American music, before hip-hop, and even before jazz, has always, somehow been painted white. And that which has not been, like hip-hop and jazz, is often times not even seen as American, but rather seen as black. But the forgotten truth is, black music is American music. It’s the very crux of American music. So when three young, black kids in North Carolina decided to reach deep down into the black experience to revitalize, and evolve a fleeting musical style and sound, it’s no wonder that very few faces in the crowd look like theirs. And it’s no surprise you haven’t heard of them.
Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson, make up the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band consisting of banjos, jugs, spoons, dobros, fiddles and harmonicas. They met in 2005, at what’s known as the Black Banjo Gathering, in Boone, NC. The festival focuses on string bands, and black folk music. While attending, the three, in a roundabout way, all ended up meeting up with legendary fiddle player, Joe Thompson, who at the time was 86 years old. It was Joe who molded them, and convinced them to play together, but most of all, it was Joe who explained the importance of keeping such a tradition alive. The Carolina Chocolate Drops were born, and they haven’t looked back since.
Some call it folk music. Some call it roots music. I dare to call it slave music. A music as familiar as turkey neck in collards, but as unfamiliar as African names. Something seen before, but not quite recalled. A lucid dream. Maybe a grandmother’s conversation. Maybe something playing in the background, while visiting family down south. Cotton fields are in this music. Happiness in a sad time, are in this music. Make do, is in this music. Freedom is in this music. Even hip-hop is in there, somewhere between the foot stomping and fiddle bowing.
But will it catch on? Will the Carolina Chocolate Drops ever play “above ground?” Judging from the material on their latest album, Genuine Negro Jig, I’m not so sure that they care to. They have yet to conform or bend their vision to make their music more palatable to their own generation. Songs like “Cornbread and Butterbeans,” and “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine,” are tunes written and performed with gramophone sensibilities, and Grammy qualifications, but would obviously seem antiquated to today’s youth, and even most baby-boomers. Especially since the majority of black people don’t think this is black music anymore, and any music without a drum is a hard sell, even if it is brilliant, poignant, historic and timeless.
Nonetheless, it’s obvious that what the Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing is important, if for no other reason than to carry on tradition. Too often we muddy the sacred, by totally ignoring it. Cornbread and butterbeans is still a major part of who we are, whether we want to admit it or not. Banjos, fiddles, jugs, and spoons are still sounds that we use, even though we have mpc drum machines, and Serato turntables now. But if the Carolina Chocolate Drops are doing it, that leads me to believe that there are others out there somewhere, sweating, and flailing, playing and singing songs of the new, in the style of the old just to keep the threading of our beautiful, and historic fabric, tight.
For more information on the Carolina Chocolate Drops, visit them at www.carolinachocolatedrops.com
By Jason Reynolds