Ragtime Ukulele

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  1. Ragtime Ukulele Music
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The Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Carolina Chocolate Drops performing in Birmingham, Alabama, in June 2008.
Background information
OriginDurham, North Carolina, USA
GenresOld-time, Americana, skiffle
Years active2005–present
LabelsNonesuch/Elektra Records
Dixiefrog
Music Maker
Websitewww.carolinachocolatedrops.com
MembersRhiannon Giddens
Rowan Corbett
Malcolm Parson
Past membersJustin Robinson
Adam Matta
Dom Flemons
Leyla McCalla
Hubby Jenkins

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The Carolina Chocolate Drops is an old-timestring band from Durham, North Carolina. Their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards,[1] and was number 9 in fRoots magazine's top 10 albums of 2010.[2]

Ragtime

Career[edit]

Formed in November 2005, following the members' attendance at the first Black Banjo Gathering, held in Boone, North Carolina, in April 2005, the group grew out of the success of Sankofa Strings, an ensemble that featured Dom Flemons on bones, jug, guitar, and four-string banjo, Rhiannon Giddens on banjo and fiddle and Súle Greg Wilson on bodhrán, brushes, washboard, bones, tambourine, banjo, banjolin, and ukulele, with Justin Robinson as an occasional guest artist. All shared vocals. The purpose of Sankofa Strings was to present a gamut of African American musics: country and classic blues, early jazz and 'hot music', string band numbers, African and Caribbean songs, and spoken word pieces.[3] The Chocolate Drops' original three members: Giddens, Flemons, and Robinson, were all in their twenties when the group formed after Flemons' move from Phoenix (where he and Wilson lived), to North Carolina, home of Giddens and Robinson. Wilson, nearly a generation older than the other Drops, was occasionally featured with the group into 2010, including contributions to the recordings, Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, CCD and Joe Thompson, Heritage (with songs culled from Sankofa Strings' independently-released CD, Colored Aristocracy) and nearly half of Genuine Negro Jig. All of the musicians sing and trade instruments including banjo, fiddle, guitar, harmonica, snare drum, bones, jug, and kazoo. The group learned much of their repertoire, which is based on the traditional music of the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina,[4] from the eminent African American old-time fiddler Joe Thompson, although they also perform old-time versions of some modern songs such as Blu Cantrell's R&B hit 'Hit 'em Up Style (Oops!).'

Ukulele

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have released five CDs and one EP and have opened for Taj Mahal and, in 2011, Bob Dylan.[5] They have performed on Mountain Stage,[6]MerleFest, and at the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention. Additionally they have performed on A Prairie Home Companion, Fresh Air, and BBC Radio in early 2010, and at the 2010 Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee,[7] and at the 2011 Romp,[8] in Owensboro, Kentucky. On 17 January 2012 they appeared live on BBC Radio 3.[9] They have performed on the Grand Ole Opry several times. They have also performed on the UK's BBC Television program, Later... with Jools Holland.[10]

On February 7, 2011, the band announced that beatboxer Adam Matta and multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins would be joining the band, while Justin Robinson was departing.[11] In early 2012, they announced that the New Orleans based cellist Leyla McCalla was joining the band on its next tour.[12] CCD contributed a track, 'Political World,' to the Bob Dylan tribute compilation, Chimes of Freedom (album) released in January 2012. Their next album, Leaving Eden, followed soon afterward in February 2012. In an interview, Jenkins said,

'Leaving Eden was an interesting album because [fiddler] Justin [Robinson] had just left the group, and they had already decided to record with Buddy Miller, and had even picked the recording dates. It was an interesting time to be coming in, because they were ready to do different things with the new members. So it was a trial-by-fire period.'[13]

Later in 2012, the Drops were nominated for numerous awards by the Chicago Black Theater Alliance for their work in Keep a Song in Your Soul: The Roots of Black Vaudeville.[14] Staged by the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, written by Lalenja Harrington (Rhiannon Giddens' sister) and Sule Greg Wilson, and featuring veteran hoofer Reggio MacLaughlin, and ragtime pianist and MacArthur Fellow Reginald R. Robinson, the program examined the hopes and realities, music, and dances of the Great Migration.[15]

Also in 2012, the Drops contributed a song, 'Daughter's Lament', to The Hunger Games soundtrack.

In 2013, they were nominated for a Blues Music Award for 'Acoustic Artist'.[16]

Also in 2013, the Drops contributed a song, 'Day of Liberty', to the two-CD album 'Divided & United.

On November 12, 2013, the Chocolate Drops announced that Dom Flemons would be leaving to embark on his own solo career,[17] and introduced two new members: cellist Malcolm Parson and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett.[18]

In 2014 the Chocolate Drops worked with choreographer Twyla Tharp and dancers Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck to create Cornbread Duet.[19]

In 2014, the group stopped regularly performing together, and members have pursued solo work and other projects since.[20] Hubby Jenkins left the band in 2016.[21] Rhiannon Giddens has released a number of solo recordings and was recently named as the artistic director of the Silk Road Project.[22]

Members[edit]

Carolina Chocolate Drops at Lake Placid, New York, in 2012. Left to right: Leyla McCalla, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins

Ragtime Ukulele Music

Current
  • Rhiannon Giddens: 5-string banjo, dance, fiddle, kazoo, voice
  • Rowan Corbett: Guitar, bones, snare drum, cajon, djembe
  • Malcolm Parson: Cello, melodica
Previous
  • Dom Flemons: 4-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, quills, voice
  • Hubby Jenkins: Guitar, mandolin, 5-string banjo, bones, voice
  • Adam Matta: Beatbox, tambourine
  • Leyla McCalla: Cello, tenor banjo, voice
  • Justin Robinson: Fiddle, jug, beatbox, dance, voice
  • Súle Greg Wilson: 5-string banjo, banjolin, bodhrán, brushes, bones, dance, gourd, kazoo, tambourine, ukulele, voice, washboard

Discography[edit]

Albums[edit]

TitleAlbum detailsPeak chart positions
USUS GrassUS FolkUS Heat
Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind
  • Release date: September 12, 2006
  • Label: Music Maker
The Great Debaters Soundtrack
(with Alvin Youngblood Hart, Sharon Jones and Teenie Hodges)
  • Release date: December 11, 2007
  • Label: Atlantic
Heritage
  • Release date: February 18, 2008
  • Label: Dixiefrog
Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson
(recorded live at MerleFest, April 25, 2008)
  • Release date: May 26, 2009
  • Label: Music Maker
Genuine Negro Jig
  • Release date: February 16, 2010
  • Label: Nonesuch
150122
Carolina Chocolate Drops/Luminescent Orchestrii EP
  • Release date: January 25, 2011
  • Label: Nonesuch
31132
Leaving Eden
  • Release date: February 24, 2012
  • Label: Nonesuch
123162
'—' denotes releases that did not chart

Music videos[edit]

Ragtime ukulele songs
YearVideoDirector
2012'Country Girl'[23]Thomas Ciaburri

References[edit]

