Down the Old Plank Road: Carolina Chocolate Drops, Frank Fairfield & Blind Boy Paxton
As has been mentioned in a previous post – and as would likely be obvious from the overall content of NTSIB – I am a roots music fan. This used to mean mainly old blues: Robert Johnson, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf. It would be disingenuous to deny the role of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album in opening me up to more styles of roots, or “old timey”, music, like Southern gospel-style music, string bands, bluegrass, etc., but it was the advent in my musical life of modern string band hustlers Old Crow Medicine Show that led me to discover that there are a number of young artists keeping the basics of the old music alive while also adding their own, up-to-date flair into the mix. One of the most exciting of those acts is the Carolina Chocolate Drops who are bringing the black string band tradition back to the forefront while evolving the possibilities of string band music with the injection of their modern sensibilities. This confluence of old and new is on exhilirating display in their treatment of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, performed below during their appearance on WDVX’s Blue Plate Special.
There are also artists who keep so closely to the essence of the original sounds and styles of roots music that they almost defy belief and have you checking the calendar to confirm what century you’re in. Frank Fairfield and Blind Boy Paxton are prime examples. And they look the part, Fairfield with his Brylcreemed hair and shirts buttoned up to the neck, a piece of rope serving as the strap on his banjo, and Paxton sometimes sporting a suit and fedora, sometimes a pair of overalls. Their sound is so authentic that you wait to hear the hiss and pop of old vinyl after each verse. Indeed, it’s so authentic that some have been led to ask, “Why bother?” Why recreate so precisely the sound of the old string bands or the old bluesmen when those original recordings are still available to hear? I’m sure part of the motivation is purely selfish: for the joy of playing the music. But Fairfield and Paxton also perform an important service to the music itself: they bring it to the attention to people who might otherwise not listen to old time music. If the old music is not listened to, it can’t continue to influence musicians today and, it could be argued, future music would lose much of its soul. Also, if old music is not listened to, it can’t be preserved, and the loss of these roots would be a shattering crime.
Plus, damnit, it’s just fun to listen to.
Here Fairfield and Paxton jam with Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops: