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Carolina Chocolate Drops: Steeped in the Tradition of Old Time Fiddlin'
Michael Brantley
2010-08-20

Maybe it is overreaching to talk about a “jug band” catching lightning in a bottle.

For the Carolina Chocolate Drops (CCD), there seems to be no other way to put it. Since the release of their debut album, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, just over two years ago, the band has toured continuously, signed with a major record label, and been part of a major Hollywood movie.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a hard group to describe, and that may be part of their appeal. They first came onto the scene as a band whose music appealed to bluegrass, old time, string,  and Americana fans. The young African-American trio of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson have a core sound that is drawn from the black string band music popular in the Piedmont (central) region of North Carolina nearly a century ago, but they draw on elements of other types of music as well as their individual backgrounds to create a style all their own.

“Jug band” would seem to pigeonhole the group, as would “old time string band,” “folk,” “roots,” or any other tag you’d try to slap on them.

“The string band stuff has always been there for us, and we’ve been hoping to add jug band stuff,” said Dom Flemons (guitar, banjo, harmonica, jug, snare, voice). “People call us a jug band because we use jugs, but that is a specific style. But in terms of material, we’ve expanded the landscape of our sound. And, we’ve gotten better after a couple of thousand shows.”

Their latest album, Genuine Negro Jig, is their first on the Nonesuch label and is moving on the charts (#4 on the bluegrass chart at the time of this story). Cuts such as “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” and “Hit ’Em Up Style” have proven to be favorites. 

“This album is pretty different,” Robinson (fiddle, banjo, vocals) said. “We took a few more risks this time. Dona Got was straight up string band; this one is more representative of us as musicians, more of who we are right now.”

Robinson, the group’s main fiddler, was influenced by his mother, a classically trained cellist and opera singer; his sister, a classical pianist; and his grandfather, who played harmonica. Just twenty-seven, he is just now getting into the classical sound himself.

“I’ve been playing a lot more classical stuff, which for me is a very good change. I wanted to do something different, and I like the structure, and the structured way of learning with the classics,” Robinson said. “No sound is less than a 10. The technical skills you develop are immeasurable. I think my fiddling has matured and gotten better.”

The group has only been together five years, first meeting at an event called the Black Banjo Gathering, held on the campus of Appalachian State University, in the mountains of North Carolina. An online group had put the meeting/workshop/jam together to bring awareness to the African roots of the banjo.

Flemons, originally from Arizona, attended with educator and musician Sule Greg Wilson. Giddens, who hails from the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and Robinson, who grew up on the far western edge of that region, also attended. All four of them had made the trip — unknown to each other — to meet Joe Thompson, an old time fiddler. At ninety-one, Thompson is widely believed to be the last of the old time black string band musicians.

Shortly after the meeting, Flemons, Wilson, and Giddens formed a band called Sankofa Strings in Arizona. By the end of the year, Flemons was ready to move to North Carolina, where Giddens and Robinson had hooked up with Thompson, and pretty soon the musicians were gathering on Thursday nights to play old tunes. In 2006, the current configuration of the Carolina Chocolate Drops was formed, with Wilson and Thompson joining the band’s shows from time to time. The inspiration for the name of the band came from an African-American string band headed by Howard Armstrong in the 1930s known as the Tennessee Chocolate Drops.

In early 2007, the American Folk Alliance awarded the band “Emerging Artist of the Year,” but they got their biggest national exposure in a Denzel Washington movie. They appear in the opening moments of “The Great Debaters,” a critically acclaimed film, and were part of the soundtrack.

They’ve since played a range of venues, from a trio of appearances on The Grand Ole Opry, to a half-dozen trips to Europe, to making the rounds on National Public Radio.

Giddens (banjo, fiddle, vocals) graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where she studied classical voice. She also is an avid Celtic music fan and contra dancer, which helped spark her interest in clawhammer banjo. Flemons got into folk music, and worked his way backwards from Bob Dylan to Hank Williams to Jimmie Rodgers and beyond. Robinson was into classical, rock, country, hip hop, Latin, bluegrass, and jazz.

“Part of why we are so different [as a group] is because we’ve had so many different influences, and it all finds its way out,” Robinson said.

Giddens added that has also allowed the CCD to play a variety of venues. “We’re starting to really diversify our audiences, playing some rock clubs, arts centers, festivals, educational shows,” she said. “There is a broad cross-section of ages and types of people… from bluegrass to the House of Blues in New Orleans.”

The binding at the crux of the immense raw talent that is the Carolina Chocolate Drops is unmistakably Joe Thompson. His proteges hold him in high esteem, even though their demanding and far-flung schedules prevent the aging fiddler from joining them on very many dates.

Thompson grew up playing barn dances, “frolics,” corn shuckings, and later, venues all over the country, including Carnegie Hall. He has a short bowing style and a vast collection of tunes, many of which were collected playing on his porch with field hands when he was growing up. He played with the Thompson Family, a string band that included his brother and cousin, who have since passed away. Thompson can still work a bow, and on any given night, musicians gather at his house to play a little music and pick up what they can from the old master. With his hey-day coming from an era in history that few people are left to remember, his experiences can at times seem surreal….

Thompson may not get out much, but he still inspires the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

“My playing will always have Joe’s influence,” Robinson said. “I don’t play with him as regularly, or as much, but he will always have an influence on my playing, in both style and rhythm. He’s taught us to play as an ensemble. That is one of the most important things to learn –– to learn to play in the context of playing with other people.”

Giddens added, “It comes down to a ‘What would Joe do?’ He gets us back to basics, even when he’s not around. He’s such a special person, and his music is special.”

[For the full text of this article, as well as the tune “Snowden’s Jig” (“Genuine Negro Jig”) as arranged by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, purchase the Fall 2010 issue.]

For more information on the band, their recordings, and their busy touring schedule, please visit www.carolinachocolatedrops.com.

[Michael Brantley is a photographer, writer, and “wannabe” banjoist and fiddler. Despite living in North Carolina, where you can throw a shoe in any direction and hit a picker — and many people do — the learning curve has been steep. He can be reached at mike@brantleystudio.com.]