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Carolina Chocolate Drops And A String Band Tradition

Though they work as a traditional African-American string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops' members throw in some modern twists. The Durham, N.C.-based trio plays a wide variety of instruments, including the banjo, fiddle, jug, bones and harmonica. All of those sounds are featured on the band's newest record, Genuine Negro Jig.

18:38

Other segments from the episode on September 3, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 3, 2010: Interview with Doc Watson; Interview with Don Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson; Commentary on puns and wordplay in country music.

Transcript

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Doc Watson: An Old-Time Folk Musician With Soul

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting
in for Terry Gross.

Our first guest today, continuing our week-long celebration of country
music, is Doc Watson, one of America's most revered folk musicians. For
much of his career he performed and toured with his son Merle. Merle
died in 1985 in a farm accident, just days before Frets magazine named
him Finger-Picking Guitarist of the Years in folk, blues or country
music.

An annual concert in North Carolina honoring Merle, called MerleFest,
wrapped up a few weeks ago. We'll listen to Terry's 1988 interview with
Doc and hear some songs recorded in 1989 in our studio. Let's begin with
an excerpt from that FRESH AIR concert with Doc Watson and his long-time
duets partner, guitarist Jack Lawrence.

TERRY GROSS, host:

I want to welcome both of you to FRESH AIR, and Doc Watson, can I ask
you to introduce the first song?

Mr. DOC WATSON (Musician): Thank you, Terry. I think we'll do one that
Merle and I, my son Merle and I, learned from John Hurt(ph), a good old
tune called "Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor."

(Soundbite of song, "Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor")

Mr. WATSON: (Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down
a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and
low, and then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

I'm goin' up the country through that sleet and snow, goin' up the
country through that sleet and snow. Yes, I'm goin' up the country
through that sleet and snow, ain't no telling just how far I'll go.

I get my breakfast here and my dinner in Tennessee, get breakfast here
and my dinner in Tennessee. Gonna get my breakfast here, my dinner in
Tennessee, told you I's a-commin', so you'd better look for me.

Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your
floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low, and then
maybe my good gal, she won't know.

What do you think about it, Jack? Hey, I like that notion right there.

Well, you know that I can't lay down on your bed. Now, honey, I can't
lay down on your bed. No, baby, I can't lay down 'cross your pretty bed
'cause my good woman, she might kill me dead.

And don't you let my good gal catch you here. Hey, don't you let my good
gal catch you here. If you do, she may shoot you, she might cut and
stuff you too, ain't no tellin' what that gal might do.

Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your
floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low. And then
maybe my good gal, she won't know.

The way I've been sleepin', my back and shoulder's tired. The way I've
been sleepin', my back and shoulder's tired. Yeah, the way I've been
sleepin', my back and shoulder's tired. I think I'll turn, try sleepin'
on my side.

Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your
floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low. And then
maybe my good gal, she won't know.

Let's play some country counterpoint, son.

Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your
floor. Honey, make it over, (unintelligible) behind that door. Make it
where your good man will never go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATSON: Alright.

BIANCULLI: Doc Watson, with guitarist Jack Lawrence in our studio in
1989.

Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, and went blind after an eye
infection around his first birthday. His father was a musician, although
not a professional performer, but he introduced Doc to playing by making
him his first banjo, as Doc Watson told Terry in 1988.

Mr. WATSON: That was the summer of 1934. He made my first little
stringed instrument. I had a harmonica before that. But dad showed me a
few of the old-time frailing or clawhammer banjo style tunes and one day
he brought it to me and put it in my hands and said, son, I want you to
learn to play this thing real well. And some of these days we'll get you
a better one. He said it might help you get through the world.

GROSS: And what was it like for you the first time you got the banjo
into your hands? What did you do with it?

Mr. WATSON: I remember how I felt, but I don't remember hardly what it
was like learning the first tunes. It was kind of hard for dad to show
me because I couldn't see his hands.

But he finally got across to me how to do the licks on the banjo and how
to note the thing. And I could figure out where the notes were because
it was fretless. And you could slide along with your fingers and finally
you'd come to the right one, you know, and I found out how to get there
without missing them.

