Carolina Chocolate Drops Bring Raucous Fiddle Tunes to the Birchmere
Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South states that many fans and even some historians tend to view country music as the product of the rural South, ignoring the influence of the industrial Piedmont region, which was the textile capital of the world pre-WWII. The Carolina Chocolate Drops have spent the last five years touring extensively, drawing attention to both the music of the Piedmont and the often neglected history of African Americans in stringband music.
Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson formed the Chocolate Drops after meeting at the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. North Carolinian fiddler Joe Thompson, currently 91-years old and thought to be one of the last living African American stringband musicians, served as their mentor as the trio began forming their own sound. They’ve spent the past four years touring extensively and amassing a fanbase that includes folks like Taj Mahal and the late Mike Seeger.
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Chocolate Drops, joined by opener Red Molly (think The Be Good Tanyas mixed with a dash of Uncle Earl), delighted the crowd at Alexandria’s Birchmere Theatre with 90 minutes of raucous fiddle tunes, bad-ass bones playing, and the occasional history lesson. One of the evening’s highlights was when the Chocolate Drops performed the title track from their upcoming album Genuine Negro Jig. According to Giddens, this instrumental has ties to the Snowdens, a black family of musicians out of Ohio that may have taught “Dixie” to Dan Emmett, the man who’s most often credited with composing the song.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are serious students of music. Nearly every song was introduced with an anecdote about where and when the band first encountered said song. These anecdotes ranged from the fairly commonplace (learned from Thompson or picked up at a music festival) to the more obscure (found at the Library of Congress, or passed along by a banjo scholar) to the unexpected (heard on the soundtrack to Who Framed Roger Rabbit). It’s not just stringband music that they’re passionate about, either: Rhiannon Giddens is a classically trained opera singer, and Robinson has a background in violin. They all sing and they all play; banjo, fiddle, jug, bones, autoharp, kazoo; if it makes noise, chances are it’ll be used during a CCD performance.
Though the Chocolate Drops are well-versed in the history of stringband music, they don’t put it on a pedestal: prominently featured on their website is a quote from Justin Robinson which states “tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition, but we are modern musicians.” No song in the CCD repertoire exemplifies this more than their fiddle-and-beatbox version of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” a song Giddens wryly introduced as “one [she] heard on the radio almost 10 years ago. In pop music, that’s like 100 years.” Also essential to the Chocolate Drops’ sound is their sense of community, whether it’s learning at the feet of Joe Thompson and Mike Seeger, calling fellow African American bones player Rowan Corbett onstage for what they called a “double bones extravaganza,” or leading the crowd in a rowdy rendition of “Sourwood Mountain.” If it weren’t for the $7 beer, Monday’s Birchmere show could have been on somebody’s porch.
Encoring with gospel tune “Travelin’ Shoes” and a jaunty fiddle tune that had Flemons, Giddens, and a few gray-haired audience members kicking up their heels, it’s easy to see why the Carolina Chocolate Drops have a devoted—and rapidly growing—following: they’re a reminder of how fun music can be.
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