Even their name, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, could be seen as a recycled relic of the past. Back in the 1930s there was an African-American string band, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, that included fiddler and mandolin player Howard Armstrong (1909 – 2003). The musical style seemed to fall out of favor, ceding to old-time, followed by bluegrass. But the players of the Black string-bands continued to perform and entertain.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops have rejuvenated the long-ignored music of these remarkable, but disregarded musicians. In doing so, they aren’t bringing something new into America’s musical vocabulary, but they are reviving a lost art and pulling a cultural epoch into modern times. In doing so, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, one of only a handful of Black string bands, are making history.Musicians from the 1920s and 30s, who played what Carolina Chocolate Drops band member, Dom Flemons, terms slave instruments, who learned at the knees of musicians before them, have peaked and are passing on to the other side, if they haven’t already. The trio who comprise the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been watching with a keen eye and digging into the roots of their ancestors, bringing out an oral history before it’s too late. They are re-creating the musical sounds of their past.
Flemons, jug player, who’s also adept at guitar, four-, five- and six-string banjo, harmonica, bone and snare drum, says, from the back seat of his car as the band travels to another gig, "we’ve been together for about [two] year[s]. It’s not a well-known thing that there is a Black string band tradition. The blues overshadowed the string band; it wasn’t preserved well at all."
He pinpoints, as he sees them, the main causes of the decline of the Black string band. "The guitar became very popular," Flemons observes. And rather than folks being anti-string band, "more so, people were looking for a new thing," he says. "I think it was the evolution of the Black community around the turn of the century, into the 20s and 30s. There was a big transition in the black culture. I think that’s what really put string band music into the ground. Those were slave instruments and that was plantation music and square dancing and social music for a small community," Flemons says.
The music of the Piedmont region of the Carolinas now sees a revival through the efforts of Flemons and his band mates, native to the Appalachian area of North and South Carolina, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson. Presently, all three members of the band live in the Research Triangle cities of Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina.
Just as an antique’s value is enhanced by its historical lineage, so too is a culture enriched by the breadth and depth of its dimensions. Therefore, if old-time Black musicians such as Joe Thompson pass away without mining their memories and recording their craft, the loss goes far beyond the passing of an individual. It becomes the obliteration of an era.
Flemons takes this idea a step farther. "It’s a cultural thing," he says. "That’s not the whole point of it, us being Black, but we do have some pride in it. Because we are all trying to represent our African-American heritage and we get some pride in that, knowing that we’re doing something that could have been lost completely," he says.
For many American musicians, race is the elephant in the room. Any time a White musician plays the blues, the musician confronts issues of appropriation and legitimacy. The same goes for any Black musician who strays from what is acceptably Black music. Even the banjo, one of the key instruments of a Black string band, imparts an image of a White instrument in that it so closely aligns itself with Bluegrass music, long considered exclusive to Caucasians.
Somewhat surprisingly, historian Bill Reese, writes, "The banjo, as we can begin to recognize it, was made by African slaves based on instruments that were indigenous to their parts of Africa. These early banjos were spread to the colonies of those countries engaged in the slave trade."
The accompanying stereotypes of who may play which instruments or genres of music are not held by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, however. Part of the Carolina Chocolate Drops mission is to rewrite these labels through education. Though the audience for old-time music is largely white, they seek to reach the Black community by performing an educational program at inner-city schools. While in the Twin Cities in 2006, the Carolina Chocolate Drops performed educational programs for Minneapolis youth at Webster Arts Magnet and Elizabeth Hall International schools.
The impact of the banjo, Flemons feels is widespread. "It’s fascinating to watch how old-time connects to nearly every other genre in America. Nearly every style of music takes it rhythm from the banjo. In studying the older blues, I can tell that everybody knew a banjo player or they were a banjo player."
Another way the band gets their music before a Black audience is to play on the streets of downtown Raleigh at rush hour. Robinson, fiddler and singer for the band says, "We want folks to know that it’s okay to like something other than hip-hop; that there’s more than one way to be Black."
Flemons adds, "I always thought America had a beautiful vocabulary of music, a wonderful lexicon, so I’ve always made it a point to play as much music, listen to as much music as I can." Flemons repertoire includes folk, blues, early jazz, rock, and country genres.
Thirty years ago, a young man of Cajun descent, began his quest to find his roots in the musical arena. Armed with a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and having caught the attention of Garrison Keillor who showcased the band on national radio while his own show, the Prairie Home Companion Show was also still in its fledgling stage, BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet has brought Cajun music into the mainstream of Americana music.
Now the Carolina Chocolate Drops may be following the same path to success, the Carolina Chocolate Drops performed on A Prairie Home Companion last June, 2007. Said show host, Keillor, “They’re tremendously talented musicians."
While fame and money can be nice consequences of becoming celebrities, it’s the sharing of music, specifically Black old-time music that invigorates the Carolina Chocolate Drops. "If people are really into the music, there’s an acceptance beyond race. If someone plays good music, you’re going to accept them no matter what. I haven’t had anyone tell me they did not want me in a jam," Flemons says.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops performed at the Cedar Cultural Center November 12, 2006 at which time footage for a feature documentary, Black String Revival, by local filmmaker John Whitehead was filmed. The Carolina Chocolate Drops will once again present their old-made-new sound at the Cedar next month on January 20, 2008.