Black string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops are bursting into roots music's big tent
By Cat Johnson
IN 2005, three young musicians with a fascination for African American folk music attended the Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina, drawn in part by the promise of seeing fiddler Joe Thompson in action. Then in his mid-80s, Thompson figured among the last remaining links to the originators of the long-dormant black string band tradition. Having picked up the fiddle in the 1920s, at the peak of string band popularity, Thompson had spent the better part of a century learning and playing foot-stomping rhythms, short and scratchy fiddle licks and plucky banjo lines in a just-about-any-instrument-will-do down-home style.
Inspired by Thompson and his wealth of musical knowledge, the three—Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson—started traveling to Thompson's house for his weekly jam sessions, where he was teaching black string band technique and songs. When the trio decided to form a band, it was to honor Thompson and bring him and his music back into the spotlight. The name they took, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is a tip of the hat to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a string band that was popular in the 1930s, but which has since, like most other black string bands, been largely forgotten.
"Black string band music is something you find between the lines," Flemons says from the road, en route to New Orleans. "A lot of music has been based on string band and blues and spiritual music, but string band music has kind of been swept into the background."
Buried though it may be, black string band music plays an important role in the history of American music. Born of the marriage between the European violin and the banjo, with its roots in African gourd instruments, string bands emerged when slaves were made to learn the folk songs and jigs slave owners wanted to hear. The resulting music is a hybrid of styles and songs that grew out of the dire days of slavery and laid the groundwork for country music, bluegrass and the blues.
Unlike the musical genres that they inspired, however, string bands themselves were seldom recorded, primarily because it was assumed there was no market for them. "Black string music has never been a commercially viable music," says Flemons. "There was no notion that rural people or black people would even buy records."
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, however, are definitely selling records. Their latest release, Genuine Negro Jig, has been raking in the raves and has roots music enthusiasts taking another look at the string bands of old. The album is rich with traditional soul, evident in tunes like "Cornbread and Butterbeans" and "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine," and also illuminates the more introspective side of roots music with the hauntingly beautiful instrumental tune "Snowden's Jig.
Committed as they are to preserving the string band tradition, however, the Chocolate Drops, who are all three singers and multi-instrumentalists, make a point of not simply re-enacting the past. They've taken the string band style of old and given it a giant heave-ho into the 21st century, introducing elements that are entirely grounded in modern-day life—most notably a cover version of Blu Cantrell's song "Hit 'em Up Style," in which a woman gets back at her cheating man by charging up his Neiman Marcus card. "In terms of the material, there's not really a protocol," says Flemons. "Mostly it's just taking songs that we like and making them fit within the group setting."
For the Carolina Chocolate Drops, playing traditional music is a dynamic process they're happy to be a part of as they ride the current roots music revival wave that Flemons says is due, in part, to the "perception of simplicity" that folk music provides. "Like with punk or rock & roll, you don't have to be the most accomplished musician to start playing it," he says, "but you can get really good at it." Then he adds, "And of course, some people just like the sound."
THE CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS play Friday, June 25, at 7:30pm at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 advance/$23 door, available at Logos Books and Records and www.kuumbwajazz.org.
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