Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Carolina Chocolate Drops “Cornbread And Butterbeans”

We still have a lot to work out, as a society, when it comes to race.

I was in a public place, chit-chatting with an acquaintance. He was telling me a story about him and his friends. He happens to be white, his friends happen to be black.

So as he’s describing the scene and the dialogue, he’s affecting the voices of his friends.

Standing right next to him, is a young black man. He’s not part of the conversation, doesn’t know either of us. He’s just a bystander.

This guy I know is going on and on. Middle age white guy, doing his version of an older black man.

The bystander is pretending he’s not listening, but you can see by the way he “not listening,” and by his body language, that we’re in an uncomfortable zone for him.

And even if he wasn’t there, we’d entered an uncomfortable zone for me, because all I can think about is this: “Is it racist for a white guy to affect the voice of an older black man, IF he’s not doing a caricature, but a true and fair imitation?”

If I were listening to that conversation as an outsider, I think I would’ve thought, “This guy’s a racist.” But knowing that he wasn’t being cartoony, that he was sincerely trying to imitate someone he knew, made me wonder, “Why is this making me so uncomfortable?”

A short time later, I got in the car, and who should be on the radio, but The Carolina Chocolate Drops. And it posed a whole new set of questions for me.

Why does it feel so wrong, that they’ve titled their album “Genuine Negro Jig”? It’s a phrase I don’t think I’ll be able to bring myself to say on the air.

And if you’ve ever seen them live, you know the band usually dresses in period clothes (1930’s South), plays the jug and the washboard, and even dances broadly. It feel so wildly inappropriate on some level, but, in fact, the band is trying to be true to a tradition that, while carrying a lot of baggage, has great merit.

Intellectually, I know that what the CCD do is perfectly acceptable. But something in my gut still squirms a bit.

We still have a lot to work out, as a society, when it comes to race, and I guess my work starts within me.

Hear a live performance recorded by mvyradio at Newport Folk 2007 and head to the mvyradio archives for more performances from Newport Folk and Merlefest 2007 and Merlefest 2008.


  1. Actually, if you can bring yourself to mention the name of the album on the radio, it provides a nice story - because the song they titled the album after is CALLED Genuine Negro Jig, but according to the tale they tell in concert, since recording that song, they have discovered that the reason the song is titled that is that the tune was "stolen" from the Snowdens, an African American musical group, back when the band would have styled their own music "negro" music. The band now introduces the song as "also known as Snowden's Jig" in concert.

  2. Please pardon my ignorance. I have just heard of all this, Chocolate Drops, "Cornbread", "Negro Jig Music", etc., and I'm a bit lost. They are playing bluegrass, and as a native Kentuckian, I know there are (almost) no black people in Eastern Kentucky, and most of Appalachia for that matter. As far as I know, that style of playing wasn't popular with blacks. The blues tunings, field hollers - all that stuff that emerged out of black culture doesn't sounds a bit like this. It's like they made it up based on a merging of musical styles, but I can't find any thread that links it to anything authentically old. Or black. What am I missing?

  3. Flora,

    There actually IS a connection, to both Black and Old. The CCD are emulating the (forgotten) sound of black string bands from the Piedmont area. You can read a little, here:


    Thanks for reading!

  4. Seeing these guys in Sept. @ the Iron Horse!