas which has been running continuously for 80 years. It's refreshing to see some younger folks taking advantage of the experience these old-timers have and carry the torch forward for more generations to appreciate.

Edited by TigreNegrito - 4/11/12 at 1:10pm
post #4 of 44


To our valued contributor: It's profiles like these that have taken Head-fi to the next level! 


post #5 of 44

Nice review Mike. I purchased Negro Jigs 2 years ago and have really enjoyed it, the songs are warm, played from the heart.  Also, it doesn't hurt the Nonesuch Records produces well recorded and mastered albums. I'll order their new one today.

post #6 of 44
Thread Starter 

I know that I posted a link to Leyla's work (she's the new cellist for the Chocolate Drops) but this video is really worth featuring as well:





post #7 of 44

Great thread. I went searching for Leyla McCalla and found her page at Reverbnation where some downloads are available. Looking forward to an album.

post #8 of 44

Thank you for this review of the new album from "The Chocolate Drops".  I've listened to their previous work, and have grown an appreciation for string music - or, North Carolina ... or southern string music.  If someone is used to listening to music with a much faster pace, then it may take time to get used to this offering.  However, if you're fortunate enough to latch on and appreciate it, one can really get into what is being offered and appreciate the beauty in it.


For those that might like string music, but with a faster pace, then the Old Crowe Medicine Show or The Avett Brothers might be more their speed.  However, for me, it's all good.


Now, here is where my point of concern lies.  I'm fortunate enough to live in the suburbs of Washington, DC.  But, I'm not sure how this concert, at the Library of Congress, slipped past me.  I would have loved to have attended it.

post #9 of 44

THANK YOU for sharing the Ghana Post Office clip.

I had an audio recording of this 15 years ago and loaned it to

someone who never returned it.  It was so random I thought I'd

never hear it again.




post #10 of 44
Originally Posted by Mike Dias View Post

I know that I posted a link to Leyla's work (she's the new cellist for the Chocolate Drops) but this video is really worth featuring as well:





For me, this interview with Leyla expressed, inspired and lingered... quite nicely!

post #11 of 44

Thank you very much for this. This came as a surprise.


She is lovely in every way. The music is so mature....really strong. Articulate, thoughtful, soulful, passionate, warm...


It is genuine, genuinely hers.


This embodies everything that is great.


Pleasure to see and I look forward to learning more.


Kind regards.

post #12 of 44
Thread Starter 

Hey there everyone. So in the above article on the Chocolate Drops, I mentioned that Leaving Eden incorporated more historical influcences than just the traditional Piedmont string band styles. One of my personal favorites is "Fife and Drum." My daughter is 2 and this type of music moves her and as soon as she hears it, she yells out: "It's a parade! It's time for the parade." And then we all go off marching around the house banging on anything that resembles a drum as she plays her old plastic recorder. This video that I'm about to imbed is my personal favorite. It is one of the best short documentaries that I've ever seen and I'm honored to share it with you all. And without further hot air..... please allow me to share Mr. Otha Turner:



I'd love to hear your thoughts and please let's keep adding similar music and genres to this thread.


Many thanks,



post #13 of 44
Thread Starter 
Originally Posted by ammisco View Post

THANK YOU for sharing the Ghana Post Office clip.

I had an audio recording of this 15 years ago and loaned it to

someone who never returned it.  It was so random I thought I'd

never hear it again.




This is the most amazing thing of all! Can you believe what a small world we all live in and the power that Head-fi has to connect us all. I am in awe.


The Ghana Post Office clip is one of the most beautiful video clips that I've ever seen. There are a few moments in life when you're faced with something  — confronted — is really a better word. But I can tell you all this. I certainly don't approach my work, let alone my life, with the passion and soul as that man in the video. Just as an audio track, it is amazing but to realize that it is just how he goes through his daily life, no that is something that makes me stop dead in my tracks. WOW!


post #14 of 44

Just listened to Leyla McCalla's 5 solo tunes. Really good stuff

post #15 of 44
Thank you for this post! I got the CD in Portland for my ride back to the Bay Area. It was perfect. I like the inclusion of their own materials, which fit perfectly with the earlier content.
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