The Carolina Chocolate Drops – Henry Fonda Music Box Los Angeles
Forty-five seconds in to the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ set at the Henry Fonda Music Box in Los Angeles last night, the tears came. Lord knows I cannot find tears in all sorts of situations where they would not only be deemed appropriate but in fact expected, but the right combination of notes on the right night with the right measure of sincerity and I’m a leaky boat. Probably not what the Drops are going for, I know – Rolling Stone Magazine describes their style as, “Dirt-floor-dance-electricity.”
I cried though because I thought of my mother and in turn, their mothers. I’m an Australian of a Papua New Guinean mother and Maori (the native New Zealanders) father and was raised in all three countries. Though educated in a predominantly white catholic girls’ school in Australia, my parents made a point to teach us the songs, the dances and the stories of our people, to keep our rich, cultural heritage alive and to keep strong our connection to our ancestors while forging ahead into a modern world.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are three young, black musicians who, as a band, hail from North Carolina. Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson are multi-instrumentalists and vocalists, primarily a string band that bring out the bones, jug and kazoo. Rhiannon studied opera, plays banjo and fiddle and has that same, soft-eyed pretty of Natalie Merchant. Dom plays banjo and guitar and Justin was trained in classical violin from eight years of age. They are a young, modern voice of their own but also represent the tradition of black, string -band music. As Justin Robinson said, “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians.” Amen.
The tears did eventually clear for me and I whooped, hollered and stomped with the rest of them. It might have been the shortest set on earth – they were there supporting Josh Ritter after all – but you can rest assured that the audience squeezed the most they possibly could out of the energy pouring off stage.
I couldn’t quite see, but am sure I heard that the seated (for the most part) trio, were stomping on miked stomp boards, keeping that get-down beat going. I’d never seen anyone play bones in real life before – two wooden sticks, emulating the bones they used to be made from – clacked together in the hand. They too reminded me of my mother, who would play the spoons in her extended-family sing-songs. But Dom played the bones, clacking them all over the place with a jig and a smile.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops closed out with a cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” which was equal parts brilliant, equal parts humorous. Rhiannon – whose beautiful and powerful voice is usually used in a very understated fashion – was given the opportunity to belt it out. I don’t believe any one of us were remotely ready for them to leave the stage when they did.
From the first time I happened upon a Youtube video of three, young black folk, singing the lyrics, “Corn bread and butter beans and you across the table, eatin’ them beans and makin’ love as long as I am able” I was in love. No question. I scoured their tour dates frequently, hoping they’d add dates in Los Angeles, to no avail for a long time.
In Austin this year for South by South West, I learned that the Carolina Chocolate Drops would be playing a set at the beautiful Driskill Hotel – a favorite cocktail stop for me on the SXSW circuit. It was not to be as the band I was to sing in, picked up a gig last-minute at the very same time, at Big Red Sun. I lamented that for months.
I’m from a part of the world as far away as you can get from a jug band. About as far away as the Drops grew up from a corroboree. So anything I know about the music they make and its history, I learned from records and books. I’ve read Robert Palmers’, “Deep Blues” which does not make me an expert, but it is where I learned much more about the Banjo, its journey from Africa, the romance that started between it and the Irish fiddle and the beautiful new music they made together which was the birth of sounds distinctly American, that went on to be revered across the world.
I also read that these three young musicians traveled every Thursday night to sit with 80-something-year-old fiddler, Joe Thompson in his home in Mebane, North Carolina. I read that it was during the summer and fall of 2005 that old Joe Thompson passed on the knowledge to the Drops, that he had inherited from generations of family – who honed their skills at night after back-breaking field-work all day.
And all this is why I cried. My mother would have been proud of these young folk, keeping their heritage alive making new from old in the very best of ways. I’ve eaten catfish in a juke joint in Mississippi and danced the night away. I’ve sat on the back porch of a shack on Hopson Plantation, in Clarksdale and felt the spirit of those passed in the gentle creak-slam of the screen door. I’ve heard the wind in the cotton fields sing a sad, sad song. And it was when the Chocolate Drops launched into their third song, a haunting, instrumental beauty, with a lonely violin called, “Snowdon’s Jig” I knew my mama would say, “They are calling the spirits of their ancestors. You can feel them.”