  1. ^'Grammy Awards 2011: Winners and nominees for 53rd Grammy Awards'. Los Angeles Times. ISSN0458-3035. Retrieved 2017-09-03.
  2. ^'fRoots Albums of 2010'. www.frootsmag.com. Archived from the original on 2014-12-17. Retrieved 2017-09-03.
  3. ^'Carolina Chocolate Drops - Digging back, driving forward'. No Depression. 2008-04-30. Retrieved 2017-09-03.
  4. ^'Carolina Chocolate Drops: African-American String Band'. Archived from the original on 2008-06-03. Retrieved 2017-05-27.
  5. ^'Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts Appalachian State University Boone, North Carolina'. Pas.appstate.edu. Retrieved 2017-05-27.
  6. ^'Carolina Chocolate Drops On Mountain Stage'. Npr.org. Retrieved 2017-05-27.
  7. ^'Bonnaroo - Artists'. Archived from the original on 2010-05-31. Retrieved 2017-05-27.
  8. ^'Archived copy'. Archived from the original on 2009-05-02. Retrieved 2006-11-30.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^Carolina Chocolate Drops (2012-01-17), Carolina Chocolate Drops Live at BBC Radio 3 'In Tune' on 2012-01-17, retrieved 2017-09-03
  10. ^'Carolina Chocolate Drops Perform on 'Later ... with Jools Holland,' Tour California - Nonesuch Records'. Nonesuch Records Official Website. Retrieved 2017-09-03.
  11. ^'Justin Robinson to Leave Carolina Chocolate Drops; New Lineup Emerges'. No Depression. 2011-02-03. Retrieved 2017-09-03.
  12. ^Lawrence, Jordan. 'Only one original member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops remains, but the group's mission spreads'. Indy Week. Retrieved 2017-09-03.
  13. ^Palmer, Brian (24 June 2014). 'Crash Course: New Carolina Chocolate Drops lineup gets a baptism by fire'. Good Times. Retrieved 3 July 2014.
  14. ^'Rhiannon Giddens will bring Carolina Chocolate Drops to Goshen Oct. 13 Goshen College'. News & Events. 2015-09-30. Retrieved 2017-09-03.
  15. ^4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago Ravenswood IL 60625; 41.96428;-87.68590; 773-728-6000; Oldtownschool.org; Reviews), (based on 10 User. 'Keep a Song in Your Soul'. Chicago Reader. Retrieved 2017-09-03.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  16. ^'Blues Music Awards Nominees - 2013 - 34th Blues Music Awards'. Blues.org. Retrieved 2013-03-20.
  17. ^'Dom Flemons Holds On To Those Old-Time Roots'. NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-09-03.
  18. ^'Carolina Chocolate Drops' Fan Bridge Newsletter'. Fanbridge.com. Retrieved 2013-11-12.
  19. ^Seibert, Brian (13 April 2014). 'Fouéttes and Pirouettes to the Southern Banjo and Fiddle'. New York Times. New York, United States. Retrieved 7 July 2020.
  20. ^Kater, Kaia (November 2, 2018). 'Rhiannon Giddens Is The 21st Century's Revelator'. National Public Radio. The group eventually wound down its shows in 2014 and the members went their separate ways after nearly ten years, thousands of shows, millions of miles and their original goal achieved: the near-singlehanded revival of the black string band tradition in American consciousness. With it, they'd played a small part in the righting of history.
  21. ^'Bio'. Hubby Jenkins. Retrieved 2020-06-12.
  22. ^Woolfe, Zachary (July 28, 2020). 'Rhiannon Giddens to Lead Silkroad's Musical Explorations'. New York Times. Retrieved 28 September 2020.
  23. ^'CMT : Videos : Carolina Chocolate Drops : Country Girl'. Country Music Television. Retrieved May 8, 2012.

External links[edit]

Videographic documentation[edit]

  • Chocolate Drops Revive String-Band Sound, by Karen Michel, Weekend Edition Sunday, January 28, 2007
  • Carolina Chocolate Drops Keep Piedmont Sounds Alive, from News & Notes, February 12, 2007
  • Carolina Chocolate Drops On Mountain Stage, January 6, 2009
Retrieved from 'https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Carolina_Chocolate_Drops&oldid=1013451799'
Rag that Uke!

The intoxicating rhythms of ragtime lend themselves well to the ukulele. Whether you're a solo performer, half of a duo, or part of a larger group, rags new and old are within your reach.

What Is Ragtime, Really?

When most of us think of ragtime music we think of Scott Joplin’s piano rags and the music of his generation (ten years either side of 1900, say). But the basic style is older than that and there’s good reason to think that it started with guitar and banjo music that wasn’t written down or recorded. In other words, the early ragtime pianists were likely imitating a style that had already been around for a while.

Scott Joplin (1867? - 1917). More.

