Friday, January 13, 2012

“Old Corn Liquor”

A happy Banjo Friday to you, friends.  We’ve got two great music videos for your entertainment!

I’ve written in the past about how the clawhammer style of banjo playing has been associated particularly with dance music. That’s not only true in terms of the banjo’s history, but also true today.  After all, much of what’s called “old-time” music today is dance tunes, & “old-time” musicians routinely play at contra dances & similar events. When “old-time” banjoists play this music, the vast majority of them use the clawhammer playing style.  Its percussive, rhythmic attack, in which the banjoist uses the fingernail of either the index or middle finger to strike down on the strings, alternating with the thumb, is particularly suited for such dance settings.

This dance tradition thrived in both the African-American & European-American communities—a fact that isn’t as commonly known as it should be.  In part, this meant that there was a sharing of musical repertoire between the two communities, as well as a sharing of musical techniques.  There are a number of sources available for studying this confluence of musical traditions, but the most enjoyable no doubt are those “sources” that allow you to actually hear it—& for that, you can’t do much better than listening to the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

I’ve written about the Carolina Chocolate Drops frequently in this space—to my mind, they are one of the most exciting musical outfits going today. Without going back over familiar territory, I will mention that band members Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens & Justin Thompson (who has since left the band—Hubby Jenkins is now the third member) met at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC in 2005. Following this, the three musicians began to play weekly with then octogenarian fiddler Joe Thompson, perhaps the last surviving link to the black string band tradition as it existed in the early 20th century. The Chocolate Drops incorporated much of Thompson’s repertoire into their own, & tho the overall sound they achieve is traditional, they added any number of wrinkles.  Joe Thompson’s version of “Old Corn Liquor” is found in the second video, with his brother the late Odell Thompson playing banjo. This is taken from the important Smithsonian/Folkways collection, Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia.

The song “Old Corn Liquor” is in fact a square dance tune (by square dance here I mean traditional square dance, not Modern or Western square dance), & a tune that was shared by both African-American & European-American communities. The song is typically played in G, so the banjo is in the “standard” G tuning. 

Great fun! Enjoy!


  1. Hi Sandra: Very good--definitely the right reaction! Thanks.


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