If American popular music were a winding road, it’d be a highway full of hijacked cars.
In the beginning, there was the “akonting,” a lute with a skin-headed gourd body played by the Jola people in West Africa. It got hijacked and became the banjo. Then there were the back porch songs passed down through black families. They got hijacked by Dan Emmett and Stephen Foster, repackaged into minstrel tunes and Confederate marching songs. Then there were the black string bands that played fiery fiddles and sang tight harmonies. But their songs and traditions, too, were hijacked and whitewashed as bluegrass.
Now the Carolina Chocolate Drops, not-just-another-revivalist folk band from North Carolina, is taking back their heritage — banjo, fiddle, bones, jug and all. The result of these three young black musicians’ inquiries into their heritage is “Genuine Negro Jig,” a lively but challenging album whose tracks span 150 years of African American music history, from pre-Civil War jigs to pre-WWII blues to post-Destiny’s Child R&B.
“Hey ladies, when your man wanna to get buck wild, just got back and hit ’em back style,” the opera-trained Rhiannon Giddens sings, sassy as Blu Cantrell on the 2003 original, between fiddle interludes. Bandmates Don Flemons and Justin Robinson back her up excitedly on banjo and beatbox, respectively.
But the Chocolate Drops’ short promenade into the modern isn’t the album’s main focus; just as Giddens finishes her anthem about revenge shopping, the band switches gears and goes back about a century. The next track, “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” is an honest song about the small pleasures of life: eating beans and making love and frailing a banjo on a back country porch. Who needs credit cards and Neiman Marcus?
One of the most difficult songs on the record is a four-minute instrumental called “Snowden’s Jig,” subtitled “Genuine Negro Jig.” The Oxford American Dictionary defines a jig as a piece of music for lively dancing, but this song is anything but that. Starting with Robinson’s ominous rhythm of claps and stumps and progressing into a minor-key melody on Giddens’s fiddle that loops into elegant variations, the song asks for more than one emotional response. Does it convey despair, anger or pensiveness? Or perhaps it is all of the above — an attempt to capture the complex emotions felt by blacks living in the antebellum South.
The history of “Snowden’s Jig” is just as complicated as the melody. Songwriter and minstrel performer Dan Emmett, who received credit for “Dixie” (what later became the Confederate anthem), had learned the song from the Snowdens, a musical black family who composed by ear. Recent research on Emmett and his music suggested it was possible that the Snowden family had contributed to Emmett’s composition “Dixie.” What irony!
Irony and complexity aside, the Chocolate Drops introduce a hearty dose of fun on “Genuine Negro Jig.” The jug band instrumental “Memphis Shakedown” floods your speakers with free and easy jazz, as if you were in a speakeasy along the Mississippi during the roaring twenties. Giddens is a wonder on the kazoo — that’s right, that little pipe you blew into you were five — sounding as vibrant and passionate as a trumpet player.
“Genuine Negro Jig” is for anyone interested in the genuine history of American popular music or just want to tap their feet to some genuine American fun.