GROSS: So you were really pretty self-taught.

Mr. WATSON: For the most part, yes, I was. The guitar, absolutely, I was
self-taught.

GROSS: How did you get your first guitar?

Mr. WATSON: One spring my dad told my youngest brother and I, boys, if
you'll cut all those dead chestnut - small dead chestnuts down along the
road and around the edge of the field there, you can sell it for
pulpwood to the tannery.

And we went at it, and we cut a couple of big truckloads. And it didn't
make us a mint of money, but it made me enough to buy me a good little
guitar from - well, I thought it was good at the time - from Sears
Roebuck. And my younger brother ordered him a suit of clothes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, considering that your early instruments were homemade banjos
and a mail-order guitar, did you ever get really obsessed with the
quality of instruments that you were playing?

Some musicians just play what they have, and others get really obsessed
with having instruments that are just right for them or custom made for
them.

Mr. WATSON: I was fairly contented with what I had. I never had had my
hands on a good guitar back in those days and didn't for years. The
first good guitar that I got hold of, that I would've considered much
better than my mail-order box was a Martin guitar that Richard Green(ph)
used to have a little music store under his - he had a boarding house or
an inn there in Boone.

And I went in there one day with that little mail-order thing and he
said: Why don't you let me help you get your good guitar? And I said,
gosh, it cost too much. And he said: I'll tell you what I can do. I can
get you a good Martin D-18 that will be a price that you can afford, and
I'll take the payments down to five dollars a month.

And I couldn't beat that. I faded off quicker than that, but I couldn't
beat that with a stick. And at that time I was playing at the little
fruit stand and a couple of - a little bean market they had in Boone and
making me a few shekels on a Saturday, having a good time a-pickin', and
I paid for the guitar that summer.

He got me that thing at his cost, and it cost 90 bucks. Oh lord, I was
proud of that guitar. But in all truth, compared to my guitar now, it
was fretting a fence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATSON: It was really hard to play.

GROSS: I guess it's almost good, in a way, to get used to something like
that because it makes it seem so much easier when you get a good guitar.

Mr. WATSON: Oh, it really does, and when I got into the folk revival in
the '60s, I ran into people who could set a guitar action up to where
you could play it, and I came onto another Martin along about that time,
played a Gibson first on the road, borrowed. Then I came into another
Martin, and the action was brought down to where you could play it.

GROSS: My guest is Doc Watson. You know, I'm glad you brought up the
folk revival. It was really during the folk revival that you started to
become nationally known. I think you'd been playing dances and, you
know, playing in your area.

Mr. WATSON: I played rockabilly music through the '50s, and I played an
electric guitar, a Les Paul.

GROSS: Well, see, this really interests me. You were playing rockabilly
on an electric guitar.

Mr. WATSON: Uh-huh. Rockabilly and old pop standards with an old boy
named Jack Williams(ph). Jack had a little group together, and when he
heard me pick, he said, buddy, I want you to pick with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to play something that was recorded by Ralph
Rinzler. I mean, Ralph Rinzler recorded it. You were performing it.

Mr. WATSON: In my living room. In my living room, yeah.

GROSS: Okay, so from the early 1960s, this is my guest, Doc Watson.

(Soundbite of song, "Every Day Dirt")

Mr. WATSON: (Singing) Now, John come home all in a wonder, rattled at
the door just like thunder. Who is that, Mr. Hendley cried? 'Tis my
husband, you must hide.

Then John sat down by the fireside weeping, and up the chimney he got to
peeping. There he saw the poor old soul sittin' a-straddle of the pot-
rack pole.

Then John built on a rousing fire just to suit his own desire. His wife
called out with a free good will: Don't do that, for the man you'll
kill.

Then John reached up and down he fetched him like a 'coon when a dog had
catched him. He blacked his eyes and then he did better: He kicked him
out right on his setter.

Then his wife, she crawled in under the bed, and he pulled her out by
the hair of the head. And when I'm gone, remember then: He kicked her
where the (unintelligible) had been.

