Saturday Singles Nos. 436 & 437

Like many things in life, new music finds us when we are ready for it. About eight years ago, one of the blogs I frequented – a blog so long gone that I do not recall its name – dealt with the music we call Americana or roots music. Some of the stuff it offered, I liked, and some found me less enthusiastic.

And the one performer that I found there that I have followed more than any other is Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The lost blog offered several albums by the Chocolate Drops, a string band that records the music of a lost era. Its predecessor group, the Sankofa Strings, focused on “a gamut of African American music: country and classic blues, early jazz and ‘hot music,’ string band numbers, African and Caribbean songs, and spoken word pieces,” as Wikipedia puts it, and the Chocolate Drops have plowed the same fields.

Current members of the group along with Giddens are Hubby Jenkins, Rowan Corbett and Malcolm Parson; earlier members who have moved on are Justin Robinson, Adam Matta and Dom Flemons. The names mean little to me and, I assume, to readers, and I’m likely doing a disservice to those six musicians. But the music, steeped in a culture mostly lost to time, was what mattered, that and Giddens’ voice and her work on banjo and fiddle.

I started with a 2006 album titled Colored Aristocracy by the Sankofa Strings, some of which was released later on a 2008 CCD album titled Heritage. Other releases that have seen at least some time on the various music players here are Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (2007), Genuine Negro Jig (2010) and Leaving Eden (2012). The band’s work has also been included in several soundtracks and tribute albums, including the first Hunger Games film and the 2007 film The Great Debaters. And the sound of the Carolina Chocolate Drops – and yes, the name caused me some discomfort at first, as it has for other listeners whose comments I’ve read online – continues to pull me in, to reach some place inside me and make me feel as if I’ve been waiting a long time to hear music I never knew existed before.

Giddens has since gained a more prominent profile. As I noted in a post in December, she was one of the musicians invited by producer T-Bone Burnett to put music to a rediscovered sheaf of Bob Dylan’s lyrics from the Basement Tapes era. The resulting album, Lost On The River, was released late last year and found its way to my ears as a Christmas present. (The other musicians invited to write to Dylan’s lyrics were Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith.) It’s a remarkable album, and I’ve seen several reviews that have noted that the eye-opener is Giddens, who was likely the least known – at least in the mainstream – among the musicians brought together.

And last month, Giddens released her first solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, also produced by Burnett. I’ve heard a few things from it, including a startling live performance of the Jacques Wolf tune “Waterboy” on the Late Show with David Letterman. And I’m looking forward to digging into the album as soon as our mail carrier drops it off.

Here are two pieces by Giddens. The first is “Spanish Mary,” one of her contributions to Lost On The River, and the second is “Waterboy” from Tomorrow Is My Turn. And they’re today’s Saturday Singles.

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