This style was almost certainly first played by people from West Africa who were brought to the United States as slave labour and were introduced there to European melodies and instruments (Joplin’s ancestors had been slaves and he studied music with a German piano teacher). Ragtime-and jazz, which came later-is essentially European melody and harmony salted with rhythms from West Africa. It’s one of the great accidents of world music that these styles were similar enough to blend easily.

The characteristic ragtime sound is a syncopated melody played against a straight, (usually) two-beat, accompaniment. The basic “gimmick” is this: displace a few melody notes by half a beat so that they fall between the beats of the accompaniment and voilà, you’re playing in “ragged” time!

Playing Ragtime Ukulele

Around the same time Joplin was writing rags like The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, banjo virtuosos like Vess Ossman and Fred van Eps were recording ragtime tunes[1]. In fact, their banjo recordings pre-date early piano or ensemble recordings of ragtime. The “classic banjo” style of Ossman and van Eps-fingerstyle playing on five gut strings-has a lot in common with modern ukulele techniques so it's not surprising that many banjo rags work well on the uke. The tuning and range is similar to ours, so with some transposing much of their music is available to us (one place to look for tunes is www.classicbanjo.com; I first learned two of my current favourites, Honolulu Cakewalk and Kaloola, from this site).

Let’s start with a simple melody like this:

View PDF: Simple Melody
Hear MIDI: Simple Melody

This could almost be part of a march by Strauss or Sousa, or maybe even a little dance piece by Mendelssohn. If we shift a few notes half a beat we have the beginning of a syncopated or “ragged” tune:

View PDF: 'Ragged' Melody
Hear MIDI: 'Ragged' Melody

The second version has that attractive off-kilter sound which Joplin describes as “weird and intoxicating” in his 1908 publication School of Ragtime. In the same publication Joplin makes the important point that “ragtime should never be played fast.”

Joplin makes the important point that “ragtime should never be played fast.”

The piano rags follow the structure of 19th-century popular dance or march music; there are usually four different strains in the pattern AABBACCDD. My favourite piano rag recordings are those of Joshua Rifkin or John Arpin. The closest we can come to hearing what the unwritten pre-piano ragtime sounded like is probably in the guitar styles of blues artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Blake, or the Reverend Gary Davis.

What About Ragtime for My Uke Group?

It’s easier to play ragtime music in a group-even duo will do-because you don’t have to supply the basic beat and the cross-beat melody at the same time on a single instrument. There’s several ways to approach arranging ragtime for ensemble.

A good thing to remember is that published flute and recorder arrangements usually work on the uke without too much adjusting...

The best starting place with a uke group is probably to find or make some lead sheets (a printed score with a basic single-note melody line and chord symbols). A lot of rag tunes are available this way, or with piano accompaniments, in arrangements for flute, mandolin, violin or other melody instruments. A good thing to remember is that published flute and recorder arrangements usually work on the uke without too much adjusting, because middle C is the lowest note, the same as on a re-entrant C-tuned uke. One advantage of standard notation over tablature is that you can usually use the same music for either tuning. (Tuning questions? Click here. -- Ed.)

Songs

I’m providing you here with an excerpt from The Entertainer, more or less as I remember doing it in the 1970s with Chalmers Doane’s “A” group:

View PDF: The Entertainer

(Note: this is only the first two strains. Like most rags, the complete version has two sections or strains, then a repeat of the first strain, and then two contrasting strains in another key. In this excerpt we’re only doing AABBA.)

Make sure everyone can hear the melody... Two lead ukes and sixteen rhythm players is not a balanced ensemble!

The melody is important and everyone in the group should learn it if they can. Two ukes could play it with one providing the chords. Although the uke can’t really provide a bass line, you can pick a low note on the beat and strum off the beat to give a steady two-beat rhythm for the melody to play against.

If you have a bass instrument-string bass, piano, or guitar-the chording ukes can mostly provide the off-beat, which will sound great. Make sure everyone can hear the melody! It can be a problem if there are only a few accomplished enough-or brave enough-to play the tune. Two lead ukes and sixteen rhythm players is not a balanced ensemble!

