Carolina Chocolate Drops: Tradition From Jug To Kazoo Though they work as a traditional African-American string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops' members throw in some modern twists. The Durham, N.C.-based trio plays a wide variety of instruments, including the banjo, fiddle, jug, bones and harmonica. All of those sounds are featured on the band's newest record, Genuine Negro Jig.
NPR logo

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Tradition From Jug To Kazoo

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Tradition From Jug To Kazoo

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Tradition From Jug To Kazoo

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

People are often surprised that my guests play the music that they do. They're in a string they play string and jug-band music of the '20s and '30s, music most people associate with a white, Southern tradition.

But my guests are African-American, and they see themselves as part of a little-known black string-band tradition. Their band is called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig." They also have a new songbook.

The band members are in their 20s and early 30s, and they're not trying to sound like they're old-timers. Along with the traditional songs, their albums features songs by Tom Waits, a cover of an R&B hit and an original.

The musicians each play several instruments and sing. Rhiannon Giddens plays five-string banjo, fiddle and kazoo. Dom Flemons plays guitar, four-string banjo, harmonica, jug, snare drum and bones. Justin Robinson plays fiddle, autoharp and does the vocal beat box. They all live in North Carolina, as the band's title suggests, but Don Flemons grew up in Arizona. They brought some of their instruments to the WUNC studio in Durham for our interview.

Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, Dom Flemons, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start by asking you to perform a song that's also featured on the new CD. Can you do "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" for us?

Unidentified Man #1: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of song, "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine")

THE CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS (Music Group): (Singing) Everybody talking about the swinging(ph) old days. I got the one with the sweetest ways. Your baby may roll it just fine. Nobody's baby can roll it like mine. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly role all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do. Yes, she does.

She even call me honey. She even let me save my money. Never has my baby put me out of dough. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to brag, just want to put you in mind, your baby ain't sweet like mine, no, no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. Oh, play that horn.

Oh, play that music now, (unintelligible).

Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly role all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do, yes, sir. She even call me honey. She even let me save the money. Never has my baby put me out of dough. She even buys 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, yeah, yeah. Your baby ain't sweet like mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Fantastic. That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the song they're performing for us. That's a song they also do on their new CD, "Genuine Negro Jig." And who chose that song and why?

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, that was a song that I chose. That was a piece that was originally recorded by a fellow named Papa Charlie Jackson, who was a six-string banjo player out of New Orleans. And I just really like the number, and a lot of his numbers aren't performed anymore. So that was one that I've kept in my repertoire for quite a while.

GROSS: Now, Rhiannon, you're a great fiddler. You play banjo. But you were featured very prominently on kazoo on that. Was it hard for you at first to take the kazoo seriously as a genuine instrument?

Ms. RHIANNON GIDDENS (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Well, I didn't really think of it as a serious instruments until, like, Dom brought it in, and he was playing it on some tunes that he was doing. And then there's a whole tradition of jug-band music where people are playing the kazoo as a serious horn.

I mean, it's - you know, playing it really, really well. And so he suggested that I start to play it. And I was, like, well, let me give it a shot, and then I realized how - well, not easy, but it's just, it's easy in terms of if you have some vocal ideas of what you want to do, it's just like the jug. You have to have in your mind what you're going to do and have to be able to produce that with your voice before you even have the kazoo.

GROSS: String bands are usually considered a white Southern tradition, and you're a band of African-American musicians, and you've found a black string band tradition that you feel part of. But did you fall in love with this music before you knew that there was a black string band tradition?


Unidentified Man #3: Absolutely.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah.

GROSS: What did you fall in love with about it?

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, I fell in love with the rhythm. I was a contra-dancer and square-dancer, and I just was seduced by the banjo, the rhythm of the claw-hammer banjo. That just really pulled me in. And then I found out about the history, and then I went, ooh. This is really deep. And then it just I was done. I was done for then, you know, it was - that was it.

GROSS: So discovering this music and falling in love with it without knowing there was an African-American tradition, did you feel like maybe you weren't supposed to like it? You know, maybe you would never fit in with it. Maybe there wouldn't be a place for you, or people would think you were odd to gravitate to the music.

