Carolina Chocolate Drops provide rare, sweet treat

Brian Baker, November 2007

Dom Flemons is an accomplished musician, well versed in the signatures and nuances of all of the genres that he has played professionally throughout his career. Two years ago, Flemons channeled all of his experience and knowledge into his explorations of bluegrass music, joining with like-minded friends Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson to form the acclaimed and highly skilled string band/old time/bluegrass-based Carolina Chocolate Drops.

The trio's instrumental virtuosity and inherent sense of historical perspective are displayed brilliantly on their debut album, "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind."

Mentored by fiddle master Joe Thompson, the Drops cover a wide variety of bluegrass obscurities with traditional expertise and contemporary abandon, infusing songs from the earliest part of the last century with a modern, yet completely appropriate vibrancy.

Given that we're nearly five decades past the opening volleys of the civil rights movement, the fact that the Carolina Chocolate Drops are a group of African American musicians should not be among their most striking characteristics.

It is, in fact, the obvious lack of black musicians in the bluegrass field that makes the Drops so distinctively different. And it is their technical proficiency, intuitive talent and pure passion for the music that makes them an integral part of bluegrass music's long and illustrious lineage in general and an almost solitary entity in enlightening music fans to the history of the black string-band tradition specifically.

"We all have different stories, but the basic skeleton is the same, that we had an interest that grew out of this music, not knowing particularly that there was a black contingency for it or that it was strong in the black community," says Flemons from the Drops's Berea, Ky. tour stop.

"Most black people don't do a lot of this music because there's no context for it. A black kid growing up doesn't see a black person playing a banjo or a guitar, and a lot of major black recording artists don't play instruments, not out front performing. We all were just kind of odd ducks in our little ponds, playing the music in the communities that we enjoyed."

The Drops form a formidable trio because of the strength of the band's individual talents. Arizona native Flemons - the band's multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, harmonica, banjo, snare drum, jug and kazoo - was schooled in various styles, playing rock, funk and jazz before branching out into bluegrass, folk and country areas and working out his chops as a street corner busker and coffeehouse denizen.

"I played solo for about six years," says Flemons. "I played rock and roll and pop, and I did a lot of writing of songs. I played Dylan and Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison, all over the place. Then, I got into older blues, that ended up really catching me. Then, I got into the songster blues, people like Henry Thomas and Mance Lipscomb and Furry Lewis. When I first encountered the string band music Joe was putting down, I felt a kinship to it by this other music that I'd been interested in on my own."

Fiddler/banjoist Giddens grew up in South Carolina in a familial atmosphere of bluegrass, blues and jazz, which ultimately led her to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but upon her return she was immediately drawn back to the traditional sounds of her upbringing.

Fellow Carolinian Robinson had an even more eclectic home life; his mother was a classically trained opera singer. His sister played classical piano, and his grandfather was an accomplished harmonica player. Robinson played classical violin until he was 13; it has only been in recent years that the fiddler and aspiring banjo player has explored the possibilities of old time traditional music.

The Drops came together a scant two years ago when the trio attended the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. Giddens, one of the festival's volunteer organizers, met Flemons and Robinson separately at the event - Flemons attending on the advice of friend Sule Greg Wilson and Robinson there to meet and learn from Thompson, the now-90-year-old fiddler and one of the last direct links to black string band traditions.

Robinson struck up a friendship with Thompson and began visiting him at his home in Mebane, while Giddens headed out to Phoenix where she, Flemons and Wilson formed a band called Sankofa Strings, which gigged around Phoenix and recorded an album of blues/jazz tunes, "Colored Aristocracy."

"The Black Banjo Gathering, that was ground zero," says Flemons. "A lot of things opened up there, and that's where we started seeing that we could give a good name to music that has historically given the shaft."

Eventually, Flemons decided to return to North Carolina with Giddens, swayed by the atmosphere he had experienced at the Gathering. Giddens introduced Flemons to Robinson, who by this time had enlisted Giddens to play banjo with he and Thompson while Robinson was absorbing Thompson's fiddle technique.

Through this roundabout series of events, Flemons, Giddens and Robinson began playing together, both with Thompson and on their own.

"We got our hands on a copy of a movie called 'Louis Bluie', about a fellow named Howard Armstrong who played fiddle and mandolin from the late '20s on," says Flemons. "He had a group with his brothers early on called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, and Rhiannon up and said, 'Well, why don't we call ourselves the Carolina Chocolate Drops?'"

With the thought of amplifying the Piedmont style with their performance and aiming toward the prestigious festival circuit, the Carolina Chocolate Drops began rehearsing in earnest.

Beginning with the Mt. Airy Fiddlers Convention, the Drops have captivated every audience they've entertained, from the Folk Alliance Festival to Merlefest to the Newport Folk Festival. The Drops have already done three successful circuits of Canada in the past year and a half and will add a European tour to their resume next spring.

In the midst of their relentless touring/festival-going, the Drops recorded their debut, "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind."