Now, the law came down, and John went up. He didn't have the chance of a
yellow pup. They sent him down to the old chain gang for beating his
wife, the dear little thing.

Well, John didn't worry, John didn't cry, but when he got back home, he
socked her in the eye. They took him right back to the old town jail,
but wife got lonesome and she paid his bail.

Then the judge sent him back and made him work so hard, he longed to be
home in his own front yard. They kept him there and wouldn't turn him
loose. I could tell more about it but there ain't no use.

GROSS: Once you went on the road during the folk revival, now, you
weren't used to traveling. There must have been a lot you had to learn
how to do. Did you have a business manager to help you out with bookings
and...

Mr. WATSON: Ralph Renzler did the bookings between he and Manny
Greenhill(ph) of Folklore Productions. But Ralph traveled a lot with me,
and if he didn't, when I would go to New York to work in the city, I
came by Trailways bus. Someone would always meet me at the Port
Authority and take me over to Ralph's apartment.

I worked - lots of times I'd work at Gerde's Folk City a week or two
weeks at a time, doing either opening act or just playing the job
straight there.

It was scary. I was as green as a green apple as far as the city,
country boy...

GROSS: Oh, yeah, sure.

Mr. WATSON: As the old-timers used to say, a hayseed for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, I think there's always clubs who - maybe not many, but
there's always some clubs willing to take advantage of a performer. And
I would guess that someone who was blind was a more likely target if
they didn't have people who were watching out for them. Did you ever
have any problems with that?

Mr. WATSON: I sure was glad when my son Merle started on the road with
me because if we went to a place and they didn't treat me too good, Dad,
we won't come back here no more. And that was the end of it.

You know, we didn't hit too many places that they weren't really decent
to us. But once in a great while there - of course I won't call any name
because we're on nationwide radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATSON: But we were in a few places where they treated you like
pieces of used equipment. And that was the end of playing there. We just
didn't do it again. That's the best thing you can do, you know, is not
tolerate that, just move away.

GROSS: You mentioned your son Merle. Did you teach him how to play
guitar?

Mr. WATSON: No, Merle didn't show any interest in the guitar until he
was 15. I was on my first concert tour, solo concert tour, that spring,
and about mid-ways of it Ralph called me and said, Doc, I've got some
good news. And I said, well, lay it on me.

And he said: Merle has started playing the guitar. His mother, Rosalee,
started him on the guitar. She taught him his first chords and showed
him how to play them and a little bit about timing, and he just took it
and went with it.

And we met John Hurt for the first time that same summer we went to the
Berkeley Folk Festival. And Merle played backup guitar for me. He'd only
been playing about three months. And he played backup guitar on the
stage, and we met - when we met John Hurt, Merle was enthralled by
John's finger style on the guitar, and he took that and added a few
little notions(ph) of his own, and that's where Merle's picking style,
finger style came from.

GROSS: So he never felt that he had to work hard to differentiate his
style from your style?

Mr. WATSON: Merle, he - once in a while he'd ask me for some pointers on
a melody to a song or something. But Merle played his very own thing on
the guitar. I don't think he even ever asked me how to hold the pick. He
probably looked at the way I held it.

But I never really sat down and taught him how you get this note or that
note. I just played a song and sang it, and he jumped in there and
learned the lead to it.

GROSS: When your son Merle died, was it hard for you to go back on the
road afterwards?

Mr. WATSON: If you'll pardon a little intimacy here, I'll tell you
something that happened, or I wouldn't have.

Between the time he was killed and his funeral, I dreamed I was in a
dark desert, and it was so hot, you couldn't breathe. And the sand was
pulling me down like if you were in quicksand. And that big, strong hand
reached back and said, come on, dad, you can make it. And he brought me,
led me out to where it was cool. There was a cool - sunny, but there was
a cool breeze.

And I waked up, and I thought, well, I'll try. And I took up the last
job on that particular tour that we'd canceled. And my friend Jack
Lawrence had been working some while Merle was off the road with us, for
quite a while, and Jack stayed on as the other guitarist.

