November 24, 2009

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are essentially a blackface band made novel by the fact that the musicians are all black. That is to say that they are trading very heavily on their race in the well trod example of all minstrel blackface bands as they supposedly carry on the tradition of black string band music from North Carolina. Do you have to be black to carry on the tradition of black string band music? The answer seems to be yes. Their race matters more in this emphasis than does their origins or their musicial skill. Their music is adequate and the band is fine and all, but they have become something like a sensation because of the deft way they trade on their race to authenticate their music. Their audience, overwhelmingly white, middle class, and earnest, revels in this faux authenticity bestowed on their music by their heavily laden racial emphasis. A white band trying to do the same thing, and playing such similarly run-of-the-mill music, would be ignored or maybe even ridiculed for caricature.

To give but one example, when there was a cd release for the band at the Mt Airy Fiddler's convention several years ago (their first cd, I am not sure how many they have now) the band played for a large group of entirely 100% white people and then handed out a watermelon. Imagine the reverse.

Anyway, so I have long thought. Now I see that the overwhelmingly white, middle class, and earnest
History News Network blog has this post which almost exactly proves my point. In it, the Chocolate Drops are presented as authentic as they play an incredibly dull version of a (white!) song from NC supposedly in some tradition and then is contrasted with the Wiyos, who are identified as "a well-regarded white, urban group, with roots in New York and New Orleans." Why is race so heavily foregrounded in this? The Wiyos do not market themselves as a 'white' band and definitely do not traffic in racial identity as do the Chocolate Drops. Why not just say one is a competent but weak group with celebrity cred playing without inspiration while the other is a very accomplished band playing an infinitely superior version of a great song?

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