Mr. DOM FLEMONS (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Well, definitely the odd thing - that's a definite, just because there any black person who's involved in the folk-music scene anywhere knows that there it's either - they've been just the one of them or maybe someone else, and I think that's how I was in Phoenix. I was the only black person, but I was also the only person that was under, like, 40 in the scene in Phoenix that I was in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Uh-huh.

Mr. FLEMONS: But I just kind of plowed on myself, and I know Justin had a really similar story.

Mr. JUSTIN ROBINSON (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Yeah, I oh, Lord. I just forgot the question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Weird, being a weird black person.

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, oh yeah, yeah, definitely. I'm - being a weird black person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: We're all really familiar with being a weird black person. I mean...

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, I mean, I guess for me, it was sort of - I didn't have the same thing with the age thing because there were certainly lots of people when I started playing in Chapel Hill. There were certainly lots of people around my age doing it, but I certainly was the only black person at the time doing it.

But that was not going to stop me. I mean, I think it's characteristic of all of us that we were sort of misfits, you might say, in our own rights when we grew up. So doing something just because it wasn't cool or because you weren't supposed to, we were certainly not any stranger to that.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, I was sort of used to it because I was after I graduated from college, I really got into, like, Scottish music. So I was always getting, you know, so, you know, how come you're playing this kind of music, you know? And so I was just kind of used to that. So it didn't really I just kind of just kept on going, just like Justin was saying.

GROSS: How come you were playing that kind of music?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, I just liked it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, I mean, there's really nothing more to it than that.

GROSS: Well, you were already used to not being cool, too, because, I mean, you sang opera before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a pretty quick way to not be cool.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, that's true, that's true.

GROSS: So did your parents have associations with this music?

Ms. GIDDENS: Not this kind. Not specifically this music, but see, this music is very closely related to other kind of music that, like, I know Justin and I would've grown up with, which is bluegrass and old country music and even, you know, the other side, which would be the blues and the jazz side.

I mean, you know, I heard all of that stuff growing up. We watched "Hee Haw" every Saturday night. You know, you don't change the channel. Grandma would be very upset with you. So I mean, we just that's just those musics, there's like one step away from this kind of string-band music. So it wasn't too much of a leap. It's not like we grew up in, you know, Russia or something. I mean, it was really fairly close to what we were already used to. So it just kind of like that extra step, you know, back to this kind of music for us.

Mr. FLEMONS: And even me, I didn't really get into the black string-band music until I went to the Black Banjo Gathering, which we all went to and kind of had just a life-changing experience. But, you know, I knew about blues and jazz and jug-band music. But I didn't associate any of that with the white fiddle tunes, per se, even though I could guess that they may be related.

GROSS: Yeah, so you all met at this Black Banjo Gathering, a gathering of black banjo players. And so was that a revelation to you, that there was this big community - spread out maybe, but there was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, first to correct...

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, we'll have to fix that, because it wasn't necessarily a gathering solely of black banjo players. It was a gathering of everybody who was interested in either the African roots of the banjo or even just string-band music or who was, you know, an African-American player of the music or even an African player of - you know, ancestors of the music.

There were scholars, musicians, just people who were just there just to learn. And, you know, the black population of the gathering was still small, but you know, there was enough to - you know, we all met there, and we were all, like, huh! I'm not the only one. Oh, my God.

You know, so for us, it was fantastic, and for everybody else, it was great just, you know, because a lot of the scholars had been sort of laboring, you know, by themselves or had just been talking to other people, and they got to all meet up and sort of, you know, have this momentous occasion.

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig." They'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They play string band and jug-band music of the '20s and '30s and see themselves as part of the black string-band tradition. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."

I'd like to ask you to perform another song that's also featured on the new CD, and the song is "Trouble in Your Mind." So before you play it for us, tell us why you chose it and what you love about the song.

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, this is one that Justin was playing, that I reminded him one day at a jam that he played it. And it's from an album called "Music From the Lost Provinces" put out by Old Hat Records. And it's just a nice breakdown, and we just started doing it.

