by John Stoehr
A terrible notion struck me Thursday during a performance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops — that a someone somewhere might look at them and not see a trio of superb musicians reviving a rich yet nearly forgotten slice of musical Americana, but see through race-tinted glasses a trio of country Negroes.
It was made even more terrible by this thought: that their efforts to reclaim an American heritage — the African-American string music of the Piedmont, the various instruments, especially the banjo, and the old-timey ways of dressing up (smocks, hats, suspenders, and bare feet) — might backfire.
To these highly educated and immensely intelligent performers, the musical conventions of the early 20th century are as distant from them personally as ancient Rome. They are in fact not anything like the old-timers they revere. They grew up listening to pop music like everyone else their age. This old-timey music, and the historical knowledge that goes into it, must feel exotic as well as fresh and authentic.
But for those who feel no distance from the past, for those who see old-timey music not as a convention but as a reflection of inner reality, the Carolina Chocolate Drops' attempt to reclaim the past might look like a continuation of the past.
To the enlightened, there's a difference between acting country (going barefoot to enhance the aesthetic of a performance) and being country (going barefoot because you don't have any shoes and the presumptions based on race and the history of racism that go with that). To the unenlightened, however, it's all the same.
Later, we were eating gelato on George Street, killing time before the next show. Next to us was a bunch of white men and women. They appeared to be baby boomers in their late 60s. Half of them had just seen the Drops, but seemed unsure. It was interesting, we heard them say. They emphasized that the musicians were black and they were playing old-time music. They seemed incapable of saying whether they enjoyed it.
I don't know these people. I don't know their worldviews. Maybe they're racist. Maybe not. But who isn't? It's an American pathology. I'm not bemoaning a fact of life. I merely bring this up because such ambivalence illustrates how race and racism still play a role in music, even affecting people's enjoyment of it.
The band itself is conscious of this. During the concert, Dom Flemons explained how the banjo is central to African-American string music. He said plainly and correctly that the instrument is of African descent. As if realizing that such a statement of fact is, to some ears, a statement of opinion — the angry black opinion — he backpedaled, generously, for the sake of any white folks insecure about being white.
"I mean it's American," he said. "It just comes from African."
Later, in the same explanation about the banjo's origins, Flemons was again sensitive to overly sensitive whites. He explained that obviously (my word) the banjo came to America because of the slave trade. But he didn't use the s-word.
"It came here on uneasy terms," he said.
Even so, they didn't shy away from history.
Rhiannon Giddens, the lovely singer, fiddler, and dancer, introduced a song called "The Genuine Negro Jig." It was written by Dan Emmett, she said, the man who wrote "Dixie." She didn't say that Emmett, who was white, was a pioneer of blackface minstrelsy. Or that he founded the first major traveling minstrel show, which became a standard for hundreds like it.
Giddens did say that Emmett probably learned "Dixie," the anthem of the Confederacy, from the Snowdens, a family of black musicians who lived down the street from Emmett's family home in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Because black songwriters during this time didn't get credit for their work, Giddens said, the Chocolate Drops changed the name of "The Genuine Negro Jig" to "Snowdens' Jig."
Two things here: On the one hand, renaming the song pays respect were respect is due. On the other, renaming it does something else, something brilliant, something of Barack Obama-like transcendence, grace, and poetry.
By renaming a song written by a blackface pioneer who had taken credit for writing a nostalgic ode to plantations and, by extension, to slavery, they have reclaimed the past as well as the present. "Dixie" is not just the preserve of whites. It's the preserve of history, and anyone can stake a claim to that.
And they do. The Carolina Chocolate Drops co-opt the trappings of old-time music — the music, of course, but also the clothes, the mannerisms, and the language. Flemons wore a flannel shirt buttoned to the neck, a pork-pie hat, and suspenders. Giddens wore jeans and a flower-patterned smock with no shoes. And Justin Robinson wore a pageboy cap, but also cut-off jeans and rainbow-colored socks.
Flemons gives himself away by using folksy locutions like "this here song" and "what would ya'll like to hear?" Whatever regional dialect they once had has been lost to a flat accent of the educated and professional class. Then again, Flemons would only be giving himself away if he were trying to be genuinely folksy. He's not. He's just using language that's appropriate for the occasion and for the music.
But what's appropriate to these young creative minds defies expectation. They are of a new generation of African-American musicians trying to understand what's happening now and what happened then. They were born long after the Civil Rights Movement. They have no personal memory of Jim Crow. They won't be contained by their race, but they won't try to escape it either. They won't allow others to define who they are, but they won't alienate others in the bargain. They would have a lot to say to Bamuthi Joseph.
Twice during the performance, Flemons left the stage. When he came back, he did a Michael Jackson-inspired spin before taking his chair. When his banjo went out of tune, he whipped out a tuner, a high-tech move that I've never seen done at a folk or otherwise Americana performance. And one of their last songs was a cover of a hit by Blu Cantrell, with Robinson rocking the mic like a beatbox.
"We did this on Lowcountry Live," Robinson said. "Anyone see that?"
Maybe their efforts won't backfire after all.