The following is a guest post by Stephen Winick, Writer and Editor, American Folklife Center.
On Saturday, February 18, 2012, the Library’s Coolidge auditorium hosted a relaxed and thoroughly enjoyable concert by Grammy-Award-winning old-time folk music group The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The two-hour concert featured old-fashioned music on guitar, banjo, steel-resonator mandolin, and fiddle, with rich bass tones added by cello. The band also treated the audience to some fascinating and unusual folk instruments including rattles, bones, kazoos, and quills. It was a showcase of lively rural American music, in the styles that formed the immediate precursors to blues, country, and jazz…indeed, to most of American popular music.
The charismatic performers played almost two hours of music, beginning with “Kerr’s Negro Jig,” an American tune to which they gave a stately, Celtic-flavored arrangement led by the fiddle of Rhiannon Giddens, and ending with “Sourwood Mountain,” an iconic American folksong played as a breakdown on fiddle, banjo and guitar; during the latter, band member Dom Flemons delighted the audience with a frenetic dance, in which he tossed his guitar up in the air and passed it through his legs, Vaudeville-style. In between, the musicians explored the backwoods ballads, juke joint blues, downtown jazz struts, and medicine-show ditties that made American music great. They played such pieces as “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” “I Truly Understand that You Love Another Man,” “Milwaukee Blues” and “Was You Ever in Quebec,” which they learned from artists ranging from Shortbuckle Roark to Ethel Waters. They also played contemporary songs, including “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” the R & B hit originally performed by Blu Cantrell in 2001.
The concert was co-sponsored by two divisions of the Library, the Music Division and the American Folklife Center. In addition to the obvious (a shared love of music), these two divisions have an important thing in common: they have both been home to the nation’s premiere folk music archive, which has been called the Archive of American Folk-Song, the Archive of Folk Culture, and most recently, the American Folklife Center Archive. The Archive is particularly important to our collaboration on this concert, because the band members have visited it here in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson building to do research, and they play materials learned from its recordings. At the February 18 concert, they played versions of “Read ‘Em, John,” “Trouble in Mind,” and “Last Chance,” learned from recordings made by Alan Lomax, and of “Po’ Black Sheep,” learned from a recording made by John W. Work, III, both important fieldworkers who contributed to the Archive. They also played “Alabama Bound,” which they learned from a disc recording of Jelly Roll Morton; Alan Lomax recorded the Morton disc for the Library of Congress seventy-four years ago, in the very same room where the Chocolate Drops played their cover version!
Because of their connection to and affection for the Archive, the band members graciously allowed me to interview them briefly on the stage, and told me about the archival recordings from the Library of Congress that most inspired them. Leyla McCalla, the group’s cellist, spoke of Alan Lomax’s Haitian collections from 1936 and 1937; as a Haitian-American, she found fascinating resonances with her own family. Giddens, likewise, heard echoes of her grandmother’s singing in recordings of Alabama gospel singer Vera Ward Hall, made by John Lomax from 1937 through 1940, and by Alan Lomax in 1959. Hubbie Jenkins spoke about the recordings that the famous novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston made in Florida in the 1930s, featuring both her own singing and the singing of other informants.
Flemons, who has spent the most time poring through the archive’s collections, mentioned many of AFC’s recordings, including those of Lomax and Work, explaining that his university library kept copies of The Archive of Folk Song’s LP records; listening to them was one of the ways he first encountered folk music. He spoke about the influence of the late Mike Seeger, not only as an important collector for the AFC archive, but also as a mentor. Finally, Flemons pointed out that the Library of Congress has the only archival field recordings of African-American music on the “quills,” or panpipes: disc recordings made by Alan Lomax of the Mississippi musician Sid Hemphill in the 1940s, and tape recordings made by Ralph Rinzler of the Alabama player Joe Patterson in the early 1960s. He played a snippet in each musician’s style, and talked about their influence on his own compositions. (Flemons also revealed himself to be a true Library of Congress fanatic by doing an uncanny voice impression of the LC transfer engineer who made reference-tape copies of Lomax’s original discs in the 1970s. The voice of the engineer, who announced each song on the reference tape as part of the transfer process, can only be heard in our reading room, or on made-on-demand copies of AFC materials available from the Library’s recording lab!)
After the interview, they returned to their program of music, delighting all who heard them and, we hope, giving people insight into the ways in which archives and libraries can bring us not only learning, but joy. Certainly, the audience, which included 490 people in the Coolidge Auditorium and a further 105 in the Whittall Pavilion (the latter watching on plasma screens), left the Library elated and satisfied. We can only hope for more such fruitful collaborations in the future.