Artist Spotlight: Carolina Chocolate Drops
Since the O Brother craze, traditional and oldtime music has been experiencing something of a revival among twenty-somethings. In this arena, one of the best bands around is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a trio that uses banjos, fiddles, kazoos, bones–and even the occasional jug–in the creation of their new old sound. They’re young, gifted, and black.
Does that last fact surprise you? It shouldn’t, considering the many and varied influences of African music in the traditional American oldtime sound.
The Chocolate Drops consists of two native North Carolinians (Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson) and an Arizona native (Dom Flemons), all of whom were in their twenties and involved in a variety of projects from classical to Celtic music when they first decided to form the group, after meeting in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering (www.blackbanjo.com), a convention sponsored by a group whose stated purpose is to increase awareness of the banjo’s role in black music and culture and to celebrate the African American oldtime music tradition.
As they began forming their own sound, countless hours were spent learning at the feet of Piedmont elders including Joe Thompson (allegedly the last surviving African-American traditional string band player), John Snipes and musician/folklorist Sule Greg Wilson.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ most recent album is titled Heritage (2008), and a more fitting name for this collection couldn’t exist. The album seamlessly incorporates a variety of musical genres, from the Piedmont string band sound to spoken word poetry to African rhythms.
Giddens sums up the band’s purpose—part folklore study, part reclamation of tradition—in “Banjo Dreams/Jalidong” when she chants: “In my dream there is no blackface, no misappropriation, no misdirection, no diasporic disconnect from the hammering of our great-grandfathers’ fingers. Instead, banjo sounds frequent the airwaves like the most insidious hip-hop beat…until they become part of race memory.”
On Heritage, the group transforms Schubert’s “Der Erlkonig” (based upon a Goethe poem which is based on a German folktale) into the creepy “Earl King.” Like the poem, the song tells the story of a desperate father taking his sick child on horseback in search of a doctor. On this journey the child repeatedly sees visions of the Earl King (something of a bogeyman/Grim Reaper hybrid) pursuing him. The driving banjo simulates the horse’s hoofbeats as the vocals get faster and higher as the song progresses to the climax. It’s really a joy to listen to, not only due to the spellbinding story and the excellent musicianship, but also because it proves what traditional string band music—often scorned by the mainstream when it’s not raking in O Brother amounts of capital—is capable of.
They’re able to tackle the highbrow art of Schubert and Goethe with the greatest of ease, but the lowbrow comes to the Chocolate Drops just as easily. One of the band’s most viewed clips on Youtube is their cover of Blu Cantrell’s 2001 single “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” which is transformed from modern R&B radio smash to prewar fiddle tune.
Although they experiment with music quite a bit—this is not a band which tends toward pristine preservation, instead treating tradition as a guidepost and music as a living, evolving entity—the Chocolate Drops also sing the old country and blues staples, including “Georgie Buck,” “Sally Ann” and “Black Eye Blues,” a classic which has Giddens sounding remarkably like Ma Rainey as she growls, “You low down alligator/Just watch me sooner or later/Gonna catch you with your britches down.” It’s a bit unseemly to enjoy a song about domestic violence this much, but if you listen to one song today, make it this cover.
Fans of Old Crow Medicine Show and Uncle Earl will find themselves drawn to the rootsy sound of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and their high energy performances. Anyone who has even the slightest interest in American musical history owes it to themselves to give this band a listen.
Recommended tracks: “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” “Black Eye Blues,” “Earl King.”
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