Carolina Chocolate Drops And A String Band Tradition 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.
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Carolina Chocolate Drops And A String Band Tradition

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Carolina Chocolate Drops And A String Band Tradition

Carolina Chocolate Drops And A String Band Tradition

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(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. Im David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. In this week celebrating country music, our next guest certainly qualify for inclusion, but they represent a slightly different tradition. They play string and jug band music of the 1920s and '30s, music most people associate with a white southern tradition.

But our guests are African-American and see themselves as part of a little known Black string-band tradition. Their band is called the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their latest CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig" and 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. They all 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.

Terry spoke with them earlier this year and they brought some of their instruments to the WUNC studio in Durham for the interview.

TERRY GROSS: 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?

Mr. DOM FLEMONS (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Absolutely.

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

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS (Music Group): (Singing) Everybody talking about the sweet nowadays old days. 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, she does.

She even call me honey. She even let me spend my money. Never has a baby put me out though. 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. Oh, play that horn.

Oh, play like you just dont like it. Yeah mine, you look very good. Blow on that jug.

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 call me honey. She even let me spend the money. Never had a baby put me out of though. 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, a song - they're performing for us, but that's a song they also do on their new CD, "Genuine Negro Jig."

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?

Ms. RHIANNON GIDDENS (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Yup.

Mr. FLEMONS: Absolutely.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Yup. All...

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 a 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, 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: 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.

GROSS: 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 a piece 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")

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, well, before 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: So, 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.


GROSS: And did he teach you certain things on fiddle that you didn't know or hadn't heard before?

Mr. ROBINSON (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Oh, Lord yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Joe Thompson is 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.

Ms. GIDDENS: 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.

Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLEMONS: 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 that's common among fiddle players, at least around here, is 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)

Ms. GIDDENS: There's a lot of sliding.

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

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, of the - 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 she'll here it.

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 depending on where your fingers are, not sympathetic rings. So you get some really interesting harmonies that I've never really heard anywhere else in any other kind of music.

GROSS: Well, you know, we were talking about rescuing music from the past, but you're also playing music from the present, as well as original songs, and I think we should get to that a little bit -although you're 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 don't 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 the, 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 didn't 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-a, 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 you're playing on fiddle, it's 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. I don't know.

(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, it's 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, it's in the 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 wasn't much of a leap to take that to - that tune to the "Hit 'Em Up Style" tune. It just fit really well.

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

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

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

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, good lord no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: No, no, no. Just voice.

GROSS: Just voice.

Ms. GIDDENS: Not violin.

GROSS: Now Dom, among the instruments you play are four-string banjo, bones and jug. Do you want to take out your jug for us?

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

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. FLEMONS: Here's a big ceramic one.

GROSS: You want to give us a demonstration of good jug technique?

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

(Soundbite of spitting sound on the jug)

Mr. FLEMONS: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of spitting sound on the jug)

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: The Carolina Chocolate Drops, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. Their latest CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."

Next, country music lyrics, specifically some of its more memorable puns.

This is FRESH AIR.

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