Carolina Chocolate Drops
Carolina Chocolate Drops
Oldtime music group
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a young trio that has revived an almost forgotten tradition, bringing it alive again for the public. They play African-American string band music of the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, a tradition related to but quite distinct from the fiddle and banjo music of white old-time country ensembles. Although the music was common on farms and street corners in the Carolinas up to the middle of the twentieth century, there only remained a few aging musicians who were familiar with it until the Chocolate Drops came along. Since forming in 2005, they have become one of the hottest new groups in American folk music and have even begun to attract fans from beyond the United States.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, who took their name in homage to a 1920s African-American band called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, consist of Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson. All three play various instruments, but generally Robinson plays the fiddle, Giddens sings and plays banjo and fiddle, and Flemons sings and plays a variety of guitars, a harmonica, and assorted other old-time instruments, including a liquor jug. The group formed in 2005 after meeting at the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, a conference formed in order to encourage the revival of banjo playing among African Americans and a reclamation of the instrument by descendants of its original creators—the banjo was originally an African instrument.
At first the group went by the name Sankofa Strings and included Giddens, Flemons, and percussionist Sule Greg Wilson. That ensemble issued an album, Colored Aristocracy, and continued to perform for a time until going on hiatus. The Carolina Chocolate Drops were a second incarnation of the group, without Wilson but with fiddler Justin Robinson. They were signed to the Music Maker label, which specialized in recordings by old-time black musicians and also worked to insure their general welfare. The Chocolate Drops were perhaps the only young musicians playing African-American string band music, which had fallen out of favor after black audiences began to associate the banjo with the demeaning stereotypes of the black-face minstrel show.
None of the three Carolina Chocolate Drops grew up hearing old-time African-American music, but all encountered it in tangential ways. Giddens, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, studied opera at Oberlin College in Ohio and became involved with the folk music scene there. But her ancestors on her mother's side came from North Carolina's Alamance County, a stronghold of old-time African-American music that remained the home of famed fiddler Joe Thompson, and Giddens became curious about this aspect of her background. Her grandmother liked country music and was a fan of the old-time-oriented Hee Haw television show. Giddens began to attend events such as the banjo gathering that brought the Chocolate Drops together.
Robinson, a native of Gastonia, North Carolina, grew up in an area with a vigorous white string band scene. A classically trained violinist who attended the University of North Carolina, he began to attend fiddlers' conventions and to delve into the history of fiddling among African Americans. Recordings at the university's Southern Folklife Center led him to Thompson, who had been an active performer into the 1990s and was hoping to find younger musicians to whom he could pass on his unique fund of musical knowledge. Flemons, the only non-North Carolinian of the group, came from Arizona and had taught himself to play a variety of folk instruments, including a harmonica, a jug, and the difficult bones—a pair of animal bones held in a tense grip that allows the player to furnish a vigorous percussion beat.
The three struck up an acquaintance with Thompson, who then taught them a variety of old-time tunes to go with those they had already learned. Some of the pieces the Chocolate Drops performed, such as "Sourwood Mountain," were common to the repertoires of many old-time country musicians, while others, like "Ol' Corn Likker," were specific to African-American musicians of the Piedmont. In 2006 they issued their debut CD as a group, Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind. The lyrics of the traditional title track referred to a raccoon-hunting dog with a mind of its own.
The Chocolate Drops won praise from blues-roots musician Taj Mahal and quickly found success as a touring act. They played 200 dates in the year beginning in September of 2006, including large summer events such as the Detroit Festival of the Arts. Over this period their set lists evolved. Old-time tunes remained at the heart of their music, but they incorporated into their shows music from various African-American traditions, including blues, gospel, jug band music, and even contemporary R&B in the form of a rousing all-acoustic version of Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'em Up Style."
Most of the Chocolate Drops' audiences were white, but the group was working to change that. "One of our main points of discussion as a group, is that, you know, the majority of audiences that we have are white," Giddens told Tony Cox in an interview on National Public Radio (NPR). "But we always have a handful of black folk who come out, who are curious, or hear about it and they come out. And they always come up afterwards and they say … ‘you know, I remember this from when I was little.’"
For the Record …
Members include: Dom Flemons , vocals, guitar, harmonica, multiple other instruments; Rhiannon Giddens , vocals, banjo, fiddle; Justin Robinson , fiddle, banjo, vocals.
Formed in 2005 at Black Banjo Gathering, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC; released (as Sankofa Strings, with Sule Greg Wilson) Colored Aristocracy, 2006; released debut album as Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, 2006; appeared on soundtrack of film The Great Debaters, 2007; toured British Isles and France, released album Heritage, 2008.
Addresses: Office—6409 Fayetteville Rd., Ste. 120, Box 108, Durham, NC 27713.
Andy Cohen of Sing Out! magazine gave Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind a rave review, writing that "this is potentially a great band, maturing in front of your very ears." The Chocolate Drops got another boost in late 2007 when they were featured in the film The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington. As of early 2008 the Carolina Chocolate Drops had released a new album, Heritage, on France's Dixie Frog label, and were making their first tours of France and the British Isles.
(as Sankofa Strings) Colored Aristocracy, 2006.
Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, Music Maker, 2006.
Heritage, DixieFrog (France), 2008.
Boston Herald, November 7, 2007, p. 35.
Herald-Sun (Durham, NC), September 6, 2007.
Sing Out!, Summer 2007, p. 116; Autumn 2007, p. 66; Winter 2008, p. 10.
Sojourners, January 2008, p. 40.
"About the Drops," Carolina Chocolate Drops Official Web site, http://www.carolinachocolatedrops.com (February 27, 2008).
"Good to the Last Drop," Mountain Times (Boone, NC), http://www.mountaintimes.com/mtweekly/2006/0223/chocolatedrops.php3 (February 27, 2008).
News & Notes, National Public Radio (transcript), February 12, 2007.
—James M. Manheim