And I'm kind of glad I did. If I had stayed off the road a month, I
never would've come back. It was so hard, you - well, no, you couldn't
know, Terry, but it was really hard to go back out there without him.

GROSS: I guess that dream kind of gave you permission, in a way, to do
it.

Mr. WATSON: I believe it was God-sent. I think the dream was.

BIANCULLI: Doc Watson, speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. Watson is now 87
years old and still performs occasionally. We'll conclude this half-hour
by returning to the 1989 FRESH AIR studio concert performance by Doc
Watson, featuring his long-time duets partner, guitarist Jack Lawrence.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

Mr. WATSON: Here's a little tune about an old boy that - excuse me -
that decided he's going to leave home and learn to travel. And he found
a pretty little girl and got married and got two for the price of one.
And I'll let the song tell you the rest of the tale. It's called "Give
Me Back My 15 Cents."

(Soundbite of song, "Give Me Back My 15 Cents")

Mr. WATSON: (Singing) I left my home in Tennessee, and I thought I'd
learn to travel, but then I met a pretty little gal, and soon we played
the devil. I loved that gal, and she loved me, and I thought we'd live
together, but then we tied that fatal knot, and now I'm gone forever.

Gimme back my fifteen cents, gimme back my money; gimme back my fifteen
cents, and I'll go home to Mammy. Yeah, let me hear your opinion.

(Unintelligible) (makes oink sound) 'twas 15 cents for the preacher man
and a dollar for the paper. Then dear old mother-in-law moved in, and,
lordy, what a caper. I fiddled a tune for her one day, and she called me
a joker. Then that old sow got mad at me and hit me with the poker.

Gimme back my fifteen cents, gimme back my money; gimme back my fifteen
cents, and I'll go home to Mammy.

I worked in town, and I worked on the farm, but there was no way to suit
'em, they're both so dad-burn mean to me, somebody ought to shoot 'em.
I'm tired of looking at my mother-in-law, I'd like to see my Granny,
gonna leave the state of Arkansas and go back home to Mammy.

Gimme back my fifteen cents, gimme back my money; gimme back my fifteen
cents, and I'll go home to Mammy.

Mr. WATSON: Jack, I think a good-old train song might be in order right
here. Son, I remember that song over there that brother Jimmy Jett(ph)
wrote. And I'm going to plug an album right here. You ain't supposed to
do this, but it's on an album I did for Sugar Hill call "Riding the
Midnight Train," a bluegrass album, my first endeavor on pure bluegrass.

"Greenville Trestle" is a song for the train buffs that love the good
old steam engine sounds and all that good - I remember when I went to
school at Raleigh, there was a train went by every 20 minutes on
average. And this song makes me think of those days.

(Soundbite of song, "Greenville Trestle")

Mr. WATSON: (Singing) I remember as a boy how in wonderment and joy I'd
watch the trains as they'd go by, and the whistle's lonesome sound you
could hear from miles around as they rolled across that Greenville
trestle high.

But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately, not many trains
go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man, and
the Greenville trestle now don't seem so high. Take it, son...
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Carolina Chocolate Drops And A String Band Tradition

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. In
this week celebrating country music, our next guest certainly qualify
for inclusion, but they represent a slightly different tradition. They
play string and jug band music of the 1920s and '30s, music most people
associate with a white southern tradition.

But our guests are African-American and see themselves as part of a
little known Black string-band tradition. Their band is called the
Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their latest CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig"
and they also have a new songbook.

The band members are in their 20s and early 30s, and they're not trying
to sound like they're old-timers. They all play several instruments and
sing. Rhiannon Giddens plays five-string banjo, fiddle and kazoo. Dom
Flemons plays guitar, four-string banjo, harmonica, jug, snare drum and
bones. Justin Robinson plays fiddle, autoharp and does the vocal beat
box. They all live in North Carolina, as the band's title suggests, but
Don Flemons grew up in Arizona.

