Stagecoach To Somewhere – Carolina Chocolate Drops

In the UK, it is simple.  Folk music is played by alienated left wing intellectuals who are mainly ignored by the rest of the population.  It may even be the same in the USA but in the UK the music is especially remote from present day experience.  Nothing, or hardly anything, links what the British listen to today to what their ancestors played and that which British folk musicians try to preserve.   The Beatles may have extended their sound on their records to echo the British Music Hall but that was more about how the ear of McCartney had been groomed rather than him acknowledging a tradition.  The most conservative of the Beatles, and the most willing to honour his working class roots, was Ringo Starr.  He did this on his album, ‘Sentimental Journey’.  The album imitated a singsong in the local pub.   The songs that featured on the album were all American as indeed was most of the music that featured in the overrated Terence Davies film, ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’.   This was a dark tale of domestic working class life but was lightened by scenes of Scousers singing in the pub.  The movie brought back memories and confirmed what we suspected.   English roots music had been vanquished well before rock and roll.

In the States, it is different.  Popular American music has its genres – blues, country, soul and gospel.   Like the hamburger, blandness has always spread far in American culture, which was why Colonel Parker thought ‘Blue Hawaii’ was a good idea for Elvis Presley.  Yet, country and blues persisted as evidence of genres created by working class musicians.   Jazz and folk may have been a haven for the more independent musicians but their form related to blues and country.  Jazz is rooted in the blues, and folk music precedes the more commercial country and western.  The establishment of independent genres was probably done for simple business reasons.  The music had to be organised

American Folk

American Folk

according to some principles.   Inevitably, categorisation was challenged.  Bob Wills and a whole legion of country musicians imitated swing and jazz.  Chuck Berry added a country flavour to his rhythm and blues, and Elvis merged raw blues and bluegrass and a lot more at Sun.  Folk music, though, never entirely disappeared.  Elvis actually wanted to record a folk album in the sixties.  He had a thing about the harmonies of Peter, Paul and Mary and had noted that a sweetened version of folk music had become popular.  Bob Dylan was also redefining what was commercial.  If the idea of Elvis singing folk music sounds absurd, you have never heard his unforgettable version of the Bob Dylan song, ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’.   Willie Nelson also deals in mega appeal, yet his albums and performances can drift towards folk music.

The performances of Elvis and Nelson are clearly different from what American folk devotees expect but the point is obvious.  Folk music helps define modern American country and blues.  The lines between the genres are blurred.  For instance, Muddy Waters may have abandoned songs that appealed to Leadbelly but blues fans find it feasible to enjoy both Waters and Leadbelly.  In the UK, it is different.  British folk music would not be well received at a British rockabilly club.

In the USA, bluegrass also obscures the divide.  It exists as a commercial opportunity for Alison Kraus while it is still being honoured by purists such as Uncle Earl, Old Crow Medicine Show and Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Of course, bluegrass is defined as a regional music.  It belongs to the Appalachian Mountains.  What tends to be forgotten is that these mountains stretch virtually the whole of the South East.  Perhaps, not every Southern musician played bluegrass but all would have heard the music, either on the radio or live from local and visiting musicians.

So bluegrass is important, especially for guitar and banjo pickers and fiddle players.

Caroline Chocolate Drops

Caroline Chocolate Drops

The Carolina Chocolate Drops certainly think so.   They honour not only traditional bluegrass but also acknowledge the important British roots.  Bill Monroe once said that bluegrass is basically Scottish bagpipes and fiddles.  Listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops and you can actually hear the influence of the bagpipes in the fiddle playing.  This is what makes the music exciting.  Like the Sun records of Elvis, they convey a sense of discovery and invention.  Admittedly, with Elvis it was actually happening at the time that he was making his records.  The music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is retrospective.  It recreates what might have happened as British musicians were introduced to the strange land of America and new influences.  This, though, is a considerable achievement.  It may be history but it is remarkably dramatic to hear the revolution that occurred in the 19th century, a revolution no less significant than that of the birth of rock and roll.

