Music: Chocolate Drops: Reclaiming that sweet old-timey music

Music: Chocolate Drops: Reclaiming that sweet old-timey music
October 8, 2010
Philadelphia Daily News

THE CAROLINA Chocolate Drops have been earning national attention on outlets like "Fresh Air" and scoring big successes at festivals like Bonnaroo. Earlier this year, they hit No. 2 on the Billboard magazine "Heatseekers" chart with their major-label debut album, "Genuine Negro Jig," for Nonesuch.

None too shabby for an act that dwells mostly in old-timey string-band music, from the post-Civil War Reconstructionist era to the 1930s. It's stuff that most people would dismiss as "rustic" or "quaint" for its core scoring of fiddle, banjo, guitar, autoharp and voice, with rhythmic accents of rattling "bones" and mouth-blown jug and kazoo.

But it helps, shared CCD member Dom Flemons, that "old timey has been on a bit of a roll, building an audience since the film 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' came out 10 years ago."

Then there's the fact that the Chocolate Drops, also spotlighting the talents of Justin Robinson and Rhiannon Giddens, bring a "new attitude" to the oft academically minded, string-band music scene.

While clearly music-crazed (and in Giddens' case, conservatory-trained), they're hardly purists. The Chocolate Drops brazenly mix and match period flavors, starting with a core love of rural Piedmont mountain music but also mixing in vintage jugband jazz, minstrel novelties and sexy blues.

And horror upon horrors, they even drop in some original tunes, verging on chamber-folk in style, and lay the occasional old-timey touch on a totally modern song, like Blu Cantrell's R&B hit "Hit 'em Up Style (Oops!)."

On stage (they're here Tuesday, at World Cafe Live), the Carolina Chocolate Drops are engaging performers, operating at a high energy level.

Oh, and one more thing. As their name and album title suggests, these are young musicians of color, digging into "a field, folk music, that's been heavily monopolized by white musicians," noted Flemons. "But this music is part of our heritage, too, and we're reclaiming it."

No lie.

The banjo first came to America (in more simplified form) on slave ships from Africa. The biggest recording act of the 1930s, selling millions of 78s, was a snappy, sassy, black and blues duo called the Mississippi Shieks.

"They had such an adaptable style," said Flemons, who covers some Shieks tunes. "Even today, it holds up as well as classic rock by Chuck Berry and Fats Domino."

But it took a "kind of support group," a 2005 caucus of kindred spirits in Boone, N.C., called the Black Banjo Gathering, for the young (now ages 28 to 33) Carolina Chocolate Drops to get their act together.

First they had to shake off their feeling of being eccentrics, as well as the traditional resistance that some black people have to anything with the word "minstrel" attached.

"It's complicated," said Flemons. "Back in the day, there were black minstrels being imitated by white minstrels masquerading in blackface. And all making fun of every ethnic group. While the minstrel show became an international phenomenon, it gets looked at in a very negative way - which, to a large degree, it should be. There was a lot of shucking and jiving.

"But at the same time, there's a solid musical and cultural piece of the puzzle that's been left behind, because we put all of it in a box during the civil-rights era, tried to hide it, and said, 'We can't do this thing.' "

With "the passage of 50 years," and the "coming of Obama," Flemons believes that blacks finally can and are relaxing their guard. "I'm seeing different notions of what it means to be black. So we can look at the history. We can bring this culture out."

The Carolina Chocolate Drops built their stage show and took their mission first to high schools in the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee and West Virginia.

"It's important to put a picture in the kids' heads," Flemons said. "Even if people say, 'The banjo is the blackest instrument,' they won't be able to conceptualize it unless they see you playing it. The downside of school shows for us was that it's exhausting. The kids don't come in ready to see you and you have to win and hold their attention."

Nowadays, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have so much work before appreciative adult concert audiences that the school shows have pretty much fallen by the wayside. But Flemons, "a mad scientist with this stuff," said that he'd be up for a college tour "if we could get enthusiastic professors to champion the cause."

"And I can't wait to see how what we're doing, what we're exposing, changes things on a bigger level," he said. "Maybe we'll even see hip-hop artists sampling old timey music."

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