Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit
It used to be that Chicago had the most famous country music radio show in America. The WLS National Barn Dance broadcast string band music, comedy and other homegrown amusement every Saturday from the 1920's through the 1950's. WLS was a clear-channel AM station, so at night you could get the signal throughout most of the central U.S. and even up into Canada. The show inspired a slew of imitators, most famously the Grand Ole Opry.
While you'd need an archivist to find out whether a group of young, black musicians ever played on National Barn Dance, the kind of show the Carolina Chocolate Drops played at Schuba's on Sunday night would have made them radio superstars across the American heartland. They were, to borrow a compliment they paid to one of their heroes, old-fashioned entertainers, bent on sharing how much fun this music can be.
The room itself evoked a barn dance. Arched wooden beams framed the stage, and the storage chests behind the band stood in for hay bales. Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson sat surrounded by an arsenal of instruments - multiple banjos, fiddle, guitar, harmonica, jug, panpipes, autoharp and "bones" - a pair of actual cow bones clicked together in the hand like castanets. They traded instruments with each other after nearly every song.
The Chocolate Drops know how to put on a show. Gibbons frailed her banjo with windmill strums. Flemons got up and danced around with the bones, hopping in circles while playing under his leg and behind his back. Later, he twirled a guitar around his head mid-song.
The capacity crowd of 200 was beyond enthusiastic. Chicago is still a folk music town, and the hardcore fans were out in force - applauding kazoo solos and responding to a sing-a-long request with three-part harmony. Rock stars would kill for this kind of audience loyalty.
Every song had a story. "Will Adam's Breakdown" came from an African American fiddle player recorded by Mike Seeger, and Seeger got to hear the band play it before he died. "Bowling Green" was from Cousin Emmie, an old-timer whose talents included tapping out a version of "Turkey in the Straw" on her cheeks. The title track on the Chocolate Drops' just-released album, "Genuine Negro Jig" is a song that a white musician took from a family of black musicians in Ohio, thought to be the same family from which the same guy took "Dixie."
What you can't hear on the album is the laughter, peals of it ringing from the rafters during the show, both from the players and the audience. It wrapped you in the sheer joy of this music played out loud. The Chocolate Drops are a clear reminder of why string bands were popular. For decades, this was music that America danced to, worked to and fell in love to.
While in town, the Chocolate Drops met with the Old Town School of Folk Music, as well as two gems of Chicago's black music revival scene: Reginald Robinson, the pianist who dual-handedly brought ragtime piano into the 21st century, and Reggio the Hoofer, whose old-school tap is one of the best-kept secrets of the local dance scene. They're planning a traveling variety show that will re-create the tradition of Black Vaudeville.
With an anticipated date in 2011, this will be one not to miss.
Jeff Pinzino writes the Casual Listening music blog.
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