GROSS: Okay. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Trouble in Your Mind")

THE CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) I wished I had a nickel. I wished I had a dime. I wish I had me a pretty girl. You know I'd call her mine. 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.

If you see that gal of mine, you tell her if you can, when she goes to make my bread to wash her nasty hands. 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.

GROSS: That's great. That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops, performing a song that's also featured on their new CD, and the new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig." So when we left off, we were talking about how you discovered, like, the African-American tradition in string bands, and you met an African-American fiddler who's in his 90s now named Joe Thompson. And did he teach you certain things on fiddle that you didn't know or hadn't heard before?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, Lord yeah. Joe Thompson, the guy that you're mentioning, he's 91. He's been playing since he was six or seven years old, and he learned from his father, and his father had learned from his father. So it's a long tradition among his family.

But Joe's fiddle style is really particular, not only to him, but to his - but to the region. I had the opportunity just to listen to other fiddlers who would've been a little bit older than Joe. There are field recordings and stuff, and they all sound pretty similar.

What has happened is is that and they are white and black. But what has happened is, you know, most of this particular region's fiddle style, the music has not been well-documented. So it sounded really different to, you know, listening to - for folk music - folk enthusiasts at large to hear somebody like Joe playing, it would sound really foreign and really, you know, different. And it does, and it's, you know, it's beautiful.

GROSS: Rhiannon, would you give us an example of what was really different from what he taught about what he taught you compared to what you had known before?

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, the kind of amazing thing is that one of the reasons why I think our sound is the way it is is that we were all sort of learning when we started going down to play with Joe. So we didn't get much chance to play other sort of more, I don't know, square I don't know, different ways.

But one of the things that I think I've taken away a lot as a banjo player is I'll get the banjo here is that the...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GIDDENS: Is that real heavy down the down stroke, you know, and it's almost an anticipatory kind of down, you know, if that makes sense. I don't know. It's kind of hard to talk about music, but...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, a lot of times, you tend to hear that with hillbilly performers more in like the style of, like, Grandpa Jones or Uncle Dave Macon, generally. But even that Tennessee style, that's taken to an extreme, while in North Carolina, it's a little bit more it's a little bit more compact within it. But the downbeat is still there.

GROSS: Justin, is there anything you could talk about that you learned from Joe Thompson on fiddle?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. Well, first of all, Joe's bowing is really, really interesting. He has - which is something thats common among fiddle players, at least around here, something they call the double shuffle, or some people call it hen's egg. I've heard fiddlers call it sewing cloth. It's all this sort of forward and back motion that is going forward all at the same time, making these really great rhythmic kind of things that you have really work very hard to get.

And also, Joe plays notes that are not in the Western scale, which is actually kind of great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Can you play us an sample of what you're talking about?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, I'll play you the double shuffle.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: What makes that the double shuffle? Is it the speed or the harmony?

Mr. FLEMONS: Play it without the double shuffle, and then show us here.

Mr. ROBINSON: So this is without it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBINSON: So it's a little of both, with - because of the way that the fiddle is tuned, when you're playing the double shuffle, you get to get these really either sympathetic ringing strings or where your fingers are not sympathetic. So you get some really interesting harmonies that I've never really heard anywhere else in any other kind of music.

GROSS: Now, part of the tricky aspect of string-band music is that part of its roots are in minstrel shows, part of its roots are in blackface. And so it gets really kind of complicated when you go back to the early history of that music. So I wonder how what it's been like for you to negotiate that aspect of the music and to deal with separating the music itself from some of the stereotypes that were foisted on the musicians who played it.

Mr. FLEMONS: I think something that we have as a new generation of player in the old-time music is that we are educated, and we're approaching the music at an emotional distance that just has not been there in earlier generations.

Before, you'd look back at those aspects of history, and people just would say don't touch that. That's the worst stuff in the world, and that's what's ruining the world. And now, in this generation, we're able to actually start piecing those things apart just because, you know, we want to take the benefits and also try to make what's right or see what actually happened or what was misappropriated or what was good. Because the thing about a lot of the black string-band music is not much of the music was put down on recording, and that's a very essential part of understanding black music is hearing it. And, you know, just delving into it, you find some things that are off-putting, but at the same time, you've got to think in the context of the past instead of thinking in the context of the present.

Ms. GIDDENS: And that's been I think that's been something in the African-American community that's been it's not something that we've done very much of, is looking back. You know, it's really been a forward push, for lots of different reasons.

And as Dom was saying, I think we are one of the first generations who I mean, there's still a lot of stuff that's, you know, needs to be fixed, and there's a lot of people who are still, you know, in bad situations. But I think as a whole, we are one of the first generations in the African-American community that has been able to look back without personally being as touched by it.

You know, like, our parents, they went through the civil rights movement. You know, they went through all of these things, and they're really personally wrapped up into a lot of this stuff, whereas we're of a generation where we can we're getting it filtered through our parents and our grandparents and that we can step back and go, okay. So what can we glean from this, and what can we take from some of this really painful stuff that, you know, that we might want to just kick under the rug? What can we take from it that is the good stuff?

You know, a lot of early African-American history, you know, there's a lot of bad stuff in there, but, you know, there's a lot of good stuff, too. I mean, the minstrel shows and the stereotyping - and that's all clearly very bad. But there's a lot of great music and dance, and there was a lot of black musicians and dancers who persevered through the stereotype and who were able to, you know, show their skill and their entertaining, and they were able to do that.

And so what we can take the good stuff from that now, I think, along with knowing that there was bad stuff.

GROSS: The Carolina Chocolate Drops will be back in the second half of the show. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops: Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons. They see themselves as part of the black string-band tradition of the 1920s and '30s. The Carolina Chocolate Drops' new CD is called the "Genuine Negro Jig."

Well, you know, we were talking about rescuing music from the past, but youre also playing music from the present, as well as original songs, and I think we should get to that a little bit - although youre doing this contemporary music in the spirit of the string-band style. So, Rhiannon, on to a song that you do on the new CD, and this is a song that I want you to talk about. I want you to talk about the original version and how you heard it and why you do it. And it's "Hit 'Em Up Style."

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, "Hit 'Em Up Style" is - well, it was just - it was really popular, and I happened to be listening to pop radio at the time. I dont really much now anymore. But - and it was just all over the radio, and every time it came on, I would just, like, jam in my car to it. It just was very catchy and had a great chorus and, you know, the beats and all that stuff. And it's just one of those songs that kind of never went away in my brain. And then I heard it again on the radio like years later and just something kind of occurred to me. I was like, why don't we - I wonder if we could try to play that?

And so, I tried to play it on the fiddle, and it actually worked really well on the fiddle. And then, the three of us sort of came together and said okay, like, how could we do this? And then, you know, Dom came up with a great rhythm on the banjo that worked really well. And then we found out that Justin beat-boxed, and we're like, you know, and it just clicked. And we kind of messed around with the original version of the song. We just tossed out what didnt work and just kind of went with what did.

GROSS: And who did the original?

Ms. GIDDENS: Blu Cantrell...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. GIDDENS: ...was the original singer. Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So let's hear this from the CD. This is from the Carolina Chocolate Drops new CD "Genuine Negro Jig," and this Rhiannon Giddens singing lead.

(Soundbite of song, "Hit 'Em Up Style")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) While he was scheming, I was beaming in his beemer, just beaming. Can't believe that I caught my man cheating. So I found another way to make him pay for it all. So I went to Neiman-Marcus on a shopping spree, and on the way I grabbed Soleil and Mia. And as the cash box rang, I threw everything away.

Hey ladies, when your man wanna get buck wild, just go back and hit 'em up style. Get your hands on his cash and spend it to the last dime for all the hard times. When you go, then everything goes, from the crib to the ride and the clothes. So you better let him know that if he mess up you gotta hit 'em up.

GROSS: That's Rhiannon Giddens singing from the new Carolina Chocolate Drops CD "Genuine Negro Jig."

Nicely done. I really like that a lot. And Rhiannon, what youre playing on fiddle, its this, like, drone style that I think is really interesting. And...

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. It's just kind of old-timey - you know, old-timey put to hip-hop, I suppose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that drone really old-timey, or is that a more contemporary kind of thing?

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, no, that's very old-timey. The double stopping, you know, that kind of rhythmic bowing, its all old-timey. What makes it contemporary is the minor key.


Ms. GIDDENS: You know, because there's not a lot of minor stuff in those tunes and - well, I mean, there are some, but the ones that we think of as old, you know, like that are in the public sort of ear are not in minor key. And I think that's one of the things that makes it sound so contemporary and so kind of, you know, people say it's Middle Eastern-y. It's just, you know, its in a minor key.

GROSS: So how did you learn that drone style? Maybe you could just play a little bit of that drone and talk about it a little bit.

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, gosh. I mean, just from playing...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GIDDENS: And that's just like one of the first old-time tunes I knew. And so it wasnt much of a leap to take that to - that tune to the "Hit 'Em Up Style" tune. It just fit really well.

GROSS: And compare that to what you did on "Hit 'Em Up Style." Do a little of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Hit 'Em Up Style")

GROSS: Nice. Now were you classical trained on fiddle - on violin?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, good lord no. No, no, no. Just voice.

GROSS: Just voice.

Ms. GIDDENS: Not violin.

GROSS: Yeah. So we heard you sing on "Hit 'Em Up Style." Now, you started out singing opera.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah.

GROSS: So can we hear a little bit of your opera voice?

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. I'd have warmed up if I known you were going to ask this. Let me seeing what can...

(Soundbite of song, "Susannah: The Trees on the Mountains")

Ms. GIDDENS: (Singing) The trees on the mountains are cold and bare. The summer just vanished and left them there. Like a false-hearted lover just like my own, who made me love him, then left me alone.

GROSS: Very nice. What was that?

Ms. GIDDENS: That's in honor of the music we play. That's from an opera called "Susannah," which is set in Tennessee. And that was the composer's sort of mountain ballad - but, you know, classically, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. So did you have to find a different voice after leaving opera for folk music?

Ms. GIDDENS: I did. I mean, I was lucky in that I didnt start off when I was a kid singing opera. I'd sing like, kind of, contemporary folk music with my dad and my sister and my mom. But I had to find my classical voice. And so when I left school and I needed to find first a Celtic voice and then this old-time voice, it was a little easier because I already had sort of - thought about before. You know, and it wasnt just I was singing classical for, like, 25 years and then had to make a switch. That would've been hard. But, yeah, it's just like I switched into a different brain. Its bizarre. But I found that classical training has come in really handy for unexpected things like kazoo playing. And, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Wait. How does that come handy for kazoo playing?

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, breath control, man. Breath control. Like, I can just -we do this one this one called "Memphis Shakedown," where I'm playing the kazoo, literally, like the entire time and I have, like, little catch breaths that I have to make. And all that breath training, you know, came in really, really handy. And I can just do the whole thing. And I'm about to pass out at the end, but I can make it, you know. So its, you know, I'm really happy with the way the musical life is turning out. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is it easier to sing in a folk style than an opera style? Does it just take less effort?

Ms. GIDDENS: Mm. I'd say it takes a different effort. And actually, when I'm tired, its easier to sing classical because - its - classical is really, it's like - you get the most voice for the least amount of effort. That's what you really learn. And youre learning how to sing without a microphone. Whereas I actually have a hard time sometimes when I'm tired singing sort of straight tones and like soft, high sort of folkie type things. So its really kind of - it evens out, you know, in a lot of ways. I mean, I dont have to warm up for an hour to do a Chocolate Drops show, which I appreciate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: I probably should. And I seriously hope my voice teacher didnt hear that little excerpt that I sang because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: I'm a little out of practice. But, you know, you got to give up something.

GROSS: My guests are three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They're new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."

They'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They play string-band and jug-band music of the 20s and 30s and see themselves as part of the black string-band tradition. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig." When we left off, Rhiannon Giddens was talking about her background in opera.

Now Dom, among the instruments you play are four-string banjo, bones and jug.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

GROSS: Not things that are prominent in the classical world. So I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Most definitely not.

