MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
A few years ago, three 20-something musicians met at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. They were drawn there by their curiosity about old-time Southern folk music and its African roots. Now the trio plays together, a modern-day black string band called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. And they're here in our studios to play some songs from their new CD and to talk a bit.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson.
Welcome. Thanks for coming in.
Ms. RHIANNON GIDDENS (Member, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Thanks for having us.
Mr. DOM FLEMONS (Member, Carolina Chocolate Drops): I'm glad to be here.
BLOCK: Let's talk a little bit about this battery of instruments you've brought with you. You've got a couple of banjos, a fiddle, a jug - a ceramic jug. There's some bones, a kazoo. You're holding up a kazoo, Rhiannon?
Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, yeah.
BLOCK: Where are the bones?
Mr. FLEMONS: The bones are in my back pocket right now, as we speak.
BLOCK: And what are those bones?
Mr. FLEMONS: Oh, these are cow short rib bones.
BLOCK: Now, okay. We're going to get a taste of a bunch of this. Justin, you're going to be playing jug. Rhiannon, you're on...
Ms. GIDDENS: I'm on kazoo for this one.
BLOCK: Kazoo. And, Dom?
Mr. FLEMONS: This one, I'm on the four-string banjo. We're going to have a four-string and a five-string.
BLOCK: And you're going to be doing a song recorded in the '20s by jazz and blues singer Papa Charlie Jackson, "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine." This is a good raunchy love song.
Mr. JUSTIN ROBINSON (Member, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Yeah, I guess it's a little bit. But ain't that how love is?
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of song, "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine")
CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Everybody talking about the sweetie nowadays. I got the one with the sweetest ways. Your baby may roll a jelly fine, nobody's baby can roll it like mine. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do. Yes, sir. She even calls me honey. She even let me spend the money. Never has a baby put me out of door. She even buy me all my clothes. I don't want to brag, just want to put you in line, your baby ain't sweet like mine. No. No. Your baby ain't sweet like mine.
Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby, baby know just what to do. Yes, sir. She even call me honey. She even let me spend the money. Never has a baby put me out of door. She even buy me all my clothes. I don't want to brag, just want to put you in line, your baby ain't sweet like mine. No. No. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. Oh, yeah. Your baby ain't sweet like mine.
BLOCK: The Carolina Chocolate Drops playing here in our studios.
Let's talk about how you all found your way to this old-time sound. Rhiannon Giddens, you were classically trained in opera at Oberlin Conservatory.
Ms. GIDDENS: Mm-hmm.
BLOCK: Justin, you played classical violin, came back to the fiddle. And Dom Flemons, you're from Arizona. You...
Mr. FLEMONS: That's right.
BLOCK: ...I guess, have a background in slam poetry, guitar, a little bit of everything. And here you all are in this string band. What brought you here?
Ms. GIDDENS: In our current incarnation we were brought together by Joe Thompson, who is now 91, he was 86 at the time, black fiddler from Mebane, North Carolina. And we all went down to learn his music. That's kind of where the genesis of the band came from, because we were all three going at the same time. And so we were playing his tunes and then other tunes that we all sort of brought and became the core of our repertoire.
BLOCK: Justin Robinson, why don't you talk a bit about learning from Joe Thompson in North Carolina? I have this image of you all sitting around at his house, at his feet maybe, trying to learn what he's gotten through decades of playing.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, we'd go to his house mostly and we still do. We play the same tunes every time until we got it. Arguably we have it now. We've done something else with it.
BLOCK: What did Joe Thompson tell you about watching the three of you young black musicians coming together to form the string band?
Mr. FLEMONS: The first time we had Joe say something, he said something like, he was telling somebody else like: You see my band?
Mr. ROBINSON: He said: How do you like my band?
Mr. FLEMONS: How do you like my band? That was it. And that was like our first real compliment. Besides that, he was like: All right, y'all, you're sounding good.
Ms. GIDDENS: Not even say that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FLEMONS: He would just say: All right, y'all, we'll see you next time, you know?
Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. But, you know, he clearly looked forward to us coming down 'cause if it had been a while since we'd come down, they'd call us. Like, where are you guys at, you know? But it's also good for him to kind of have a completion and have to see - since nobody in his family is picking it up - to see some young black folk even just interested in his music, you know? I think that's been really good for him to see.
BLOCK: You have a dance tune that you learned from Joe Thompson on the new CD. It's called "Cindy Gal." And I wonder if you would play us a version here in the studio?
Ms. GIDDENS: Of course.
Mr. FLEMONS: All right.
(Soundbite of clacking)
BLOCK: The bones are coming out.