I thought I would never respond to another version of ‘Cornbread And Butterbeans’ but the version by the Carolina Chocolate Drops succeeds because the tentative but effective vocal exists not only in awe of the song but in what must have been happening at the time as cultures clashed.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops also remember the 20th century. Rhiannon Giddens delivers an essential vocal on

‘Why Don’t You Do Right’.  The strut of Peggy Lee, although admirable, is dismissed in favour of realism.  Giddens captures the integrity of a song that actually describes a desperate woman being betrayed by an idle man.  The Carolina Chocolate Drops are not the only bluegrass band determined to honour tradition and occasionally extend their repertoire.  Old Crow Medicine Show includes a version of the Alvin Robinson rhythm and blues classic, ‘Down Home Girl’.   These two bands, though, are, in the main, purists.  The three musicians of the Chocolate Drops are rarely augmented.    They rely on hand clapping and bones for percussion.   Old Crow Medicine Show are a five piece but drums

Old Crow Medicine Show

Old Crow Medicine Show

are absent as are electric instruments.   Both bands acknowledge what we regard as the blues.  Old Crow perform a bluegrass version of  ‘C C Rider’. They occasionally show the influence of Bob Dylan and like him they insist that there is a connection between bluegrass and the blues.  Rhiannon Giddens provides a fine version of the traditional English song, ‘Reynadine’, yet elsewhere her singing also anticipates Bessie Smith.

Carolina Chocolate Drops are different.  Not only does their bluegrass music anticipate the blues on occasion, their existence alone challenges easy assumptions.  The name Carolina Chocolate Drops contains an irony worthy of Tottenham football fans.  The three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops are Afro-American.  They are from Carolina and insist that in Piedmont the tradition was for both races to play bluegrass.   But is that something that only happened in Piedmont or was it that the tradition merely lasted longer there?  There is an excellent compilation on Old Hat records called ‘Good For What Ails You’.  This contains music from the actual medicine shows.  It covers the period 1927 to 1936 and mixes records by black and white musicians.   In this collection, the fiddle does not feature as much as we would expect.  This may be because the musicians were obliged to perform often by themselves.  Who knows?  Neither is it obvious from the recordings which of the musicians are white and which are black.  Some of the white musicians would have also performed in black face, so history is complicated.   But, before the businessmen set about defining genres and insisted on continuing separate racial identity, perhaps there was a brief period in American history when amongst musicians there was an acknowledgement of how social class can unite ordinary people.  And maybe that is why bluegrass, even in its pure form, will continue to endure.


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Elvis Presley Challenge No. 49 – Delbert McClinton

DelbertPaul Simon told us that he visited Graceland but he was coy about what he had on his feet.   I wore cowboy boots.  Not the black boots that Elvis favoured.  Mine were tan with ornate etchings.   I bought them in Amarillo.  I walked into a shop to buy a belt.  The salesman was all Southern charm and I left with a pair of boots.  I resisted the Stetson.  The cowboy boots were fine.  They made the denims hang well and they closed the gap between me and six feet.   Of course, everybody else wore boots.  All the men were two inches taller.    I drove all around the States wearing those boots, never once thinking that they may not be suitable for driving.   Tan cowboy boots, a pair of denims and a white T shirt is not Elvis but it is what I wore at Graceland and the Sun and American Sound Studios.  Elvis hardly wore denims.  He did not like clothes that made him anonymous.

Amarillo is pronounced aa-mah-rii-yo in Spanish.  ‘Lone Star’ is a fine movie about race relations in Texas.   Imagine left Lone Star posterwing polemic and Little Willie John and Freddie Fender on the soundtrack.  ‘Lone Star’ is not set in Amarillio.   The action takes place on the border between the States and Mexico.    ‘Lone Star’ is sympathetic to the minorities.  It implies that a responsible Texan would make the effort to be fluent in Spanish.

I have no idea whether Delbert McClinton speaks Spanish.  He may even be right wing and vote Republican although his fans would be surprised if he did.  To his British fans, McClinton is an all American working class hero.   He has good hair and he is photogenic.  He looks cool.  Usually, he wears cowboy boots, denims and a T shirt.  Occasionally, presumably if he is going somewhere important or has his lady to impress, he will wear a plain shirt with collar and cuffs.  When I saw him on stage in the Town and Country Club in London he was in T shirt mode.   He also drank a couple of cans of the appalling American Budweiser.  He is a man who appreciates his roots and to him those roots are more important than a continual quest to root out the exotic.  McClinton is a rhythm and blues singer.   His music reflects the world which seduced him.    He lacks Delbert McClintonthe curiosity of some dedicated musicians but this is only because he understands romance.  As the great German writer Hermann Broch wrote in his essential ‘Sleepwalker Trilogy’, the romantic needs limits and boundaries.   The curious like Simon dashing off to South Africa to add fresh rhythms to his records will make discoveries.   But the romantics, those attached to their roots, are also important.  The music of McClinton is like his clothes.  It is ideological.  The musicians on his records are black and white but they are usually from the Southern states.   He is not without invention but what he adds to his music only exists to enrich the genre, something he refines through his own American experience.

Without the waywardness of Elvis he avoids the sentimental.  He began backing blues singers like Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.  McClinton can deliver a poignant ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’ but he is unable to be tender.  His voice has a rough barroom edge that suits the music he plays, tough rhythm and blues and soul ballads which have just enough country influence to keep everyone in the bar happy.  The songs are realistic.  In his rockers, he either

Howlin' Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf

celebrates or looks at life with wry amusement.  When he slows down he remembers why relationships are important.  He rarely sings about love.  Elvis is the introvert who is determined to understand his feelings and his bruised heart.  McClinton sings about life.  His songs deal with dependency, triumphs, celebration, mistakes and regret.  Inevitably, he has his weak moments.  His albums can sometimes run out of steam and the welcome realism is occasionally spoilt by a sense of overdeveloped male entitlement.  This is demonstrated in the appalling ‘Sending Me Angels’ where McClinton acknowledges the women sent to comfort his flawed masculinity.  But if that is a mistake and his specific identity limits what he can achieve on his albums, he is always listenable.   His output ranges from the irresistible, ‘Shot From The Saddle’ has a compelling groove’, to the merely toe tapping listenable, the music on his ‘Plain From The Heart’ album.    It is a form of consistency.   Within it, though, there have been many moments to make him proud.  ‘Two Bottles Of Wine’ which is about failure and the solace of alcohol is a song that compares with the very best.  Recently, he recorded ‘Down In Mexico’.  This addictive tale of a Vegas robbery mixes splendidly film noir and ‘El Paso’ by Marty Robbins.

Lennon playing the harmonicaDelbert McClinton is based in Fort Worth but he is from Lubbock, Texas, like Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Joe Ely.   He is popular in his home state but he never quite made the really big time.  He had one top 40 hit, ‘Giving It Up For Your Love’, and a top ten hit, ‘Tell Me About It’, but that required him to duet with Tanya Tucker.   His life may not have been what he dreamed.  It has not consisted of back to back hits, mansions and limousines.  He may even feel resentful about how the more successful have sometimes taken advantage.  He taught John Lennon how to play the harmonica and Elvis half stole his arrangement of the Johnny Ace hit, ‘Pledging My Love’.

He still sounds positive.  There is no trace in his live performances of the disillusionment that is obvious in the later shows of Elvis.  I always missed McClinton when I was in Texas.  I had to wait for him to visit England.  He was worth the wait.  His fabulous show included a nine piece band as I knew it would.   Okay, I read these things but the cowboy boots made the small band obligatory.

Despite the reading, I doubt if I will ever know whether Delbert learnt to speak Spanish.   (I sometimes call him by his first name because I have all his albums.)   I hope he did.   He should watch a film called ‘El Sueno Derrotado’.  It is a documentary and it mixes archive material and interviews with old timers who remember the Spanish Civil War, the El Sueno DerrotadoFrench Resistance, the Second World War and the concentration camps.   The film captures the horror as it intends but it does more.  It reminds us that there is no exultation in success and achievement.  It exists only in endurance.  McClinton may not have had the hits but he managed to always earn a living as a musician.  He has loyal fans and the respect of critics.  He has done it by staying loyal to what is best about the people of his homeland, their sense of community and their music.  He has preserved not only his talent but the romance.  Delbert McClinton is entitled to his exultation because he earned it and because he has prevailed.  Elvis was talented but he was also exotica.  This was why he triumphed but later perished.   It is what they call success.


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And now for some Delbert: