Music trio Carolina Chocolate Drops

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The string band members explain the origin of the group’s name and the name of their new CD; they also demonstrate their talent with a special performance.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops—Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson—take their inspiration from Southern blues of the '30s. One of few African American string bands, the trio has been described by Rolling Stone as "dirt-floor-dance electricity." They formed mostly as a tribute to old-time fiddler Joe Thompson and have been playing the festival circuit since '05, when they met at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC, and have gone on to become the first Black string band to play the Grand Ole Opry. Their sophomore release is "Genuine Negro Jig."


Tavis: The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a North Carolina-based trio that has released one of the most talked-about CDs of the year. It’s called “Genuine Negro Jig.” I will let them explain that in a moment. (Laughter) In just a few moments they’ll perform a song from the new project, but first, here now they are performing “Real Old Mountain Dew.”
Tavis: The Black Beverly Hillbillies. (Laughter)
Don Flemons: There’s already a band called the Ebony Hillbillies out in New York City.
Tavis: There is a band called the Ebony Hillbillies?
Flemons: Um-hum, um-hum.
Tavis: Oh, okay. (Laughter) I was just trying to be cute. I had no idea. They’ll be calling (unintelligible) the show next week. Anyway, glad to have you here. So, Justin –
Justin Robinson: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: – Rhiannon –
Rhiannon Giddens: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: – and Dom.
Flemons: That’s correct.
Tavis: Glad to have you all here. So let’s start with this CD. The name, Carolina Chocolate Drops – how’d you come up with the name, first of all?
Flemons: Well, the name came from an older group that recorded music, a Black string band, in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and they were called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, and they had a fellow named Howard Armstrong in the group and he went by the name Louie Bluie.
Tavis: Louie Bluie.
Flemons: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: I like that, okay. (Laughter)
Flemons: So in the early ’80s, Terry Zwigoff, the filmmaker, he made – his first film was on this fella Louie Bluie, and so I got a copy of it. Then I showed it to Rhiannon and Justin and then we all really like it and what he did, so I think Rhiannon said, “Well, Justin and I are from North Carolina, we’ll call ourselves the Carolina Chocolate Drops instead.” So that’s about it there.
Tavis: All right. So Rhiannon, the name of the CD – “Genuine Negro Jig.”
Giddens: Yeah.
Tavis: I’ll let you explain that.
Giddens: Yeah. It’s got a historical background to it. It’s a tune that we picked up that was written down in the late 1800s by a man named Dan Emmett, who he’s also attributed with writing “Dixie,” but there’s more of a story to it because he also lived down the street from a Black string band family called the Snowdens, and through the course of meeting different people and historians and things, we could – I’m not being very coherent, but he most likely would have gotten that tune that he wrote down on “Genuine Negro Jig” from that Black string band family called the Snowdens, which is why we also call it “Snowdens’ Jig.”
Not only that tune but very possibly that they taught him, or they co-created or somehow gave him “Dixie” as well, which has sort of got a lot of history to it. So there’s just a lot to American musical history and that kind of embodies it, which is why we named it after that tune.
Flemons: Well, in Mt. Vernon, where Dan Emmett was from, he’s celebrated for his tune, “Dixie,” and for all the music he did, but also at the same time there’s the grave where the Snowdens are, and the eldest sons, Lou and Ben, they have the epitaph that says they taught “Dixie” to Dan Emmett. So there’s an interesting, I don’t know, back-and-forth that goes on with that.
Tavis: But historical roots nonetheless, though.
Giddens: Oh, yeah.
Robinson: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Justin, let me start with you, and I’m going to work my way back this way. I am curious, as I suspect the viewers are, as to how each of you – and I know the story, but I want to ask this anyway – each of you came to love this music through a different journey, of course.
Take me back to your early life, Justin – well, early life; you ain’t that old. (Laughter) Take me back a couple weeks and tell me how you got turned on to this kind of music.
Robinson: Oh, well, I grew up in North Carolina so there’s not as big of a jump as you might thing. I didn’t start playing this kind of music until I was in college. I started playing classical music first, even though both my parents and my grandparents all are big country music fans.
So I’ve heard a lot of country music growing up, and I certainly did not want to growing up. (Laughter) But as I’ve gotten older, I realized, and as I went off to college I realized that I really did miss a lot of that stuff, so I started playing.
Tavis: One would think, and one might be right – you’ll set the record straight here – one would think that there is absolutely no comparison. They are totally disparate sounds, classical and what you do as the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Are there any parallels? How did you get from classical to -?
Robinson: Well, I stopped playing classical music when I was about 13 or 14, just because I was just tired of playing it. (Laughs) They are pretty different. They’re very different in some ways.
Tavis: You were playing what?
Robinson: Violin.
Tavis: Violin, okay.
Robinson: They are very different in some ways. Mostly they’re different in the way that – well, what I found important, anyway, was the freedom that you could have in playing folk music. That you could put yourself – yourself was supposed to go, and –
Tavis: Classical, you’d better play it the way it’s written.