(Soundbite of song, "Cindy Gal")
CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Oh, Cindy Gal. Oh, Cindy Gal. Oh, Cindy Gal, where did you stay last night? Oh, Cindy Gal. Oh, Cindy Gal. Oh, Cindy Gal, cross the river last night? Aww, hit that banjo. Oh, Cindy Gal. Oh, Cindy Gal. Oh, Cindy Gal, images in the morning. Oh, Cindy Gal. Oh, Cindy Gal. I see them right behind you, woman. (Unintelligible). Yeah.
BLOCK: That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops singing the song "Cindy Gal" here in our studios.
And, Dom Flemons, watching you play the bones - those percussive bones - it's like watching your arms dance. I mean you're - they're up above your head, they're banging on your knees and on your chest. It's a wonderful thing to watch.
Mr. FLEMONS: Oh, thank you.
BLOCK: Fun to play.
Mr. FLEMONS: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: What's fun about it?
Mr. FLEMONS: If you really put a lot of abandon into your body movement and really don't care about how you look as you're doing it, you're going to have a real ball with the bones. And that was the thing I noticed when I learned the bones. First, the lady showed them to me and then taught me how to play them.
And then I started looking at some of the imagery of the blackface performers, as well as other bones players that have come along. And one thing that was distinctive about the blackface minstrel players was they had their hands up in the air when they were playing, and a lot of the pictures showed this. And I said, okay, well, let me see how it looks if I just start clicking them up here.
They're very interesting instruments. They've changed the way I play everything else too. You can imply anything that you do with the bones on any other instrument.
BLOCK: Ha. You know, you mentioned the blackface minstrel shows. And I'm curious to ask about how you see yourselves fitting in with the tradition that has been the subject of parody and derision. I'm thinking about the name of your new CD "Genuine Negro Jig," the name of your band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
How do you see yourselves? Are you making a statement about the tradition and how it's been interpreted? Rhiannon?
Ms. GIDDENS: Here's the deal: We play fiddles and banjos and we're black. So it's out there. I think what we're striving to, not recapture but to just put out there is the joyous side of this music, the good side of some of these time periods. Because, yeah, there's a lot of bad stuff. You know, we're not going to deny that, but you can't throw everything out.
Mr. FLEMONS: A friend of mine and I came up with a really nice thing to say about it, which is when you dig your hands into the soil of American culture, your hands get dirty, just like when you're doing gardening or anything. If you don't get your hands dirty, then you're not going to get anything accomplished, and that's something that we do. We've put the hands in, the hands have gotten dirty, and now we're just digging into stuff and also being true to ourselves. That's the thing too.
Ms. GIDDENS: We often say that we are able to do this because of what our parents went through and our grandparents went through. We are able to look back without some of the pain of actually having gone through some of those things, and so we're able to say, well, let's look back and see what joy we can find from some of these times, you know? And I think that's what children's job is. You know, the next generation is, you know, supposed to do that, you know, and that's kind of just - we're just fulfilling our role, really.
BLOCK: Well, thank you all so much for coming in. This has been great. The California Chocolate Drops: Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson. Thanks.
Ms. GIDDENS: Thanks for having us.
BLOCK: And I wonder if you would take us out with one more song.
Ms. GIDDENS: Sure.
Mr. FLEMONS: Absolutely.
BLOCK: What would you like to do?
Ms. GIDDENS: We'll serve you up some "Cornbread and Butterbeans." Nothing better than that.
(Soundbite of song, "Cornbread and Butterbeans")
CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table, eatin' them beans and makin' love as long as I am able. Hoein' corn and cotton, too, and when the day is over, ride the mule, a crazy fool, and love again all over.
Goodbye, don't you cry, I'm going to Louisiana to buy a coon dog and a big fat hog and marry Susiana(ph). Sing a song, ding-dong, I'll take a trip to China, cornbread and butterbeans and back to North Carolina.
Oh, yeah. Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table, eatin' them beans and makin' love as long as I am able. Hoein' corn and cotton, too, and when the day is over, ride the mule, and crazy fool, and love again all over.
BLOCK: We are listening to the Carolina Chocolate Drops: Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson in performance here in our studios. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."
(Soundbite of song, "Cornbread and Butterbeans")
CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Wearing shoes and drinkin' booze, it goes against the Bible. That's right. A necktie will make you die and cause you lots of trouble. Really true. Streetcars and whiskey bars and kissin' pretty women. Women, yeah, that's the end of a terrible beginning. (Unintelligible).
And cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table, eatin' them beans and makin' love as long as I am able. Hoein' corn and cotton, too, and when the day is over, ride the mule, a crazy fool, and love again all over.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.