Carolina Chocolate Drops – Digging back, driving forward
Since the late 1950s, folkies have looked to the past for inspiration, and made connections between the popular rhythms of their day and the ancient excursions of their hip — and often unheralded — forebears. It probably doesn’t matter that this recovery process only got cooking around the time rock ‘n’ roll began to register in the popular consciousness. It feels like a long time ago, and might prove that the energy which has propelled both rock and folk comes from much the same source — and that rediscovery doesn’t follow straight lines. For the Carolina Chocolate Drops, history is a vexed concept, and they don’t admit to being purists.
“I can tell you what it’s not,” Chocolate Drops fiddler and singer Justin Robinson says of their music. “History. The music we play is so old, it’s new again.” He’s right, and it’s the sheer chronological distance from 1920s songsters such as Frank Stokes and Furry Lewis that marks the trio, whose oldest member, Rhiannon Giddens, was born the year Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby died.
Like innumerable searchers before them, the trio got together over a common passion for old sounds. Dom Flemons, who plays guitar, banjo, and an assortment of other instruments for the band, grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where he listened to the Beatles and Leonard Cohen.
“I had been playing solo for several years — folk and rock stuff, as well as old-time jazz and blues and country,” Flemons says of his formative years. “I played busking, played all sorts of venues. It really changed when the Black Banjo Gathering happened.” That event, held in April 2005 in Boone, North Carolina, deeply affected Flemons, a self-described “collector at heart” who was already checking out all sorts of American vernacular and pop styles.
“I was amazed by the vibe in North Carolina, and the people,” Flemons says. “I met [North Carolina fiddler] Joe Thompson, Mike Seeger — a whole slew of people.” The four-day festival featured luthiers, Gambian scholars, Swedish researchers, and some serious music-making from such banjoists as New Orleans’ Don Vappie, who played on Otis Taylor’s recent Recapturing The Banjo, and bands such as Clarke Buehling & the Skirtlifters.
Flemons had gone to the Black Banjo Gathering at the suggestion of one of its organizers, Sule Greg Wilson, a percussionist and writer from Washington, D.C., who had moved to Arizona in the mid-’90s. Making their way amidst the banjos, jugs and fiddles, they met Rhiannon Giddens, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, who’d had voice training at Ohio’s Oberlin College. As a trio, they played some dates back in Arizona before Flemons moved to the North Carolina Triangle area in late 2005.
Giddens’ upbringing helps clarify the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ city-and-country aesthetic. She spent her earliest years with a grandmother who lived out in the country, with gardens and chickens, yet was comfortable in the more citified home of her other grandmother.
“I was a kid during the ’80s, so I know a lot of the ’80s songs,” Giddens says. “I heard a lot of old country from my dad’s side of the family. Got blues and jazz from my mom’s side.” At Oberlin, she performed “a lot of operas and art-song, that type of thing.”
With classical training under her belt, Giddens returned home to North Carolina. She became interested in Celtic music. “I competed in Scottish [music] competitions,” she says. “I was getting into that, and also into banjo and old-time music — kind of a parallel thing.”
The first collaboration between Giddens, Flemons and Robinson was a disc titled Colored Aristocracy by Sankofa Strings, a trio that paired Giddens and Flemons with Sule Greg Wilson. Robinson guested on “Black-Eyed Daisy”, a tune from Joe Thompson’s repertoire. Essentially, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Sankofa Strings were nearly the same band, and certainly the same concept. “Sankofa,” a word in Ghana’s Akan language that means “go back and take,” neatly summarizes the record’s aesthetic.
“Those things sort of happened simultaneously,” Robinson says of Colored Aristocracy and the creation of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “There’s only maybe a two-month difference between the start-up of one and the start-up of another. At one point, there were two bands; now there’s only one.”
Colored Aristocracy started off with an unhinged slide-banjo riff and a 1938 song about the joys of smoking marijuana. “Viper Mad” came from the repertoire of Noble Sissle and Sidney Bechet, neither of whom were exactly down-home musicians. Brought up middle-class in Indianapolis and Cleveland, Sissle was a composer and bandleader who starred in vaudeville and on Broadway; Bechet was, of course, one of the most elegant clarinetists and soprano saxophonists in jazz.
Flemons sings stoned lines such as “Blow this gage and get tall with me” out of the side of his mouth, and the band’s drive is remarkable. Colored Aristocracy also features a version of Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In” along with a version of the Slickers’ 1970 reggae classic “Johnny Too Bad”.
“‘Viper Mad’ is, in some ways, very straight and like the original version,” Flemons says. “But the materials we’re using on it are different. The banjo part, I came up with it based on hearing Sidney Bechet’s part. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s good enough to make the tune go by.”
Like Otis Taylor on Recapturing The Banjo, the Chocolate Drops use banjos and pay tribute to various African-American styles that point back to the blues. But they perceive a difference in intent that might just be generational. “Otis is more a singer-songwriter with a blues backdrop,” Flemons says. “I mean, blues left the banjo. It wasn’t stolen from them at all. It was left behind to do other things, and now we’re reclaiming it. White people are still gonna play the banjo, and we want to join them.”
Giddens agrees, and makes an interesting disquisition into the sociology of urban African-Americans and their country cousins. “Justin has chickens and coon-dogs and a pig, and he’s 25 years old,” she says. “And he’s a black man. You can’t conceive of this ten years ago — never would’ve happened.
“Black people have been so thoroughly urbanized that the idea of going out into the wilderness is not all that accepted,” Giddens continues. “And this is connected to why they dropped the banjo. Too, we didn’t grow up with white-only water fountains and having to sit in the balcony of movie theaters.”
Whether or not race has any ultimate effect on camping, the point is well taken. The Chocolate Drops might not be purists, because their distance from their materials is so great as to negate any lingering angst. Still, their ability to hark back to the string-band and jazz music of the past makes them revivalists with a sense of racial politics, just like the blues fanatics who took up Skip James and Son House in the ’60s.
Studying with Thompson at his house in Mebane, North Carolina, the band has picked up a repertoire along with the performance tricks to put it across. One gets the sense that traditional tunes such as “Tom Dula” and “Ol’ Corn Likker” are vehicles for a band that simply wants to get out and play some music. If Flemons talks about the lost “functionality” of string-band material as dance music, Giddens takes it further.
“As glad as I am that we’re studying with Joe [Thompson], I think the distance between us and the past is always there. These people are dead, and their traditions are gone,” she says. “I mean, playing for cornshuckings is gone. We have the freedom to put it together how it fits us.”
Robinson, who grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina, became interested in older music when he got to college, but he retains an interest in other forms. “When I was in school I was listening to a lot of Wu-Tang Clan,” he says. “Old-time music is not what I listen to in my time off. I listen to punk and rock, electronica. Brazilian hip-hop. It’s a reaction from being on tour, but if I hear one more acoustic guitar riff, I think I’m gonna throw up.”
The Chocolate Drops’ debut disc, Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind, was recorded mostly in April 2006 and features the trio ripping through sixteen traditional songs. (Like Colored Aristocracy, Dona was issued on the North Carolina label Music Maker.) “Starry Crown” is a dream of rural repose, while “Little Sadie” could pass for an outtake from 1976’s folkie apotheosis Have Moicy!, on which Michael Hurley, Jeffrey Fredericks and various Clamtones and Unholy Modal Rounders gave the ’60s counterculture one last, loving goose.
None of the Drops seem to have much use for a lot of ’60s music, though, and to suggest that their music has any simmering rebellion is to miss the point. Their attempt to find a narrative that combines the big-town hip of Bechet and Sissle with the kind of simplicity you find only in “folk” music has affinities with earlier folk and blues revivals — and with the efforts of modern string bands such as the Red Stick Ramblers.
“In the ’60s, folk-revival people were saying, ‘Fuck the Beatles,'” Flemons says. “And go ahead and put Albert Collins next to Freddie King, in that era of blues players where they have a Strat and it’s no longer the country blues. You can get stuck in that.”
Giddens agrees: “I think that a lot of that ’60s stuff is pretentious, and I don’t like modern electric blues.” Robinson is similarly inclined. “After about 1945 I can’t really get into jazz that much,” he says. “It becomes a little cerebral for my taste.”
So maybe they’re purists after all, but with the kind of internet-era access to history that can bring alive everything from turn-of-the-century Sousa recordings to arcane jug-band sides from the ’20s. Flemons cites jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus as a major influence, Giddens probably still has her They Might Be Giants and Pixies CDs stashed away, and Robinson soaks up Brazilian “Baile funk” as naturally as he appreciates Elizabeth Cotten and James Cotton.
They work up their material onstage, which suits them fine, since they tour the United States and Europe like real troupers. (“I mean, when you do that, you don’t have to rehearse a lot,” Robinson says.)
Because they tend to be on the road constantly, they’re looking forward to some breathing room. “We’re trying to find time to do some recording when we’re not at our wits’ end from touring,” Flemons says.
“I’ve been spending some time in New York, and feeling like I might want to change locations a little bit,” Flemons says. If the group has a leader, it’s he, and it sounds like Flemons has the itch musicians and artists often get, once they figure out that sophistication doesn’t have to cancel out a vigorous appreciation of life’s simpler pleasures. “Since I’m from a city, being in Chapel Hill I’m starting to get a little bit of cabin fever with the slow pace.”