By Daniel Garrett
Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leaving Eden
Produced by Buddy Miller
Nonesuch Records, 2012
Intimacy, mastery, speed. The fast fiddling and singing of “Riro’s House” on the album Leaving Eden do sound as if they were recorded in a house, rather than a traditional studio. There is something rustic about the recording of a traditional song learned from fiddler Joe Thompson. Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens, two attractive and educated young people, the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, have remained committed to a demanding ideal, the preservation and development of the African-American string band tradition. They continue to study and find old songs, and write new songs, and they have performed at festivals around the world; and received a Grammy for the album Genuine Negro Jig (2010). It is music that comes out of a rural way of life that more Americans, even those in northern cities, used to be able to imagine, if not remember; but that rural life is obscure now, strange, even to some of the people in America’s southern states.
The pace of “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” another traditional banjo and drum piece on Leaving Eden, is actually moderate to slow, without singing, while remaining very appealing. Its somber quality compels attention and is deeply musical. Rhiannon’s singing in Cousin Emmy’s “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?,” giving voice to a tumultuous relationship, is forceful, and seems connected to yodeling, while being supported with clattering percussion. With discernible control (Oberlin-trained), Rhiannon sings the narrative about someone who tries to make a woman comfortable, though that woman remains dissatisfied. Rhiannon’s voice has the strength of body and spirit. The comic “Boodle-De-Bum-Bum,” originally recorded by Ben Covington, is handled by a male voice, that of banjo-player Dom Flemons, and it is an amusing, charming piece, with Hubby Jenkins on mandolin. It mentions a frightened mule and a man chasing sex, while creating a picture of social hypocrisy and foolishness. On their album Leaving Eden, Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are with banjo-player and guitarist Hubby Jenkins, beat-boxer Adam Matta, and cellist Leyla McCalla.
One of the most significant statements on Leaving Eden is fiddler and singer Rhiannon’s song “Country Girl,” an affirmation of the family, work, and natural resources to be found, nurtured, and relished in country life. “All day I dream about a place in sun, kind of like the place I’m from,” sings Rhiannon, in a song that I believe will be returned to again and again by different singers. She has traveled the world and found that there is no place like home; and she puts that revelation—the richness of ordinary country living, its comfort, love, nature, and self-dependence—in words: she relishes “a place where the skin I’m in feels like it’s supposed to be.” Her singing is confident, good, and the instrumental playing is too.
Then there is songwriter J.E. Mainer’s “Run Mountain,” featuring Dom’s singing, his hard vocal phrasing (he says he wishes he could sew his true love to his coat), as well as Dom’s banjo and quills, supported by Rhiannon, Hubby, and Adam; and that followed by “Leaving Eden,” a composition by Laurelynn Dossett that might have been influenced by cinema as much as folk ballads. In “Leaving Eden,” in which economics determine fate, there is the perspective of a mother leaving a faltering mill town with her children to find work and life elsewhere, with trepidation. “Dying’s just another way to meet the ones you love,” she thinks. Rhiannon sings that, a song that could be sung in any genre, from classical to soul. The cello playing by Leyla McCalla is lovely. “Read ‘Em John,” a Georgia Sea Island tune, is boisterous, with exhorting voices and hand claps giving it a theatrical aspect (of course, some would hear that as a communal aspect); and “Mahalla” is an instrumental piece from South African guitarist Hannes Coetzee that Dom arranged and plays banjo on, with Hubby Jenkins playing guitar. Etta Baker’s “West End Blues,” in which a girl’s lady-pleasing, dancing father sets a high standard by example for other men, is a song with excellent singing and playing, a great fiddle and banjo sound from Rhiannon and Dom. (Rhiannon added some of Etta Baker’s admiring comments about Baker’s father to the song.) The traditional “Po’ Black Sheep” sounds like a barn dance song, and it is fascinating to think again of how close America is to its roots in time but not sensibility; and it is followed by George Roarke’s vibrant “I Truly Understand that You Love Another Man,” which offers seductive praise while claiming acceptance of rejection, and has a rich arrangement. In an exuberant old blues composition, its only despair being in the past of the narrator, “No Man’s Mama” is a song of personal liberty, a Pollock-Yellen tune that Ethel Waters used to sing in which a woman is happy with her divorce: “This ends the five-year war—I am myself once more” and “I know how a fellow feels getting out of jail.” The sound of bones, clicking, clacking, if not snapping, can be heard in “Briggs’ Corn Shucking Jig,” which forms a medley with “Camptown Hornpipe,” which has a tambourine and banjo and some bones too. (On those two traditional songs, Dom and Hubby play bones, Rhiannon banjo, and Adam Matta tambourine.) Imagine taking animal bones and making them ring. Making music, like contemplating it, can be a compulsion, but sometimes it is deliverance, moving one beyond trouble and pain. Leaving Eden ends with Hazel Dickens’ “Pretty Bird,” and a woman’s solitary but full-throated singing, a voice of grief and glory, that of Rhiannon Giddens.
DanielGarrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.