If there are enough good players, it’s nice to play in harmony at least part of the time. I’ve written a basic second part to go with the lead. If you have a bass, one or two chording ukes, and three or four ukes on the harmony part in a group of twenty it would balance out well:

View PDF: The Entertainer (with Harmony Part)

It’s also a good idea to read from a score so that harmony players can see not only their part but also the melody part and the chords. It’s convenient for sharing music stands and it helps everyone stay, literally, on the same page.

You can write a bass line for the bass player if they can read, or if they learn best by ear have them listen to a piano recording to get a sense of the characteristic ragtime sound. Even though ragtime is composed music (as opposed to improvised music), it’s well on the way to becoming part of a folk tradition as well; rearrangements have been common from the beginning. In other words, have fun and be creative in your arrangements of ragtime melodies.

The above arrangement of The Entertainer sounds something like this.

Finally, here’s a link to a more ambitious, solo-style arrangement by Al Wood for you and/or your more advanced students: Link (PDF).

Solos with Accompaniment

Let’s take another another Joplin composition, Maple Leaf Rag, a hugely popular piano solo published in 1899 that made Joplin’s reputation and, you could argue, changed popular music forever. We’ll have a look at three versions of the piece: one by Al Wood, one by me, and one by Brian Heffernan. Each arrangement demonstrates a different way of adapting a ragtime tune to the uke.

First up is Al (“Ukulele Hunt”) Wood’s arrangement. Al has a ragtime e-book for sale, which I’d recommend. The tabs are for re-entrant C-tuned uke and use a lot of cross-stringing. The sound samples are simple midi renderings of the melody, which is what it’s mostly about. I’d like to hear a guitar or keyboard, or a second uke and bass, to accompany what he’s got, and my main quibble with the book is he doesn’t always give chord symbols:

See Al's arrangement of Maple Leaf Rag (PDF)

My own favourite way to play a rag is as a duet with guitar:

Hear John's arrangement of Maple Leaf Rag (mp3)

You can adapt the classic piano rags this way, with the guitar basically being the left hand of the piano (the “boom-chik” parts: bass line and offbeat chords) and the uke being the right hand (the syncopated melody):

See John's Arrangement: D6 tuning (a, d, f#, b) C6 tuning (g, c, e, a)

This is what I did on my CD Parlour Music. I started with the piano sheet music, but I tried to do some chording and strumming effects to make ukulele music out of it (which also meant transposing it to a ukulele-friendly key).

Brian (“The Fabulous Heftones”) Hefferan has a version of Maple Leaf Rag as well, with uke and bass accompaniment:

Hear Brian's arrangement of Map Leaf Rag (mp3)

He uses the same basic approach as Al Woods’ fingerpicked, banjo-style version. It’s a smooth, driving sound similar to classic banjo and very natural on the uke. Brian’s a little freer with his interpretation, using the original melodies but adapting the accompaniment more and using a more flexible right hand. His versions are probably more idiomatic to the uke, and he’s using re-entrant tuning. I use low 4th, which means I don’t have to alter the original melody as much, but I can’t do the cross-string effects.

Now, Go Forth and Rag

Ragtime is an attractive, perennial style that's well-suited to the ukulele. As you can see, there are plenty of ways to arrange ragtime music for ukulele. Solo, duo, small combo, or large ensemble, it’s up to you. Just remember: it’s the tension between syncopated melody and straight accompaniment that makes ragtime work.

By listening to recordings and players on other instruments, we can get that “ragged” sound in our ears, and with a little woodshedding make it part of our own musical personality. It’s another door to open, and another path to follow.

Notes

1. Astute reader Gary Peare (www.ukulelia.com) sent us this link to an early banjo recording of Maple Leaf Rag by Fred Van Eps. Link.

Ragtime Ukulele Tabs

A professional multi-instrumentalist based in Kentville, Nova Scotia, John Kavanagh is a former member of the Halifax 'A' Ukulele Ensemble. He has a great CD called Parlour Music: Ragtime & Classical duets for uke and guitar. Find out more at http://ezfolk.com/audio/John_Kavanagh.