Terry spoke with them earlier this year and they brought some of their
instruments to the WUNC studio in Durham for the interview.

TERRY GROSS: Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, Dom Flemons, welcome to
FRESH AIR. Let me start by asking you to perform a song that's also
featured on the new CD. Can you do "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" for
us?

Mr. DOM FLEMONS (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Absolutely.

(Soundbite of song, "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS (Music Group): (Singing) Everybody talking
about the sweet nowadays old days. I got the one with the sweetest ways.
Your baby may roll a jelly fine. Nobody's baby can roll it like mine.
Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And
when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do. Yes,
she does.

She even call me honey. She even let me spend my money. Never has a baby
put me out though. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to
brag; just want to put you in line, your baby ain't sweet like mine, no,
no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. Oh, play that horn.

Oh, play like you just don’t like it. Yeah mine, you look very good.
Blow on that jug.

Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And
when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do, yes,
sir. She even call me honey. She even let me spend the money. Never had
a baby put me out of though. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't
want to brag; just want to put you in line, your baby ain't sweet like
mine, no, no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine, yeah, yeah. Your baby
ain't sweet like mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Fantastic. That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a song - they're
performing for us, but that's a song they also do on their new CD,
"Genuine Negro Jig."

String bands are usually considered a white Southern tradition, and
you're a band of African-American musicians, and you've found a black
string band tradition that you feel part of. But did you fall in love
with this music before you knew that there was a black string band
tradition?

Ms. RHIANNON GIDDENS (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Yup.

Mr. FLEMONS: Absolutely.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Yup. All...

GROSS: What did you fall in love with about it?

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, I fell in love with the rhythm. I was a contra-dancer
and a square-dancer, and I just was seduced by the banjo, the rhythm of
the claw-hammer banjo. That just really pulled me in. And then, then I
found out about the history, and then I went, ooh, this is really deep.
And then it just I was done. I was done for then, you know, it was -
that was it.

GROSS: Now, part of the tricky aspect of string-band music is that part
of its roots are in minstrel shows, part of its roots are in blackface.
And so it gets really kind of complicated when you go back to the early
history of that music. So I wonder how - what it's been like for you to
negotiate that aspect of the music and to deal with separating the music
itself from some of the stereotypes that were foisted on the musicians
who played it

Mr. FLEMONS: I think something that we have as a new generation of
player in the old-time music is that we are educated, and we're
approaching the music at an emotional distance that just has not been
there in earlier generations.

Before, you'd look back at those aspects of history, and people just
would say don't touch that. That's the worst stuff in the world, and
that's what's ruining the world. And now, in this generation, we're able
to actually start piecing those things apart just because, you know, we
want to take the benefits and also try to make what's right or see what
actually happened or what was misappropriated or what was good. Because
the thing about a lot of the black string band music is not much of the
music was put down on recording, and that's a very essential part of
understanding black music is hearing it. And, you know, just delving
into it, you find some things that are off-putting, but at the same
time, you've got to think in the context of the past instead of thinking
in the context of the present.

GROSS: I'd like to ask you to perform another song that's also featured
on the new CD, and the song is "Trouble in Your Mind." So before you
play it for us, tell us why you chose it and what you love about the
song.

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, this is one that Justin was playing, that I reminded
him one day at a jam that he played it. And it's a piece from an album
called "Music From the Lost Provinces" put out by Old Hat Records. And
it's just a nice breakdown, and we just started doing it.

GROSS: Okay. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Trouble in Your Mind")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) I wished I had a nickel. I wished I
had a dime. I wish I had me a pretty girl. You know I'd call her mine.
Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind.
Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind.

If you see that gal of mine, you tell her if you can, well, before she
goes to make my bread to wash her nasty hands. Don't get in trouble in
your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in
your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind.

GROSS: So, we were talking about how you discovered, like, the African-
American tradition in string bands, and you met an African-American
fiddler who's in his 90s now named Joe Thompson.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yup.

GROSS: And did he teach you certain things on fiddle that you didn't
know or hadn't heard before?