GROSS: I won't be asking you about the difference between classical bones and old-timey bones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Maybe you should.

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, come on. He's learned that bones (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But speaking of the bones, do you actually use like animal bones, or are they just...

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. In one hand, I do have cow bones, and in my other hand I carry wood bones. But that's just a - that's a sound thing.

GROSS: Get out the cow bones for us.

Mr. FLEMONS: All right. Cow bones are set.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Are cows like - do cows have the best bones for percussion?

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, they have big bones, and that makes for the best like - you know, you can't use the little ribs that you see in, you know, your - you know, the smaller pork ribs in the barbecue shack or anything. You have to have the big Texas longhorn, like, bones. And I haven't made any myself. I've been fortunate that people have given me different bones. And its a pretty intense process. But I've heard different ways to do it. One fellow told me that you can put it next to an ant hill and then throw it on the roof for a week. I've been told...

GROSS: Oh, gosh. The ant hill, so to eat off the meat?

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah, because that's what - I mean, you got to remember, when you got these, you got these gigantic bones that have all the meat and the fat on it, and you got to get all that off. And the two ways I've found is that, put it next to an ant hill, and the other one is boil it in water for a couple of days. And I heard that that's an awful thing to have in the house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: And once you get the meat and stuff off it, then you have to you either bake them in an oven, and like I said before, throw them on the roof or, you know, just dry them out. And once they're dry, you cut the bone down, because at first they're gigantic. You cut those bones down and you sand them, and then you can put a lacquer on it or, you know, a lacquer or, you know, whatever you want to do after that to make them look nice.

GROSS: And Dom, you want to take out your jug for us?

Mr. FLEMONS: All right. Okay. Here we have the jug.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. FLEMONS: That's a big ceramic one. Something with - in all of this, a lot of it came from just kind of - again, just kind of having an odd creative streak where I would just try to figure out how to do things, because I was in Arizona. No one was really telling me not to do anything, and no one could tell me how to do any of these things. So I started just figuring out how to do this.

So I'd heard a lot of jug band music, you know, Jim Kweskin and Lovin' Spoonful and stuff like that and the Even Dozen Jug Band, and also the Memphis Jug Band - all the older ones, too. And I just - and you see it on TV. You see people blow the jug, and youre like, oh, that's kind of neat, you know. But it's just kind of joke stuff. And I just thought to myself one day, oh, how do they do that? How do they blow into the jug?

So I started out with little Martinelli's bottles, and I was trying to figure out how to blow into it and make different tones. And then just over time, after maybe a year or so of working on it, I had evolved into a one gallon apple juice jug, and I would just take it to jams. And it'd be blue grass jams or something. Whenever there wasnt a bass player, I would just play the bass part on a tune, and I just would make that up. And I was doing that for about four years by the time the Black Banjo Gathering happened. And then when I was sitting with Joe, a lot of those tunes are one chord.

And as a guitar player, I had a lot of trouble trying to figure out what to do where it just wouldnt sound ridiculous for me to be strumming on this one chord and messing up the fiddle and banjo's rhythm. So I thought the jug might be a good thing, and that was how I started doing that.

GROSS: Whats the range of notes that you can get on the jug that you use?

Mr. FLEMONS: As many as - just like the kazoo, as many notes as your voice can make. Like, for example, Justin and I, with male voices, we can get G and A best on the jug. Rhiannon, with a female voice, whenever she's played jug - which is, she doesnt play it too much, but she can get D really well.

GROSS: So, you want to give us a demonstration of good jug technique?

Mr. FLEMONS: All right. Let's see.

(Soundbite of spitting sound)

Mr. FLEMONS: All right.

(Soundbite of spitting sound)

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's pretty good. So, Dom, you grew up in Arizona, moved to North Carolina when you discovered - well, I guess when you discovered Rhiannon and Justin and decided to be in a band together. So, do you feel uprooted? I mean, the desert culture and I guess retirement culture of Arizona, its...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: You calling me out here, Terry Gross. Everybody in Flagstaff's going to hear about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But, I mean, its actually that the culture of Arizona is really different from the culture in North Carolina.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. But that wasnt something I was thinking about at the time. I had been living in Arizona for - at that point, what was I...

