Carolina Chocolate Drops
Rediscovering the banjo's black roots
by Whit Hill
From the January, 2008 issue
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, young African American musicians from North Carolina, renew a fairly arcane tradition, the old-time black stringband music of the Carolina Piedmont that they learned from its handful of surviving octogenarian performers. They started out playing dances and clubs like the Ark, and in the booklet for their latest album, in time-honored fashion among old-time musicians, they explain how they came to learn each song. It's pretty folky stuff, with banjo, fiddle, maybe an Autoharp. But now, on December 3, they're appearing at 3,600-seat Hill Auditorium, under the auspices of the prestigious University Musical Society. You almost have to ask, what's going on here?
Basically, the Drops have touched the third rail of American music-race-and found a way to lessen the shock. The sound of the stringbands, black and white, was rooted in the pervasive racist institution of nineteenth-century American music and culture, the blackface minstrel show. It can also, with clacking bones and other snappy syncopated percussion, be a hell of a lot of fun, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops offer a way to enjoy it. They say that they want to reclaim the African American contribution to the music, which started when banjo-like instruments were brought from Africa.
"It's complicated," multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Back in the day, there were black minstrels being imitated by white minstrels masquerading in blackface. And all making fun of every ethnic group. While the minstrel show became an international phenomenon, it gets looked at in a very negative way-which, to a large degree, it should be. There was a lot of shucking and jiving. But at the same time, there's a solid musical and cultural piece of the puzzle that's been left behind, because we put all of it in a box during the civil-rights era, tried to hide it, and said, 'We can't do this thing.' "
It could be heavy stuff, and the titles of the Drops' albums, Genuine Negro Jig and before
that Colored Aristocracy, allude to (and reclaim) a painful past. But the group made a key decision that helps them pick out the positive strands in the music: they have broadened the focus beyond the stringband repertory to include other traditions of the early twentieth-century South, among them blues, jug band and kazoo music, ragtime, and early jazz. Sometimes they play contemporary songs stringband-style, or vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, a powerhouse of a performer, may sing Anglo-Scots ballads. The third Drop, Justin Robinson, seems to come up with original songs that make intriguing use of old-time instrumentation, and he furnishes the beatboxing for the Drops' bring-the-house-down version of the recent R&B chart-topper "Hit 'em Up Style."
So the collective Carolina Chocolate Drops sound does not come from any one place or time but is a unique mosaic, with plenty of stories to tell of how African American musicians made their way in a white-ruled world. And, with the whole brilliant, troubled history of American music as their pool of resources, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are advancing by leaps and bounds with their reclamation techniques and coming up with new things in each show. Not to be missed.
[Originally published in January, 2008.]
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