Arts & Artisans
The Carolina Chocolate Drops: Fiddling With Heritage
As it often is, it was a whirlwind week for the Carolina Chocolate Drops: opening up for the Old Crow Medicine Show in Nashville on Thursday and Friday, flying to Raleigh-Durham on Saturday for a television interview and an appearance at the GrassRoots Festival at Shakori Hills, then heading down to Savannah, Georgia for a folk festival on Sunday before driving back home to Durham that night.
But for Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, the long days and mileage are well worth it. It means more people are exposed to their spin on the traditional African-American string-band music of the North Carolina Piedmont, and more people are learning about the unique sound and heritage behind it. For the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the music and its history are what it’s all about.
It sounds vaguely reminiscent of traditional bluegrass from the Appalachian Mountains, but the string-band (or jug band) music of blacks in the Piedmont differs greatly in instrumentation. Among traditional African-American ensembles, the banjo (a product of Africa) took the main role in the lineup, while the fiddle, if there was one at all, played backup. The music was highly popular among rural blacks in the Carolina Piedmont, and was the dance music of choice at community gatherings and celebrations until just after World War II, when industrialization sent many in those communities away to seek jobs in factories and offices in the North. “Most people really don’t know about the black side of folk music because no one has presented it to them,” says Flemons. “What we’re providing is our own take on the unique qualities of African-American string-band music.”
That music, and their take on it, has made the Carolina Chocolate Drops the recipients of universal critical acclaim. “The passionate joy with which these musicians have embraced this music and its heritage is palpable and inspiring,” wrote a critic with Living Blues magazine, “They approach their art in a spirit-of-the-moment celebration, making it accessible to everyday listeners as well as folklorists and aficionados.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ often sold-out shows consist of traditional music, much of it from the same songs that were played in the Piedmont decades and centuries ago. Infused with a youthful vigor from the three classically trained musicians, it often culminates with audiences in a hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’, aisle-dancing frenzy. Clearly, this old-time music can still be infectious, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops seem eager to spread the fever around.
It all started in 2005, when the band members met each other at a Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone. There, they also met Mebane resident Joe Thompson, who is said to be the last black traditional string player of his generation. Afterwards, the three young musicians met with Thompson every week to talk about the music, the heritage behind it, and just about anything else. “He starts playing a song, we start following him, and he lets us know if there’s something to be done,” says Flemons. “He knows all the stories behind the songs. He’s the last remnant of his family’s tradition.”
But the Carolina Chocolate Drops aren’t keeping that tradition to themselves. Besides the two albums they’ve released in the US and the near-constant worldwide touring, the band also performs for schoolchildren and gives free workshops for young students. Their passion for the traditional music of their heritage has earned the Carolina Chocolate Drops a reputation as the guardians of an entire genre of music. That reputation helped land the band on the silver screen in the Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters, and in four songs on the movie’s soundtrack.
There are still busy times ahead for the Carolina Chocolate Drops: another month performing in Europe, with tours of the American Midwest, Southwest, and Northwest soon to follow. But in all its travels, the band will be bringing along the traditional music of rural African-Americans in North Carolina, delivering them to thousands of new and eager ears, and ensuring that this historic musical treasure of the Piedmont survives for yet another generation.
added: December 3, 2008
updated: December 24, 2008