Chocolate Drops Revive String-Band Sound

A trio of musicians from North Carolina are reclaiming the string-band music traditions of the black Piedmont. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are the hottest thing to hit the old-time music community in decades.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Five hundred miles south of New York, there is a trio of young African-American musicians keeping alive another musical genre shared by both blacks and whites. The Carolina Chocolate Drops play old time fiddle and banjo music from the hilly region of North Carolina known as the Piedmont.

They've also begun a collaboration with Joe Thompson, who's considered the last of the traditional black string band players. Karen Michel has this profile.

(Soundbite of music)

KAREN MICHEL: The Carolina Chocolate Drops met at a banjo conference less than two years ago. Now they have a brisk-selling CD, that is for string-band music, and play concerts around the country. It's happening fast for the Drops.

Mr. JUSTIN ROBINSON (The Carolina Chocolate Drops): It's so fast it's making our head spin.

MICHEL: Justin Robinson.

Mr. ROBINSON: You know, we have a manager, and we have a booking agent, and now we're talking about record deals and all this kind of stuff, and it's just like a whirlwind of stuff. It's great, but it's a lot really fast. I don't think anybody was prepared for it.

MICHEL: Perhaps least of all Rhiannon Giddens, who trained in opera, got burned out and gravitated toward clog-dancing and old-time music.

Ms. RHIANNON GIDDENS (The Carolina Chocolate Drops): I had this dream like years ago. I had this dream - I wanted to be in an all-black string band.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: I was like, how crazy is that? And I wanted them to be young, too, like me, you know. That'll never happen. And now look, here we are, you know, all-black string band with, you know, the young people, I think.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: The Carolina Chocolate Drops mostly play music from the area of North Carolina called the Piedmont. In the early 20th century, the industrial revolution was centered in these parts, and since the 19th century there's been a rich musical tradition - string bands, both black and white, bluegrass and the blues. Justin Robinson is a long-time student of the Piedmont style.

Mr. ROBINSON: In this particular area, they have a really specific sound, and it's because that the banjo is - you can't have a string band without a banjo. You can do without a fiddle, but you can't do without a banjo.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBINSON: The style, it's just about dead. There are two or three people maybe who are alive who know this style.

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, we're taking it to our place, yeah.

MICHEL: Rhiannon Giddens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: I'd like to say that we are, you know, because what we try to do is that we've just been trying to surround ourselves with an older sound as much as possible. And then what we do is we just get together, and Justin brings a tune, or I bring a tune or I bring a tune or Don brings a tune, and we just play it. And then if it clicks, we perform it; and if it doesn't, we throw it and do something else. You know, it's a matter of whatever's coming out is being informed by all the sounds that we're surrounding ourselves with, but we're not trying to force it in any kind of direction.

And so we're not trying to sound like anybody in particular, but we're also not trying to be all avant-garde and out there and progressive. We're just kind of being who we are.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: Once a week the members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops get together with Joe Thompson in his home in Mevin(ph), North Carolina to play and learn music from the octogenarian fiddler.

Mr. JOE THOMPSON (Fiddler): You've been playing too fast. You'd better slow down.

MICHEL: On this Thursday night, two of the Chocolate Drops, Don Flemons and Justin Robinson, join Joe Thompson in a small room in Thompson's tidy home. There's a large Bible on a low table, open to Ezekiel; a sofa; a bookcase; an upright piano; and just enough chairs for the musicians and a visitor, huddled close together.

Joe Thompson tells Robinson and Flemons about where he played the tunes, who with - often with his cousin or brother or uncle - and where, usually at dances. Thompson's hands cramp up before long, and Justin Robinson suggests that he eat a banana. He does. He wants to keep fiddling. He's clearly energized by being with the young players.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL: Folklorist Bill Ferris is now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ferris is familiar with the music and legacy of Joe Thompson and with the music of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In them he sees the future of Piedmont string-band music.

Mr. BILL FERRIS (University of North Carolina): In many ways, Carolina Chocolate Drops are radical, and having this amazingly talented young woman playing the lead instrument of the banjo and really being the driving force for the band is an exciting turn.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) I wish I had a nickel, I wish I had a dime. I wish I had a pretty girl. You known (unintelligible). Don't get in trouble in your mind, don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind, don't get in trouble in your mind.

MICHEL: To Bill Ferris, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are more than an emulation of the old old-timers.

Mr. FERRIS: Taj Mahal is an earlier generation of the same phenomenon of educated, very smart musicians who take a musical form, in his case the blues, and reach out to contemporary audiences in ways that no other artists have done. Recently, apparently, he said that he can now think about stepping down, since the Carolina Chocolate Drops are ready to carry on the tradition. So they really are part of Taj Mahal's legacy and a very proud part of it.

Mr. TAJ MAHAL (Musician): They have it. I mean, for about 25, almost 30 years, I was out there. You can hardly hear any young black people playing that music.

MICHEL: Taj Mahal claims he was thrilled the first time he heard the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Mr. MAHAL: It was like real music in the sense that the way that they played was an older style than they were, and they weren't playing it like they were trying to play back there. They were playing it in now. So they had a handle on what they were doing, you know?

MICHEL: Earlier this winter, Taj Mahal was backstage while the Carolina Chocolate Drops did a sound check for a show in Charlotte, North Carolina. They were the opening act. Mahal was the headliner.

Mr. MAHAL: What I would like to say about the Carolina Chocolate Drops is - you know, it will do your heart good, do your spirits good, do your life good to come out and check them out and see this joyous music and see it have a, you know, a - I don't know - I won't say a renaissance, but just to see it, you know, somebody else get on the merry-go-round and carry it on.

MICHEL: Like Taj Mahal, the Carolina Chocolate Drops go beyond the old stuff. Along with the old-timey string-band tunes, they throw in some blues, some marching music. During their sound check, they even did a version of Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard." And Rhiannon Giddens says they're open to adding hip-hop to the repertoire, too. Their music is adaptable, as Don Flemons demonstrates.

Mr. FLEMONS: (Unintelligible) I run right home, and I went to bed with a .44 smokeless under my head.

Ms. GIDDENS: We may do something with that, you know. We're patient, you know. I think that we definitely want to experiment, and if there's a hip-hop song that we like, we'll cover it. We don't want to be one of those bands that's like, you know, you know - Carolina Chocolate Drops does hip-hop. I mean, just know - you know, if it naturally works itself in, you know, cool,

MICHEL: For now, not to worry. The closest the Carolina Chocolate Drops get to beats is blowing on a ceramic jug, and in, say, fiddler Joe Thompson's world view, even that is radical. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in North Carolina.

(Soundbite of song)

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