Ms. GIDDENS: Your whole life?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. I mean, my whole life. I was trying to thinking of what age I was. I was like 23, I think. But my whole life I'd been there, and I'd been playing and busking and stuff like that. And when I went to the Black Banjo Gathering, I found it, you know, it was like "Alice in Wonderland." I saw the little rabbit go by, and I was like, okay, I got to follow this. And I had just finished college. You know, I finished college May of '05. The Gathering was in April of '05, so I really had nothing holding me back. And so my family was like, oh, you finished college, you know, go ahead. You know, and everybody, you know, said, you know, give 'em hell, and that's what I've done so far. And I've been really pleased with how its turned out.

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."

They'll be back after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They play string-band and jug-band music. They see themselves as part of the black string-band tradition. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."

Now, weve been talking about your music. I should as you about the title of the album, which is called "Genuine Negro Jig." And, you know, Negro being a word that was in the headlines lately because Harry Reid used the word Negro.

Ms. GIDDENS: Indeed.

GROSS: So what does the word Negro mean in the context of this title?

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, we named the album after a tune which was in itself written down by a man in the 1800s. So that's pretty much it. You know, there's lots of things that you could put on top of that, but that's where it sort of begins and ends for us, you know, is...

Mr. FLEMONS: It's also a play on words a little bit, just because, you know, we're a black band and, you know, with that title for that tune, we thought it was, you know, it just it seemed to fit there.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. But, it started, though, with the tune, you know. And then...

Mr. FLEMONS: Oh, yeah. With the tune it just felt it felt right.

Ms. GIDDENS: Then it just felt really right.

Mr. FLEMONS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GIDDENS: And that's how, like, so many of the things that we do - I mean, the name of our band. It's the same way.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. Exactly.

Ms. GIDDENS: You know, named ourselves after the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, and then it - like, it later, you know, all of these sort of other kind of ideas sort of come about. And that's just kind of the way its run with our band in general.

GROSS: But by choosing- even though it's a name of a song that you play, by choosing "Genuine Negro Jig" as the words to highlight on the album cover...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS:'s like...

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. I mean...

GROSS:'re saying something.

Mr. ROBINSON: We knew that it was going to be provocative.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. That's true.

Mr. ROBINSON: And we - that was probably - that was done intentionally. But what we're not trying to do by naming it that is to say anything in particular. I mean, if it starts a dialogue either about our music or about, you know, other things about, you know, what it means - you know, what is genuine? What is, you know, what it means, you know, in 2010 - I mean, great. But us as a band, as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, did not have a specific agenda as what we wanted people to take away from that title.

We knew it was going to be provocative, yes, but not - you know, we weren't saying anything with it.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. And I just remember we said let's call it "Genuine Negro Jig" and let's see if the album - the record company actually goes for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: And they did, so it's been great. You know?

Mr. FLEMONS: And also, the tune is - I think is its definitely the most progressive in terms of telling our story. Like I think that and "Hit 'Em Up Style" are the two tunes on the album that really are - show the way that the past and the present show a little bit of the future through how our journey's gone in terms of the music.

Ms. GIDDENS: As another Arizonian musician who's originally from D.C. and a musician that we play with and have played a lot with in the past, he introduced the concept of Sankofa to us.

Mr. FLEMONS: That's right.

Ms. GIDDENS: His name's Sule Greg Wilson. He lives in Tempe. And Sankofa is a West African proverb. It means go back and fetch it and bring it forward.

Mr. FLEMONS: That's right.

Ms. GIDDENS: And that's something that we firmly believe in. And "Genuine Negro Jig" really embodies that.

GROSS: Now the great thing - wasnt "Genuine Negro Jig" originally performed - originally identified with, anyways - with a white man, Dan Emmett?


Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ROBINSON: He was the one who wrote down the transcription of the tune. And if you notice on the CD, it has an alternate title, "Snowden's Jig." He lived down the street or, I guess about a quarter of a mile away from a black string-band family by with the surname Snowdens. And it is most likely due to the scholarship that's been done about Dan Emmett and about that region that he would've gotten that particular tune, "Genuine Negro Jig," from that family from the patriarch of the family, who was a whistler.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

GROSS: Ah, great. So anyway, so this white man, Dan Emmett, performed it. And he was not only white. He's the person considered to have the first white band that all performed in black face.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah.

Mr. FLEMONS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So the kind of layers of historical complication here - it's amazing.

Ms. GIDDENS: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. Yeah. But that's what you discover when you get into this music. It's just layer after layer after layer.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. It get's so deep.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah.

Mr. FLEMONS: It just - it like baffles the mind.

GROSS: Now I'm guessing that sense most of the folk music audience is white, that even though youre kind of rescuing and reinterpreting and adding to an African-American music tradition, and even though the three of you are African-American, I'm guessing most of your audience is white. Is that true? And if it is true, is that just a little bit frustrating? Not frustrating that white people enjoy the music, but frustrating that more black people dont enjoy it, too?

Mr. FLEMONS: I wouldnt say it's frustrating. It's only - just because, I mean, that it's...

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, it's not frustrating because we see the numbers growing.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

Ms. GIDDENS: I think - in terms of me, anyway. Like when we first started out, there was a small, tiny number of black folk who would come to show in general. But weve seen that number grow as theyve told their friends, and weve gotten more profile in the back community. I mean, actually did something on us, and we got to do the movie with Denzel Washington, you know, that we were in for four seconds. But, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: ...we had black people come up to us at shows and say I saw you in the movie, and I came to the show because of that. So...

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

Ms. GIDDENS: know, all of those things, weve definitely seen the numbers grow.

Mr. FLEMONS: Because there's not a built-in black folk music audience. It's, you know, up till this point, folk music has been like a thing that white people have enjoyed, and there's just not a set black folk audience. So its just - you know, this has been over five years weve seen more and more people come out. But this is something weve had to build from the ground up.

Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Now Justin, you have an original song that's on the CD called "Kissin' and Cussin." And I'd like you to introduce this song for us and talk about writing it and how you see it fitting into the tradition that youre playing in.

Mr. ROBINSON: I wrote this song with a lot of different inspirations from various musical, I guess, heroes of mine, one of them being a very obscure bluesman called Rabbit Brown, and a little bit of Loretta Lynn and a little bit of Ike and Tina Turner.

GROSS: Hmm. Ike and Tina Turner, because the relationship in this song is not very good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: No. And...

GROSS: There's a lot of lovemaking and cussing in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah. But there's also a song - part of the song's title "Kissin' and Cussin" is sort of a riff off of an Ike and Tina tune called "Kissin' and a Cryin' and a Carryin' On," which song I had never heard of. I just heard the title before I wrote the song.

GROSS: Okay. Good. Well, I like the song, and I like the way you do it. So I want to thank you all for talking with us. It's really been great. I wish you good luck. I love the new CD. Thank you so much.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you.

Mr. FLEMONS: Thank you for having us. Thanks, Terry.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. This is an absolute pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Kissin' and Cussin")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Well, tell me pretty baby, do you think you can sleep tonight? Well, tell me pretty baby, do you think you can sleep tonight? 'Cause we kiss and we cuss and we carry on. We kiss and we cuss and we carry on until the break of dawn.

GROSS: The Carolina Chocolate Drops' new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."

Our thanks to engineer Robin Copley at WUNC in Durham where the Carolina Chocolate Drops performed and spoke to us from.

You can hear three tracks from their new CD on our Web site:

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: For the past few months back in the FRESH AIR office, weve been enjoying our producer Jonathan Menjivar describe what its been like for him as he prepared to be a first-time father. The good news arrived Friday, and now we want to hear his stories of parenthood. Jonathan and his wife Hillary Frank are now the parents of Sasha Eliana Menjivar.

People often say that writing a book is as hard as giving birth. Since Hillary has a new book coming out this spring, she'll be able to tell us if that's true. Okay, I'm going to give that book a little plug. It's called "The View From the Top."

Congratulations Hillary and Jonathan. We can't wait to see Sasha Eliana.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.