Old-Time's Real Roots

Rob Hochschild
March 25, 2009
Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops: "We're informants in a way. But we're just playing the music."
Students join the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the stage of the Berklee Performance Center.
Justin Robinson: "We let [our arrangements] form as they do on stage."
Flemons (left) plays jug while Giddens and Robinson play banjo and fiddle.
Rhiannon Giddens: "For us, the rhythm's different. And there's a lot of old time music that's more heavy than ours on the left hand, maybe Irish, Scottish."
Flemons, a multi-instrumentalist, beats out a rhythm on the snare.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo By Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo By Phil Farnsworth

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are all about the music. Playing it, singing it, dancing to it. But when you see and hear the trio of young African American musicians perform the traditional stringband repertoire, you can't help but come away with a history lesson. The group's music, and what they say about it, provide testament to a little-discussed fact: blacks of North Carolina's Piedmont region played a fundamental role in establishing the banjo-driven songbook that people think of these days as old time music. 

When the Carolina Chocolate Drops visited Berklee for an afternoon clinic and evening concert in February, the group's members made it quite clear that they see themselves as on a mission to simultaneously pay homage to, and put a new spin on, black stringband music. They even named themselves after a 1920s group called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. But what the group does on stage is no dusty, sepia-toned portrayal of the past, but original, soulful music that is sometimes foot-stomping, sometimes contemplative.

In an evening concert in the Berklee Performance Center, the members of the group—Rhiannon Giddens, banjo and fiddle; Dom Flemons, guitar, jug, bones, drum, and other instruments; and Justin Robinson, fiddle—invited students on stage, embracing the down-home collaborative qualities of the music, whether you think of it as black, white, or something else. During an afternoon session, the group played several tunes, including "The Snowdens Jig" and "Cornbread and Butterbeans," but they also talked about the challenges and joy of the music they play. Read on and view the photo gallery to learn more of what they had to say.

Rhiannon Giddens, on the fading of black stringband music:

One of the reasons that stringband music fell out of common knowledge in black culture was when the recording industry was coming into being. This music, what [the group's mentor] Joe [Thompson] was playing and even beyond what he was playing, was moving to blues. That's what the audiences wanted. People wanted records of blues. That was the hip thing, that was the hot music. So people thought, "Oh, that's what black people listen to, we need to find more of this." So this quickly faded from consciousness, not just in the black community but overall. . . . and then you get to where the three of us were five, six years ago, not even knowing that the banjo was an African instrument.

Dom Flemons, on influences across race:

People say Elvis [Presley] took a lot from black people. But black people have taken from white. Look at Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Charlie Pride, Darius Rucker. Even Jermaine Jackson played the Grand ol' Opry.

Giddens, in response to a question about people resisting their music:

That's the amazing thing actually. We seem to be hitting things at the right moment. Because people are being open not only to acoustic music and old time music making a comeback, but also discovering this sort of hidden part of black history. It's just been untalked about for so long. 

We don't get a lot of black people coming to our shows, but it's changing. More and more are coming. They get there and they like it. It's getting people there and letting them know it's relevant; it's not just us putting on a mask and playing white music.

On embracing history:

Flemons: A lot of this music is very joyful and exuberant. I think the only real issue that come up every once in a while is sometimes people will want to focus on the exuberance of the music and want to scoot the history aside. They forget that even though we are able to present the music as modern blacks now, this was forged out of many, many years when blacks couldn't do it or they didn't feel comfortable.

Giddens: The fact that we can sit up here and play this kind of music and call ourselves the Chocolate Drops is a direct result of the civil rights movement. Our parents had to go through so much crap so we can do this. We couldn't have done this 20, 30, 40 years ago. So we're very aware of that and we don't let people forget it because it's important.