Mr. ROBINSON (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Oh, Lord yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Joe Thompson is the guy that you're mentioning, he's 91.
He's been playing since he was six or seven years old, and he learned
from his father, and his father had learned from his father. So it's a
long tradition among his family.

Ms. GIDDENS: The kind of amazing thing is that one of the reasons why I
think our sound is the way it is is that we were all sort of learning
when we started going down to play with Joe. So we didn't get much
chance to play other sort of more, I don't know, square I don't know,
different ways.

But one of the things that I think I've taken away a lot as a banjo
player is - I'll get the banjo here - is that the...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GIDDENS: Is that real heavy down, the down stroke, you know, and
it's almost an anticipatory kind of down, you know, if that makes sense.
I don't know. It's kind of hard to talk about music, but...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, a lot of times, you tend to hear that with hillbilly
performers more in like the style of, like, Grandpa Jones or Uncle Dave
Macon, generally.

Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLEMONS: But even that Tennessee style, that's taken to an extreme,
while in North Carolina, it's a little bit more it's a little bit more
compact within it. But the downbeat is still there.

GROSS: Justin, is there anything you could talk about that you learned
from Joe Thompson on fiddle?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. Well, first of all, Joe's bowing is really,
really interesting. He has - which is something that's common among
fiddle players, at least around here, is something they call the double
shuffle, or some people call it hen's egg. I've heard fiddlers call it
sewing cloth. It's all this sort of forward and back motion that is
going forward all at the same time, making these really great rhythmic
kind of things that you have really work very hard to get.

And also, Joe plays notes that are not in the Western scale, which is
actually kind of great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: There's a lot of sliding.

GROSS: Can you play us an example of what you're talking about?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, of the - I'll play you the double shuffle.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: What makes that the double shuffle? Is it the speed or the
harmony?

Mr. FLEMONS: Play it without the double shuffle, and then she'll here
it.

Mr. ROBINSON: So this is without it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBINSON: So it's a little of both, with - because of the way that
the fiddle is tuned, when you're playing the double shuffle, you get to
get these really either sympathetic ringing strings or depending on
where your fingers are, not sympathetic rings. So you get some really
interesting harmonies that I've never really heard anywhere else in any
other kind of music.

GROSS: Well, you know, we were talking about rescuing music from the
past, but you're also playing music from the present, as well as
original songs, and I think we should get to that a little bit -
although you're doing this contemporary music in the spirit of the
string-band style.

So, Rhiannon, on to a song that you do on the new CD, and this is a song
that I want you to talk about. I want you to talk about the original
version and how you heard it and why you do it. And it's "Hit 'Em Up
Style."

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, "Hit 'Em Up Style" is - well, it was just - it was
really popular, and I happened to be listening to pop radio at the time.
I don't really much now anymore. But - and it was just all over the
radio, and every time it came on, I would just, like, jam in my car to
it. It just was very catchy and had a great chorus and the, you know,
the beats and all that stuff. And it's just one of those songs that kind
of never went away in my brain. And then I heard it again on the radio
like years later and just something kind of occurred to me. I was like,
why don't we - I wonder if we could try to play that?

And so, I tried to play it on the fiddle, and it actually worked really
well on the fiddle. And then, the three of us sort of came together and
said okay, like, how could we do this? And then, you know, Dom came up
with a great rhythm on the banjo that worked really well. And then we
found out that Justin beat-boxed, and we're like, you know, and it just
clicked. And we kind of messed around with the original version of the
song. We just tossed out what didn't work and just kind of went with
what did.

GROSS: And who did the original?

Ms. GIDDENS: Blu Cantrell...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. GIDDENS: ...was the original singer. Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So let's hear this from the CD. This is from the Carolina
Chocolate Drops new CD "Genuine Negro Jig," and this Rhiannon Giddens
singing lead.

(Soundbite of song, "Hit 'Em Up Style")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) While he was scheming, I was beaming
in his beemer, just beaming. Can't believe that I caught my man
cheating. So I found another way to make him pay for it all. So I went
to Neiman-Marcus on a shopping spree-a, and on the way I grabbed Soleil
and Mia. And as the cash box rang, I threw everything away.

