Black History Month Post-?-Racial String Bands

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are at least as entertaining as the 19th minstrel shows they cop songs and style from — and just as confounding to any strict analysis of American attitudes about what’s called “race” — as noted in my new column in City Arts – New York.

At an American Songbook series concert in the elegant Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the three smart and casually stylish young Drops (this was the last tour date for member Justin Robinson though — he leaves the band to continue his education) proved that old-timey string band music played by fiddlers, guitarists, bones thwackers and banjo pickers well before, during and long after America’s Civil War, can still be relevant and rousing. Also, that despite its propagation by enormously popular but derogatorally blackfaced touring white minstrel troupes from the 1840s into the Roaring ’20s, this music had origins in a social milieu that countenanced more integration based on musical merit than has often been acknowledged. Sort of the way Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Jackie Wilson get downplayed in histories of rock ‘n’ roll.
Since this is a key point of investigation in the class “Roots of American Music” I’m teaching at New York University again this semester, and that I like tracing evidence of such miscegenation in blues, pop and jazz, it’s heartening to see a band that seems to be growing in reputation among middle-aged and older patrons of Lincoln Center-type as well as younger roots music fans and alt.rockers by trading in on that truth. What’s also interesting is whether a somewhat older and arguably grittier ensemble, a quartet of black New Yorkers known as the Ebony Hillbillies, can win similar attentions as they perform in the subways and odd venues of New York. After a week in Sofia, Bulgaria, they’re booked for the Amtrack area at Penn Station, 4 pm – 7 pm, on February 15 and 22 as part of the celebration of Black History Month. I’ll be attending with my class on the 22nd, and hope to see everybody there.


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  1. Jeff Newell says

    It’s a beautiful thing to see people embracing this fundamental part of our American musical heritage, especially in forms it may have been before being distorted by minstrelsy. What amazes me is the similarities between this and the music my grandfather played. Though, being a poor, white farmer in south-central Missouri living from 1888 to 1977, he probably would not, or could not, have acknowledged the connection. I still have his harmonicas, bones (the musical kind), and “jaw” harp (trying to be politically correct here). Thanks for posting this, Howard.