Carolina Chocolate Drops
with Buckwheat Zydeco, and Abigail Washburn
Central Park Summerstage, New York City August 11, 2012
In the 2000 period film, Songcatcher, the protagonist, Doctor Lily Penleric, is a 19th century musicologist who slogs through the mud-laden roads of North Carolina's Appalachian mountains with an Edison Cylinder Phonograph to make wax recordings of undiscovered and English-Irish folk ballads brought by 18th century English and Scottish immigrants and preserved by generations of mountain folks who never left the mountain. This unforgettable scene, and Penleric's passion for discovering the origins of musical genres, are pure inspiration to any music lover.
I could say the same for Carolina Chocolate Drops, who are today's Songcatchers of the black roots of old-time music, and who delivered a great outdoor show at the Central Park Summerstage.
The opener for this old-time music celebration was Abagail Washburn, who broke the ice and melted our hearts with a set laced with her soft-spoken style and introspective lyrics. Her act was followed by Buckwheat Zydeco (aka: Stanley Dural, Jr.), who jumpstarted the crowd from introspection to exultation. There is a transcendent and iconic presence about him after 40+ years of entertaining fans with the New Orleans-style sound mix of Cajun, country, and blues.
Buckwheat is a showman with a carefully crafted set of facial expressions and moves that is meant to work the camera and excite attendees. With a smile as wide as the open spans on his accordion, Buckwheat knows how to create picture-perfect moments for fans. And yet, the look is only half the show, with fantastic musicianship that backs up every showy move.
In promotion of their current album, Leaving Eden, Carolina Chocolate Drops band members Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Hubby Jenkins have added guest cellist Leyla McCalla to join them for this leg of their tour. What a great move, since McCalla balances CCD's sound with a deep and rich-sounding cello.
Like many good folk artists, CCD has a knack for unpretentiously educating without preaching by sharing thoughts on instrument, music, and song with a touch of both humor and humility. There was a soft lilt and subtle inflection in all their voices speaking about the days of black minstrel shows and how the banjo, which is African in origin, was considered a black instrument for many years and passed from slaves to white performers, who then increased its popularity on a global scale.
In one of the highlights of the entire event, Giddens spoke of the migration of Gaelic-speaking Scots to North Carolina and how some Blacks learned to speak Gaelic in their community and in their church services. Giddens then broke into singing two Scottish dance songs completely in Gaelic and with a passion and energy that drew large cheers and claps from the crowd.
Yes, in some cases, it felt like a history lesson in African-American studies, but honestly, I loved it, and the feel was not one of activism to raise awareness, but one of comfort and unity. It was like sitting around a campfire and hearing some warm-hearted friends recall days long past with a softly spoken "Remember when?" followed by a "Yeh, that was a sad time in history, but you know, we had some really good and fun times, too." And it was clearly conveyed in their music, which ranged from the simple country diddlies of the mid-1800s played on banjo and bone (a folk instrument originally played with animal rib bones but now crafted with wood), to fast-paced, highly syncopated and sizzling square-dance music learned from their days with traditional fiddler Joe Thompson.
Rather than leaving one in turn-of-the-century stasis, CCD also played songs that added an old-time spin to relatively modern songs, appealing to those who usually cement their audio pre-sets to mainstream pop. CCD's cover of Blu Cantrell's "Hit'em Up Style" was a fine antique brassing of a Top 40 hit with Giddens' fine soul voice and a deep Appalachian old-time feel spit-polished by a deep wail and the twang of her fiddle.
With TV and radio innundated with A&R-crafted pop songs, it's reassuring to know that with bands like Carolina Chocolate Drops, there are songcatcher stewards around who celebrate both scholarship and performance to honor the roots of today's music. It's a rare occurrence when I can thoroughly enjoy both in one event, and it's one that I hope you don't miss if this highly talented modern-day minstrel troupe comes to your town.