Hey ladies, when your man wanna get buck wild, just go back and hit 'em
up style. Get your hands on his cash and spend it to the last dime for
all the hard times. When you go, then everything goes, from the crib to
the ride and the clothes. So you better let him know that if he mess up
you gotta hit 'em up.

GROSS: That's Rhiannon Giddens singing from the new Carolina Chocolate
Drops CD "Genuine Negro Jig."

Nicely done. I really like that a lot. And Rhiannon, what you're playing
on fiddle, it's this, like drone style that I think is really
interesting. And...

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. It's just kind of old-timey - you know, old-timey put
to hip-hop, I suppose. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that drone really old-timey, or is that a more contemporary
kind of thing?

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, no, that's very old-timey. The double stopping, you
know, that kind of rhythmic bowing, it's all old-timey. What makes it
contemporary is the minor key.

GROSS: Oh.

Ms. GIDDENS: You know, because there's not a lot of minor stuff in those
tunes and - well, I mean, there are some, but the ones that we think of
as old, you know, like that are in the public sort of ear are not in
minor key. And I think that's one of the things that makes it sound so
contemporary and so kind of, you know, people say it's Middle Eastern-y.
It's just, you know, it's in the minor key.

GROSS: So how did you learn that drone style? Maybe you could just play
a little bit of that drone and talk about it a little bit.

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, gosh. I mean, just from playing...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GIDDENS: And that's just like one of the first old-time tunes I
knew. And so it wasn't much of a leap to take that to - that tune to the
"Hit 'Em Up Style" tune. It just fit really well.

GROSS: Yeah, compare that to what you did on "Hit 'Em Up Style." Do a
little of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Hit 'Em Up Style") (Instrumental)

GROSS: Nice. Now were you classical trained on fiddle - on violin?

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, good lord no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: No, no, no. Just voice.

GROSS: Just voice.

Ms. GIDDENS: Not violin.

GROSS: Now Dom, among the instruments you play are four-string banjo,
bones and jug. Do you want to take out your jug for us?

Mr. FLEMONS: All right. Okay. Here we have the jug.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. FLEMONS: Here's a big ceramic one.

GROSS: You want to give us a demonstration of good jug technique?

Mr. FLEMONS: All right. Let's see.

(Soundbite of spitting sound on the jug)

Mr. FLEMONS: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of spitting sound on the jug)

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: The Carolina Chocolate Drops, speaking to Terry Gross earlier
this year. Their latest CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."

Next, country music lyrics, specifically some of its more memorable
puns.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Puns In Country Music Songs Done Right

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, is a country music fan. Besides the music,
he loves the wordplay and especially the puns. Some people say the
punning in country is the characteristic that makes it hard for them to
take the music seriously. But Geoff says Shakespeare would've had no
problem with it.

We first aired this piece in 1999.

GEOFF NUNBERG: The best movie about country music I know of is a gritty
little 1972 film called "Payday." Rip Torn plays a fading, second-tier
country star touring the South from roadhouse to roadhouse on an out-of-
control, drunken binge. The movie is much more genuine than Robert
Altman's overblown "Nashville," which came out a few years later, and
one reason is that it took pains to get the music right, both the best
and the worst of it.

There's one scene in particular that sticks with me, when Torn's
character is obliged to stand in a parking lot listening to a young
dishwasher who wants to work as a country singer sing a composition
called "I'm Loving You More but Enjoying It Less." It's the perfect
example of an awful country song from that period, down to its punning
title.

Pop singers like The Beatles and Elvis Costello may have visited
wordplay from time to time, but country music lives there. A lot of it
involves outright puns, like The Bellamy Brothers' "If I Said You Had a
Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me?" or Lee Ann Womack's "Am I
the Only Thing That You've Done Wrong?" There's Gary Nicholson's "Behind
Bars," which is about saloons, and Randy Travis' "On the Other Hand,"
which is about wedding rings. And then there are all those other titles
that involve wordplay of one sort or another, like Dolly Parton's "It's
All Wrong, But It's All Right," or Johnny Paycheck's "I'm the Only Hell
My Mama Ever Raised."

