Carolina Chocolate Drops keeping past alive

ALLAN WIGNEY - Sun Media

, Last Updated: 1:20 AM ET

Until recently, Dom Flemons reflects, he and bandmates Justin Robinson and Rhiannon Giddens were "just normal people that went to work and stuff."

The stuff included indulging in a fascination for music that had included classical violin training for Robinson and for Giddens, operatic studies at the Oberlin Conservatory.

That changed three years ago at the Black Banjo Gathering, an event staged in North Carolina as a celebration of the African roots of the instrument with which Flemons had been busking around his native Arizona. The gathering brought some 600 enthusiasts together, notably the three young musicians who would form The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Robinson and Giddens, it seems, had by that time fallen off the classical wagon.

"Justin had started playing at fiddle conventions," Flemons explains. "And Rhiannon got burned out on opera and had started going to, and calling, contra dances. From there, she'd started learning the banjo and fiddle."

Blame Dolly Parton, Flemons says. For it was the fiddling finale of Marry Me, a tune from Parton's 2001 bluegrass gem Little Sparrow, that had lured his Carolinian bandmates, musically, back to the Piedmont Foothills of their birth.

"It's a link," Flemons says. "None of us grew up with old-time music in our households. But you hear that fiddle and you want to delve into it a little more. And when you do it's like going into the rabbit hole -- you get lost.

"You hit all this material that's around. Like, I really got into Bob Dylan's early stuff and I started looking up people that were contemporary to him in the New York scene. It just grew from there."

How much it has grown is evident in the old-time feel captured on Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, the debut album from The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Traditional songs from the Carolinas -- among them folk staples Tom Dula and Dixie -- are presented as they might have been a century or more ago, complete with jug. It is the inspired sound of the resurgence of the stringband.

The black stringband, something that would have been much easier to locate a century or more ago.

"You could still see a lot of examples of black stringband musicians in the early 1920s," Flemons notes. "There were maybe half a dozen that were recorded. But by their second sessions these artists were playing the blues, because that's what was going on.

"You know, you might present whatever you want but the record guy would be like, 'I need to see some blues; people aren't wanting this other stuff.' "

At least, not by blacks. Stringband music has instead been kept alive by white musicians. Flemons admits he has yet to encounter even one young black stringband on his and his group's extensive travels since the 2006 release of Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind.

"We've seen a lot of young black blues players -- acoustic and country blues -- coming up," Flemons reports. "But no stringbands."

Of course, every movement has to start somewhere, and for the Chocolate Drops, it began by going to the source. The bulk of the trio's repertoire comes from that of mentor Joe Thompson, who at 89 is believed to be the last of the original black stringband players.

"Joe has been a big influence on us," Flemons says. "It's very important to meet an older person, no matter what they do. Whether they play music or not, they have more years than you do, and can bring everything they know down to you. That's a connection that's important to make."

Tomorrow, we will have an opportunity to make a connection with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and with a rich musical tradition. Moreover, by doing so we can be party to that tradition's rebirth.

"That's something other people are going to put on us," Flemons cautiously says of his band's role as torch bearers. "Our job is not to think about whether we are spokespeople for this or that.

"You know, if you want to say, 'You guys are reviving the black stringband tradition,' in the commercial sense we are. But we're not thinking about it like that; we're just making the music and we happen to be a black band.

"Sure, if we can pique interest in anybody, black people would be great. If we could get black people interested in learning the music there would be more black stringbands. But we can't think that hard about those sort of things. The main thing for us is to make music that is solid and that fits what we want to do."


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