A mix of traditional tunes that the trio has picked up themselves over the years on and rearranged to suit their current style (including "Dixie," "Tom Dula" and "Sourwood Mountain") as well as old time songs they learned from Thompson (from "Georgie Buck" to "Black Annie" to the title track), "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind" offers an amazing glimpse into the black string band heritage with a reverence for the style's roots and an energetic ear for bringing the style into the present tense without losing its original flavor.

The album came about more by virtue of economic necessity than artistic desire.

"We were doing a lot of school shows at the time, and we needed something to sell," says Flemons. "We jumped into the studio one day after a school show and cut all the tunes in a take or two then we mixed it the next day. We weren't expecting 'Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind' to go as far as it has gone so far. We've just been amazed by it."

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the album at this juncture in the band's short history is the positive reception that it's generated, considering that it represents the Drops in a very early mindset. Flemons is quick to note that the trio plays all of the material on the CD with much greater proficiency now but that it remains an accurate representation of the band's skill and passion.

"It's nice to know that we have something that's representative enough to have people come out, and we're not hanging our heads in shame," says Flemons with a laugh.

A good many groups have started down this path of discovery and interpretation of songs gone by, only to abandon it in favor of writing their own songs in a similar style.

Although Flemons admits that he and the Drops have written a handful of originals (he's released a solo album of his own compositions), he says that the band is more than content to uncover and disseminate musical nuggets from the past than to try to create their own from that inspiration. The fact is that the Drops are examining so many obscure sources for their material that the songs, unheard for years by the wider public, almost play like new tunes.

"It's amazing what's gone down," says Flemons. "I'm a big fan of the music that American culture has produced. If I never wrote another tune, I'd be okay for material. I wouldn't need it because there's so much out there. Even taking the same forms and changing verses or making it fit a modern context, that may be the way to go. A lot of bands will start out in old time music, and then they'll start writing songs, and that's the end of them. They start doing original material, and all of a sudden, it becomes a battle of 'How good is their original material compared to the old time stuff?' That shouldn't be the case but that's what ends up happening. It's a real sensitive area. If we have tunes that we've written that we approve of, then we'll start putting those out there. For now, interpreting old tunes and redesigning and rearranging them has been fine."

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have seen their profile rise exponentially over the past few months, especially since the official release of "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind" on the Music Maker Relief Foundation label.

Back in September, the Drops joined Thompson on stage at the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship awards ceremony where he was honored with the fellowship, the highest accolade in folk and traditional arts. Given the importance being placed on the cultural aspects of this music, Flemons says he and the Drops recognize and yet try not to overemphasize the responsibility that they all share in bringing it into the light.

"It's mind blowing to think we're young blacks that are picking up on Joe's tradition, and he's the last in his family, and if he'd passed at any point before we had come along, his family tradition would be done," says Flemons.

"But at the same time, it's casual. We can make the music very easily. The hardest things we've been finding culturally and personally have been trying to adjust from being a local band to being a full time band and getting the business and the taxes and the medical and whatnot together. The actual music making is easy. If you sit us down and we started playing, that's easiest part of the whole thing."

Perhaps the rise of the Carolina Chocolate Drops is signaling a paradigm shift of changing attitudes within the African American community toward a style of music that was once closely associated with the black population, but hasn't been for quite some time.

Although the Drops don't necessarily see themselves as the musical advance guard of some new cultural upheaval, they do feel as though they have some philosophical responsibilities to both black and white listeners. The trio feels the need to do some outreach within the black community to expose them to this kind of music - their school shows are just one part of this facet of paying forward the legacy they've absorbed from Thompson - and there's a similar push to make sure that all fans understand the vital importance of black musicians in the earliest development of this branch of bluegrass.

"Like anything in the black community, it's very hard to get people out," says Flemons. "Culturally, I think more black people are feeling okay to look into some of this music because they're either so far away from it contextually that it becomes a new thing to them, or they're people like us, odd ducks in their own pond, and they want to find an interest in music that's not black music per se, but just music that they enjoy."

"I think it's going to be several years before we have all black audiences or a lot of black people coming out. But we go into schools - sometimes we do all black schools, sometimes we do mixed schools - and the kids are interested. Younger kids don't care what you're playing, as long as they can enjoy it, that's fine."

"Also, socially, black music is going back to square dancing, or a lot of elements similar to square dancing, with calling and formalized dancing in groups. There's a dance called the Crank Up Soldier Boy that the kids all know. We can get volunteers up on stage, and we can get the whole auditorium to sing the 'Soldier Boy' song, and the kids know the dance. Different towns have regional differences, and it's a whole other folk culture that's growing out of hip hop culture, and I think it's going to collide at some point, when kids say, 'I can take instruments and do this.'"

And maybe it's not a black/white thing at all, merely a pendulum swing back to a simpler type of music played with mastery and love. "We're seeing people in general be more interested in acoustic and roots and old time music, whatever you want to call it; music that's more organically built," says Flemons.

"The fact that we can be a part of it is a wonderful thing. Culturally, just seeing where America's mindset and tastes are changing, and we're there. A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about how we're a young black band reviving black music. Some articles pick up on that, besides all that, we're a good band. We're not worrying about the hype catching up with us because all we've got to do is put down a solid set, and then people take away whatever they want from it."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •