Happy Monday, everyone! It’s a Musical Monday on Robert Frost’s Banjo, & a special one at that, as I’ll be writing about some truly superlative & inspirational musicians, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
If you’re not familiar with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, you are in for a treat—there are two videos at the bottom of the post that will introduce you to their sound. I must confess: one of the hardest things about writing this post was limiting myself to two embedded videos—the Carolina Chocolate Drops are so good & so versatile, & fortunately for all our listening pleasure, YouTube has a generous selection of clips from various live performances.
The Chocolate Drops is the trio of Dom Flemons, Justin Robinson & Rhiannon Giddens, tho they expand at times to include percussionist Sule Greg Wilson, Giddens' sister, singer & poet Lalenja Giddens Harrington, & also their mentor & inspiration, octogenarian old-time fiddler Joe Thompson. You can read more about their connection with Thompson, which is seminal to the band's existence, on their band bio page here.
In brief: the members of the band met at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina in 2005, & as a result they began visiting Thompson for frequent jams accompanied by much learning about the heritage of this music—& this idea of heritage is important: in fact Heritage is the title of the Chocolate Drops’ superlative 2008 release on Dixiefrog. Pigeonholing music into “genres”—largely a maketing device of the recording industry—does many things; one of those things is create a history that folks take as being true. I once told a young banjo student of mine that the banjo is African in its origin: he was shocked, telling me he thought they’d been “invented in Tennessee.” One thing that genre creation has done to old-time music has been to create artificial divisions that are anachronistic. For instance, what do we make of the fact that Jimmie Rodgers, the “father of country music” recorded with Louis Armstrong & Lil Hardin? It’s convenient to see old time music as dividing along racial lines: what’s now called “old-timey music” (think fiddles & banjos—despite the latter instrument’s African origin) is “white,” while blues & jazz are “black.”
In fact, the real situation in “old-time” music in the old times themselves was much more complicated. I’d vaguely known that there was a strong African musical connection with old-time fiddle tunes, but hadn’t known much in detail until I read Elijah Wald’s excellent book Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson & the Invention of the Blues (note to self: will write about this on the Banjo soon!) Wald points out that there were many African-American string bands, that African-American communities participated in square dances or “frolics,” & that the fact that African-American string bands weren’t recorded, while European-American string bands were, actually says a lot more about the biases of the early recording companies & field recorders than about the prevalence of musical styles in various late 19th & early 20th century southern U.S. communities. For instance, the band's name comes from the 1930s African-American string band, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are articulate about these problems with music history, & a big part of the band’s mission seems to be raising consciousness about this heritage. However, I must stress that the Carolina Chocolate Drops are far from “mere” revivalists—as Justin Robinson has said, “Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians.” They are modern musicians indeed—not to mention being classically trained (for example: Giddens studied operatic singing at the Oberlin Conservatory); their Facebook page lists influences ranging from the Mississippi Sheiks to the New Lost City Ramblers to the Notorious B.I.G. Robinson, for instance, can switch from hot old-time fiddle playing to beat boxing, while Giddens can move with ease from an old blues like “Wayward Gal” (see below) to her show-stopping cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” While their repertoire is old, it comes beautifully alive in their music making. The clip of “Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind Below” should provide all the evidence you need of both their vitality & their virtuosity.
In addition, all three band members are versatile. Dom Flemons is a wiz on guitar (typically resonators—a man after my own heart); one thing about Flemons guitar-playing: he knows that the guitar in this music is at least half percussion instrument—listen to the effects he gets on “Wayward Girl.” Amazing! As someone who has had to put a lot of effort into bringing percussion into his own blues guitar playing, I have a lot of admiration for Flemons’ technique. But his prowess doesn’t end with the guitar. He plays a unique but highly effective form of frailing on a four-string banjo, he can really blow a jug (this is no mean feat—& Robinson is also a good jug man), & play the harmonica, bones & snare drum, & he has a powerful singing voice that's comfortable in several old time styles. Giddens is an excellent clawhammer banjo player & also plays a mean fiddle; & she can really play the kazoo—if you’ve ever wondered if the kazoo is a “real” musical instrument, just check out Giddens play one on “Memphis Shakedown” or “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine.” Her singing is pretty much transcendant. Robinson, meanwhile, plays an exquisite & energetic fiddle as well as the autoharp, & also plays the banjo occasionally, in addition to blowing the jug & beat boxing. Robinson’s vocals are always a delight, & can range from an exuberant old-time style to something as dark & soulful as "Kissin' & Cussin'" on their 2010 Genuine Negro Jig.
As was the case when I profiled the Mad Tea Party last month, I’m stuck on which of the Carolina Chocolate Drops albums to recommend if you want to check out just one as an introduction. They currently have four available, plus one (Colored Aristocracy, Music Maker) from an earlier incarnation of the band, called Sankofa Strings. The four cds are Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (Music Maker); Heritage (Dixiefrog); Joe Thompson and The Carolina Chocolate Drops (Music Maker); & Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch). I should mention that Dom Flemons also has two solo albums out—all of these can be purchased thru the band’s website, & most are available on iTunes. If pressed to give an answer, I’d narrow it down to Heritage & Genuine Negro Jig & suggest one of two things: flip a coin or decide you really need both!
This is great music—some of the most inspiring I’ve heard in a long time. Please check out the Carolina Chocolate Drops!