Robinson: That’s right, and only until you get to the point where you’re Itzhak Perlman or you’re Yo-Yo Ma can you sort of take it a little bit further and put your own personal spin on it. Until you get to that point, you’re not allowed to do that.
Tavis: Even then, you –
Robinson: Even then, you –
Tavis: – you take some risk doing that.
Robinson: Yeah, yeah, you do that at your own peril, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. Rhiannon, your back story about how you came to fall in love with this.
Giddens: Well, it’s similar to Justin’s in the way that I grew up about two hours up the road from him in Greensboro and I had heard a lot of country and bluegrass. I heard some classical, I heard a little bit of everything, grew up singing folk music with my parents, my family.
I actually went off to school to do opera in college and kind of burned out on it. It’s great, but I just burned out on it, and I came back home and started contra dancing, and that’s how I fell into this kind of music – the banjo as a clawhammer instrument rather than as a bluegrass instrument are two totally different things.
So I came to it through dancing and then started wanting to learn how to play the instruments, and just started wanting to do all of it – every single facet of the music.
Tavis: There’s a bunch of folk watching PBS tonight saying, “The opera lovers and the classics – what?” (Laughter) You go from Yo-Yo Ma to this, and you go from opera to this. It’s a beautiful sound. Dom, tell me your back story.
Flemons: Well, gosh. Hm, in terms of me playing this stuff here, my dad comes from Flagstaff and I’m from Phoenix, Arizona, and so my mom said when she first met my dad he was the only Black guy she’d ever seen singing all the country songs. That’s because they only had one station in Flagstaff, and so he’d listen to everything. (Laughter) So that was something early on.
Tavis: Right.
Flemons: I played drums in the school, and then when I was about 16 I picked up the guitar, I got into folk music, I got into stuff like Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan, and got into a lot of singer-songwriters and stuff like that. Also got into a lot of old rock and roll, and that led me to the Beatles, there was Chuck Berry, that ended up turning into Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.
Then I got into slam poetry, so I did that for a while, and then I got into the older stuff – Charlie Patton, got into Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, and a lot of those old guys – Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, all that. I just was playing this stuff as I went along. Started with guitar and harmonica, then I got into the banjo just kind of by random, actually, not really knowing a bigger history of it. I just started playing the four-string banjo.
Tavis: To your point about the history of it, it’s always fascinating for me that people don’t know that the banjo is our creation.
Flemons: Mm-hmm.
Giddens: Yes.
Tavis: I’ll let you expound on that, though.
Flemons: Well, the banjo is an African-derived instrument. It came from a lot of different lute instruments, specifically from West Africa. But it’s one of those things that we don’t know exactly which is which. It came over from Africa with slaves, and then it was developed into the banjo when it hit American soil and mixed with everything that was going on there.
Giddens: The amazing thing is that we consider the banjo now as a White instrument, and actually, for the first long time that it was here in this country it was considered a Black instrument. White people did not play it at all. So it’s kind of interesting there’s been such a shift, and now we’re trying to get it back to middle a little bit.
Tavis: So what do your audiences look like, then, as you travel around and play?
Flemons: They’re mostly White, but that’s because folk music isn’t a Black form of music. It wasn’t formed by Black people, and a Black audience doesn’t just naturally come to folk music, unless you’re the guy or girl that is interested in folk music, like all three of us in one way or another (laughter) that want to come out to it. It’s either that or the performers are Black.
Tavis: Are you guys okay with that, or years from now, as your career grows, you’d like to see that change?
Giddens: Well, we kind of always strive for that, because of course we love to play for whoever wants to come to our show. If there’s an audience there we will play for them no matter what they look like. But of course we want to be – we want to expose more of the Black community to what we do because we think it’s so important for not just musically speaking, because it’s such a huge part of our music and we don’t even know it, but it’s such a huge part of our history.
You can’t have the history without all of this music in it. There’s just so much in there.
Flemons: So much Black culture is transmitted through the music, and you just learn tons and tons about the culture just from that. We’re always striving for more Black history, so this is another way to reach into it.
Tavis: You get last word, Justin. Tell me a word about the CD.
Robinson: “Genuine Negro Jig,” that was produced by a fellow here in L.A. named Joe Henry who has done a lot of other great records – Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, those kind of folks. That came out earlier this year in February, it’s on Nonesuch Records.
We’re pretty proud of it. It’s our very first big studio release, so we’re touring behind it right now, so.
Tavis: Well, to celebrate their first big studio release, it’s called “Genuine Negro Jig.” They are the Carolina Chocolate Drops and we are fortunate that they have agreed to play a little something-something for us. I’m not sure something-something goes with “Genuine Negro Jig.” It sounds more like hip-hop, but anyway, we’re going to make it work.
Up next, a special performance from the Carolina Chocolate Drops – stay right there.
As we close out the show tonight, here are the Carolina Chocolate Drops performing “Georgia Buck.” Enjoy.
[Live musical performance]
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm