It seems that there is always some long-neglected American musical style that is ripe for rediscovery and reclamation. Traditional Black string band music is having its moment now thanks to the vision and artistry of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a youthful trio of multi-instrumentalists and singers that recently released its second major label album, Leaving Eden (Nonesuch).
Dom Flemons, the Arizona-born co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, was by no means born into the string band tradition. “I watched this TV documentary called The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” he says, recalling a musical epiphany, “and they had this episode called ‘Plugging In’ which was about the 60’s folk reviva - people like Bob Dylan, and also the development of the psychedelic movement that grew in San Francisco I loved this episode, and it really got me into Dylan, and I started listening to his records, and getting into other people from that era like Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, and I started collecting vinyl records.” The documentary was aired in 2004, long after the compact disc era had begun. “I remember I got an Audio Technica turntable and I didn’t know how to use it and had to ask my parents,” he laughs. After investigating the 1960s Folk Revival, Flemons delved further and further back into time.
Flemons had a further musical awakening not long afterward when he attended the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in 2005. That was where he met Rhiannon Giddens, a young singer with a background in opera who would later co-found the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Dom; he also met Mike Seeger of the New Lost City Ramblers, and Joe Thompson, a North Carolina musician who was a direct ink to the black string bands of 75 years ago. Thompson, who passed away at 93 in February, was the Chocolate Drops’ inspiration and mentor. “We hoped to keep making music and pushing this message of awareness for black string bands,” says Flemons. After the started the group and established a website for it, they found there was groundswell of interest in booking the new band.
The omnivorous musical tastes of the Drops, who already have a Grammy Award to their credit (for their 2010 release, Genuine Negro Jig), mark them as far more than a group mimicking the sound of some antique 78 rpm discs. On the bonus tracks of the deluxe edition of the new CD, the Drops successfully reinterpret a Bob Dylan protest song (“George Jackson”) and a Run DMC rap classic (“You Be Illin’”). Flemons explains that there is an art to taking a song from one genre to another: “Something I’ve always kept in mind when handling material from a different genre, is trying to figure out how to put the seasoning on it so that no matter what the material is, it sounds right,” he says. “It’s like an ill-fitting pair of pants. Anyone can wear any pair of pants, it’s just a matter of how good it looks on you. If you wear pants that are far to big then it looks funny and if you wear pants that are far too small then it looks funny too, but if you got the ones that look right, people will just say ‘Oh, that looks nice.’”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are always on the lookout for songs to incorporate into their repertoire, finding them on old recordings and even in forgotten stacks of sheet music. Less often, they write their own songs. Flemons says, candidly, “I just got tired of writing and being so self-indulgent within myself, trying to present the personal expression of someone’s own particular story all the time. I did a lot of writing when I was first starting. Nowadays in music it’s standard practice that you must write your own material, but I think i something very unique that’s helped our group along is that we don’t write a good deal of our music.”