Reclaiming Tradition: Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind and Colored Aristocracy

by Daniel Garrett

Carolina Chocolate Drops/Sankofa Strings
Colored Aristocracy
Producer: Sankofa Strings
Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Jerry Brown
Music Maker, 2006

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind
Recorded by Jerry Brown
Music Maker, 2007

The past remains alive as long as we find something in it beautiful, true, and useful, I think as I listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, a recording of African-American string band music. An African banjo of gourd and skin was brought to America by enslaved Africans, and with the European fiddle became part of developing African-American rural music tradition, according to American Visions magazine (author Douglas Fulmer, April-May 1995). It is that tradition that was celebrated and discussed at the Black Banjo Gathering at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University in April 2005, an event that brought together musicians who would become the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Sankofa Strings and produce the recording Colored Aristocracy, with the primary group made up of Dom Flemons on guitar, banjo, jug, harmonica, and vocals; Rhiannon Giddens on fiddle, banjo, and vocals; and Sule Greg Wilson on banjo, bodhran, tambo, and vocals. With a change in personnel, taking on the sole name Carolina Chocolate Drops, as a performance group and for Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, the Carolina Chocolate Drops consist of Rhiannon Giddens on banjo, fiddle and vocals; Justin Robinson on fiddle and vocals; and Dom Flemons on guitar, banjo, harmonica, snare, and vocals. Although it has been said that early black string bands influenced country music performers such as the Carter Family and Hank Williams, there are still few available historical recordings of black string band music—possibly as few as fifty pre-second world war recordings; recordings by respected performers such as the Mississippi Sheiks, who recorded for the Okeh label (a history documented by writers Charles K. Wolfe and David C. Morton and sometimes presented by institutions such as PBS)—and thus, the youthful Carolina Chocolate Drops are performing a service as much as producing quite distinctive entertainment.

With the twanging slide banjo of Dom Flemons, and a spirited down-home voice, an old song (“Viper Mad”) about a tea leaf that brings elation, is given contemporary relevance on Colored Aristocracy. The title song “Colored Aristocracy” is swinging string-band work, a sound that is precise without sacrificing feeling, featuring a very attractive rhythm—sprightly and yet a little sad. The popular 1963 Rooftop Singers song “Walk Right In”—“walk right in, sit right down, and baby let your mind roll on”—was first widely introduced by Gus Cannon and the Jug Stompers in 1929; and is performed on Colored Aristocracy, a reminder that the desire for pleasure is near-constant if not always constant. The voices heard are that of a community sing or a night at home—of people making music for the fun of it. A ballad lamenting a man who loves liquor more than he loves his girl—with the idiosyncratically spelled title “Likes Likker Better ‘N’ Me”—allows Rhiannon Giddens to demonstrate a strong voice, and clear though countryish diction (she has a really traditional clarity and force). Murder is the subject of “Little Sadie” and it is a reel of a song, reminding me of Irish music (in the song an Irish frame drum, the bodhran, is played by Sule Greg Wilson). A jazzy blues, “Black-Eye Blues,” focuses on the mistreatment of a woman, in which a man takes a woman’s money, beats her, and is promiscuous as well—with the abused woman vowing revenge. Rhiannon Giddens’s vocal performance of the song, one Ma Rainey used to do, is very good. These songs are all about ordinary desires and pains, about ordinary lives, and so they are still resonant.

On Colored Aristocracy, in “Another Man Done Gone,” a song about crime and punishment, the harmony singing—featuring Lalenja Harrington and Rhiannon Giddens—is excellent, both tender and declarative. A reckless young man is described and criticized in “Johnny Too-Bad,” a Jamaican song, a commentary that predicts an inevitable justice. A composition on female freedom, “Banjo-Pickin’ Girl/Cluck Ol’ Hen,” a song of travel and impulse, of curiosity and choice, sung by Rhiannon Giddens and Lalenja Harrington, has a thrilling tempo. Lalenja Harrington’s own poetry draws together different aspects of African-American culture in “Banjo Dreams,” suggesting the possibility of critical and historical revision—seeing things differently—with an emphasis on the string band tradition. The song “Jalidong”—the word “jali” means person of history, and “dong” means song or story: so “Jalidong” is a song about a person of history—and it is a West African (Mande) song; and its heavier notes inspire meditation and suggest, very mildly, the blues. The last song on Colored Aristocracy, “Black-Eyed Daisy,” has a rousing tempo, and on it guest fiddler Justin Robinson plays.

Justin Robinson performs with Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons as the Carolina Chocolate Drops on Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to make out the words on the first song, the fast “Starry Crown” (it may be about people getting hit in the head; or it may be about rebuking evil and embracing good—both, or something else). The song from which the collection gets its title, “Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind,” has a charming, dense rhythm and an attractive male voice, and features Sule Greg Wilson, here a guest, on percussion. The instrumental piece “Rickett’s Hornpipe” is very vivid—one can imagine dancing to this (it, too, sounds a bit Irish). “Ol’ Corn Likker” is another dance song, to which the singer gives instruction on movement—and it’s a head-shaking, foot-tapper of a song. Hearing “Little Sadie” in this anthology, its music seems intricate rather than simple—intricate in the mastering of the beauty of sound while maintaining great speed, intricate in establishing then punctuating rhythms, intricate in storytelling. There is beautiful (full-throated, piercing) singing in “Little Margaret,” about a woman’s beloved gentleman getting married to someone else (she makes a visit to him, dies, and he visits her coffin and kisses her, then falls asleep). “Dixie” is a short piece without words, a reclamation. “Black Annie” seems to be about an animal—probably a horse—that runs away, out of the barn door. In “Tom Dula,” a man takes a woman he wanted to marry, kills her, and is bound to die by hanging, or so it is claimed (the man denies the killing); and it sounds like a country music piece. That song takes a social event that people recognize and puts it into song, making meaningful music (that is the work of memory and also of myth). In “Georgie Buck,” the narrator says, “Georgie Buck is dead…don’t put no shortening in my bread” and “don’t let a woman have her way.” These songs capture an old enmity between men and women, between hope and desire on one side and disappointment, distrust, and vengeance on the other.

“Old Cat Died” has a sawing rhythm, paired with fast-spoken singing, short bursts of declaration. (“Another Man Done Gone” is here, on Dona Got a Ramblin Mind; and, as with “Little Sadie,” I don’t hear a difference from what is on Colored Aristocracy.) An uptempo “Black-Eyed Daisy” is presented, then a song about unfulfilled romantic promise, “Short Life of Trouble,” failed promise that leads a man to a drifting life, a song that shows how one failure unsettles a life, and it is followed by “Sally Ann” and a song that mentions roosters crowing, the dance-worthy “Sourwood Mountain,” which also identifies “so many pretty girls you can’t count ‘em.” That is all very, very pleasing music. Keeping certain traditions alive is not what we do out of duty—it is what we do for the preservation and satisfaction of our own minds and spirits.

Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Garrett’s commentaries on Eva Cassidy, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Keb Mo, Ben Harper, Eric Bibb, Vieux Farka Toure, Anoushka Shankar and Karsh Kale, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss have been presented by The Compulsive Reader. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com.

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