Carolina Chocolate Drops Keep Piedmont Sounds Alive

A trio of young black musicians aims to keep alive an old string-music style born in the rural Piedmont region of the Carolinas. Band mates Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson talk with Tony Cox about preserving black old-time music.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now we go to some old time music with NPR's Tony Cox.

(Soundbite of music)

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS (Musicians): (Singing) Over there, over there, I'm gonna wear (unintelligible)

TONY COX: The Carolina Chocolate Drops is a trio of young black musicians keeping alive an old string music style born in the rural Piedmont region of the Carolinas. They play fiddles, guitars and the banjo, an instrument that has roots in Africa, and has had a major impact on Southern music since the 1800s.

(Soundbite of song, "Tom Dula")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Hang your head, Tom Dooley, hang your head and cry. (Unintelligible) now's he's bound to die.

COX: There aren't many black groups left like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. So we are specially happy to have on our show two of the bandmates, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson.

Nice to have both of you on.

Ms. RHIANNON GIDDENS (Singer, Carolina Chocolate Drops): It's nice to be here, thanks.

Mr. JUSTIN ROBINSON (Singer, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Thank you for having us.

COX: Let's talk about this first, because I want to know more about this style of music that you play called Piedmont, especially since the day the popular face of a banjo and fiddle player, well, quite honestly that's just not black. So tell me about what Piedmont is and how black folks figure into this kind of music.

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, the Piedmont is the region right before you get to the mountains. It literally means the foot of the mountain. So it's the hilly part of North Carolina where a lot of, demographically, where a lot of black people settled. So this music is indigenous to that area.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. It seems that two things get left out of the history books. One, that there was string band music in the Piedmont period. And then also, because usually it's restricted to being in the Appalachians; and two, that, you know, black folk was such a huge part of string tradition, you know, in general.

COX: Well, you know, let me ask you this, Rhiannon, because I imagine this is a kind of question that you would encounter a lot because you are trained, were trained, as a very respected Oberlin Conservatory of Music, you played banjo and fiddle, and you also are a caller, as I understand it, at what's known as contra dancing or line dancing. So here you have this elite background. And now you work in a world that's some might consider country, which is a good thing, I suppose. So do you ever feel pressured to make sense of these two unusual works?

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh well, it does often seem to be a fact of interest to people. And I guess it is, you know, it's kind of a rare thing. But since I didn't grow up in the classical world, I grew up in the folk world and listening to country music, and you know, my grandma watched "Hee-Haw" and we all had a lot to watch it; and you know, so it wasn't - it's more like me coming back to my roots rather than coming from a classical upbringing, and then, you know, jumping ship.

COX: How did you get to it, Justin?

Mr. ROBINSON: I came to it from the opposite end that Rhiannon did. I actually started off as a classical musician. My mom sang opera for many years at the local opera company and also played the cello. And my sister is a classical piano player. And I played classical violin as a kid. And I got interested in it again when I got into college, and to - not the classical part of it but the folk part of it when I heard an NPR broadcast about Joe Thompson, who was our mentor.

COX: Your group makes a point of the fact that you are black. It's implied in the band's name, of course, and the group has another incarnation (unintelligible) strings. So when you go out to play, who's showing up at your shows? And when black folks do come to see you, do they say anything to you about what it means for them to see an all-black group on stage playing this kind of music?

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, it's actually a really excellent question. It's one of our main points of discussion as a group, is that, you know, the majority of audiences that we have are white. But we always have a handful of black folk who come out, who are curious, or hear about it and they come out. And they always come up afterwards and they say either, you know, I remember this from when I was little, or I've you know, they kind of like, you know, look around and go, you know, I've always liked country music, you know. And it's like -

COX: But don't tell anybody, right?

Ms. GIDDENS: Exactly, you know, and they won't have told anybody else but they can tell us because we're up there doing it, you know. And we sort of balance that out with - we're trying to increase our visibility in the black community. We do black schools. We go to do programs at black schools. It's just jumping that gap of letting the black community know that it's part of their history. Once they know about it, they're into it. But it's like before then, they just think, oh, it's white stuff and I'm not going to that.

COX: You know, I know exactly what you are describing, because when I first put this - first of all, I got the CD. I looked at your pictures, so I knew you where black, I knew it from the name. And I knew that it was going to be something different. But when I popped in the CD player, I was like whoa, this is not quite what I thought I was going to be hearing. And it took me back to the days of - and I'm sure you probably hear this on occasion - "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Andy Grifith Show" and all of that. But in listening to some of the songs, I was intrigued by them. I mean, you have one called "Ol' Corn Likker."

(Soundbite of song, "Ol' Corn Likker")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) I got drunk, fell off the wagon (unintelligible). I got drunk, fell off the wagon (unintelligible)

COX: Tell me a little about the genesis of that song.

Mr. ROBINSON: That song is one of the tunes that is specific to the black community of the Piedmont. The lyrics of the song, I got drunk and fell off the wagon, is just kind of a dance song, really.

(Soundbite of song, "Ol' Corn Likker")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Sixteen times, 16 times, and 16 times, 16 times, and promenade your partner when you get home.

Ms. GIDDENS: We're not here as a black band playing white string band music. You know, we play stuff in the Appalachians, we play stuff in the white community, but we really highlight the black community's music.

COX: Well, you know, that's along the lines of what I was about to ask you, as a matter of fact, Rhiannon, and that has to do with the song "Little Margaret" that you sing. And I listen to the lyrics, and I was trying to figure out how that song fit into what I perceived as an outsider to be a black group playing this kind of music. Can you help set me straight on that?

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, that's the other part of what we do, because the Piedmont is a mixture of black and white.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Margaret")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Little Margaret, sitting in her high hall chair, combing back her long, yellow hair, so sweetly as a new-made bride. Riding up the road so near.

Ms. GIDDENS: And this music back in the day was much more of a mixture, and people were swapping tunes and teaching other tunes. And there's a lot of white musicians who were learning stuff from black musicians and vice versa. And so "Little Margaret" is just a song that I learned from Sheila Kay Adams from the Appalachian Mountains.

(Soundbite of song, "Little Margaret")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Saying how do you like snow-white pillow. How do you like your sheet? Saying how do you like that pretty fair maid who lays in your arms asleep.

COX: What do you see as your future with this kind of music? I know that you're serious about it. But do you see it as a commercial venture, a musical venture, a combination of the two, or where do you see yourselves going with this?

Ms. GIDDENS: Our goal really, as we've been developing as a group, is really to get out there, the black and the white communities, and really be one of those advocates for homemade music, music that you make yourself, that you don't have a turntable and a producer and 15 other people involved in making it slick and packaged and, you know, selling it over the airwaves. Now, this is just stuff that people used to get together and make; it's community music, it's music for everybody.

COX: Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, Dom Flemons. They are the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Rhiannon and Justin, thank you very much.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you.

Ms. GIDDENS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: "Dona Got a Ramblin Mind" is the latest album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who spoke earlier with NPR's Tony Cox.

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