When I think of songs like these, though, the singer that comes first to
mind is George Jones. I don't know if he's done more of them than
anybody else — the honors there probably go to Roger Miller or Johnny
Paycheck. And a lot of the punning titles that Jones does are just
routine joke songs, like "She Took My Keys Away, and Now She Won't Drive
Me to Drink."

(Soundbite of song, "She Took My Keys Away, and Now She Won't Drive Me
to Drink.")

Mr. GEORGE JONES (Country music singer): (Singing) I saw those blue
lights flashing over my left shoulder. He walked right up and said get
off that riding mower. I said sir; let me explain before you put me in
the tank. She took my keys away and now she won't drive me to drink.

NUNBERG: But Jones has also made a specialty of using puns and wordplay
in the plaintive ballads that he sings like no one else. There are songs
like, a man can be a drunk sometimes but "A Drunk Can't Be A Man," or at
least I've learned to "Stand On My Own Two Knees," or the recent
"Hundred Proof Memories."

(Soundbite of song, "Hundred Proof Memories")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Love on the rocks that's all he said, as he sat
there beside me shaking his head. I said, Mister, you look like you're
taking it rough. The next round's on me. He said, I don't touch the
stuff.

'Cause these hundred proof memories are stronger than wine. It don't
take but one taste to send you out of your mind. No, I don't want the
whiskey but I could sure use a ride. 'Cause with hundred proof memories,
Lord, you don't think and drive.

NUNBERG: For some people, of course, this sort of punning just confirms
a sense of country music as a linguistic trailer park. Since Tennyson's
time, punning has been deprecated as the basest form of humor, to the
point where it is usually a kind of veiled aggressiveness nowadays.
Habitual punsters live for groans the way violinists live for applause.
Sophisticated people may make exceptions for the literary puns of Joyce
or Nabokov or the urbane wordplay of '30s show tunes. But they have
trouble finding a place for somebody who makes puns in earnest,
particularly in a sentimental ballad.

But maybe that's simply because most people have forgotten how to take
puns seriously. The wordplay in Cole Porter or Nabokov is dazzling but
usually superficial; the wordplay in country songs is pedestrian but
sometimes profound. It has a rueful irony, as the innocent reading of an
ordinary expression reveals a new meaning that makes it more sad and
knowing. You think of Charley Pride's "She's Too Good to Be True," or
George Jones' recent "Tied To a Stone."

(Soundbite of song, "Tied To a Stone")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I woke up this morning, and prayed to God, oh let
this be a dream. Her side of the bed was cold and laying there beside
was her ring. With a note that she had left for me, laying where she
used to lay her head. And I felt the world fall in on me, for this is
what she said.

Tied to a stone, ain't no way to live. I can't go on living like this.
I'd rather...

NUNBERG: It's a fitting device for these ballads, particularly when
they're tackling their favorite themes — the fragility of happiness, the
loss that's always immanent in love and family. There's a joke that sums
up the genre very nicely: What do you get if you play a country song
backwards? — You get your wife back, you get your dog back, you get your
truck back. And the sense of loss and estrangement is implicit in the
language of the lyrics, too, as the ordinary expressions we use to talk
about our lives break down to reveal darker meanings.

It's a kind of wordplay with antique roots. It owes a lot to the
language of sermons, particularly in the Baptist and Evangelical
traditions, with their attentiveness to the multiple meanings of
scriptural passages. But it has earlier antecedents in the sermons and
poetry of the metaphysical poets like John Donne and George Herbert. And
even earlier than that, you can find its secular echoes in Shakespeare.
Take Hamlet's bitter pun about his uncle, a little more than kin, and
less than kind. When you think about it, that would make a great George
Jones title. Like Jones, Shakespeare knew that there was more to
wordplay than just fooling around.

BIANCULLI: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of
Information at the University of California at Berkley.

(Soundbite of music)

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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