PREVIEW: Sweet old sounds; Chocolate Drops keep a Carolina tradition alive

Posted by on 13 August 2008

Jeff Kubik, FFWD Weekly, July 24, 2008


For three young black musicians taking the mainstage at the 2008 Calgary Folk Music Festival, the past is in the present, and they’re helping to keep it there.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops — Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson — first collaborated as members of the Sankofa Strings, a band whose name, “sankofa,” means to “go back and take” in a West African language called Akan. It’s a benevolent form of stewardship, and for more than three years, that’s exactly what the trio has done. Since forming in November 2005, the Drops have been delving into the heart of the American tradition of black string music, finding a mentor in Joe Thompson, one of the last surviving practitioners of the Carolina piedmont tradition.

The result is a sound loaded with the kind of energy that must have moved rural black townsfolk at the turn of the century, with fiddle backing the twanging mania of banjo and the Drops adding their diverse musical skills to the mix. The style is frantic, the kind of music that makes you want to pound your feet on the ground and dance, which is exactly what happened during traditional “frolics,” community square dances celebrating major seasonal events.

The group has already released two CDs on the Music Maker label — Heritage (2008) and Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (2006) — and travelled throughout the world. In touring, the group is spreading the native sounds of the Carolina piedmont region, music that predates what most listeners consider the Appalachian origin of banjo music.

It’s music couched in tradition and time, and owes its survival to the literal survival of practitioners like Thompson. For Flemons, whose musical range includes steel guitar, harmonica and banjo, to name a few, learning from Thompson has taught him that the very idea of tradition is slippery. “Traditional isn’t particularly a word that means anything by itself,” says Flemons. “[Let’s] define traditional for this conversation as a music that has gone on for several years and more than one person knows it. If, say, you and I could agree that in the early ’90s, the group Sublime was a group that was around, and we could find people who knew the group and knew some of the songs…. If we could agree to that, three generations down the road, we’re in our 60s or 70s, we could still agree that they were popular, but someone under us may not know who that band was.

“And if I was to give them a copy of 40 Oz. to Freedom, and they learned how to play songs from that album, we could call that traditional music. We saw it once when it happened, and then when you have two or three generations come down the line and they have not seen it happen, that’s when you get traditional music. The Beatles are traditional,” he adds. “Bob Dylan’s traditional now.”

The tradition of black string music that the Drops follow begins in the American South, specifically Mebane, North Carolina. There, Thompson and his family formed the musical backbone of the town’s seasonal frolics during corn husking and Christmas, with Thompson taking over the fiddle from his father, who stopped playing in recognition of the succession. After serving in the Second World War, Thompson returned home to find that the tradition had been all but abandoned.

It was only in the early 1970s, with American folklorist Kip Lornell’s studies on secular, pre-blues black music, that Thompson found a catalyst to perform again. He began performing with his cousin, banjoist Odell Thompson, and, after Odell died in 1994, with another folklorist, banjo player Bob Carlin. All of which brings Thompson’s traditional music to the present day, with Thompson’s tradition informing the Drops’ performances in what Flemons suggests is a modern take on the traditional succession between the men of Thompson’s family.

“When we meet with him, we’re excited to be able to play with an elder musician, and he’s excited to see someone who’s young and black [and] from his community,” Flemons says. “So the idea of succession with Joe has just changed, [but] the same notion happens. Now we know he’s there, and he can tone it down a little bit and rest.”

If Thompson is able to rest on a tradition now being passed to the Drops, the trio isn’t so content. While Flemons is careful to point out that his views don’t necessarily reflect the opinions of his bandmates, he speaks passionately about the continuing possibilities of this traditional form. For him, the music is still raw material, albeit material that needs to be treated with respect.

“A lot of times, people will play certain styles of older music, and one doesn’t get the impression that they know the older style of music, that they’re just picking up on one or two aspects and then doing what they want with it,” says Flemons. “Which is fine, but to a certain point, why fix it when it’s not broken? The other thing is that this music must be alive, so if you just do relics and copy everything in it, you’re not going to have living music.”

Flemons cites Mike Seeger’s Solo: Old Time Music as a perfect model for the kind of synthesis the Drops aspire to, fusing older styles together with the experience of a reverent artist. The Drops’ performance of “Georgie Buck,” for example, layers the jug on top of Thompson’s traditional fiddle and banjo combination. While both styles reflect authentic cultural experiences, their fusion is something uniquely modern.

It’s in this modernism, the continuous refining of a style whose authentic sounds find new resonance in the present, that Flemons finds a balance between tradition and innovation. “It’s not just about a curmudgeon sitting around saying ‘they’re being so familiar’ while Joe Blow says ‘I couldn’t care less,’” he says. “[Our music] fits with a lot of different worlds of music. We can hit bluegrass if we want, we can hit country, and because it’s pre-blues we can hit blues, rock, and people who are into Beatles or into ’60s folk music. You can get to a lot of places with more or less the same repertoire.”

And because of the band’s willingness to actively play with traditional material, inspiration can come from anywhere. In addition to the band’s traditional repertoire, one of their notable festival favourites is a string cover of Blu Cantrel’s “Hit ’Em Up Style,” complete with banjo and beatboxing, brought to the table by Giddens after developing a fondness for it on the radio. For the band, it’s more interesting to find ways to keep the tradition vital than to write their own “new” music — as Flemmons says, “There’s no sense bringing out all this B-material that you’ve written when there’s all this A-material that’s already written.”

Sometimes, either through generational barriers or through the simple problems of storing records, this A-material is difficult to transmit. Flemons likens the process to modern listeners’ reluctance to listen to old 78s, with the surface noise of the disc distracting modern ears from the sound of the music. He sees the Carolina Chocolate Drops as cutting through the white noise that comes between then and now, allowing listeners to hear and explore pioneers like Thompson.

“Joe’s material will always be close to all of us in the group, and I can only hope it continues to be close to our group, because that’s where it starts,” says Flemons. “At times it will ebb and flow, there will be times when Joe’s material will be further away, and at times closer, but I think it will always be a part of it. We’re all aware of how important it is, especially once Joe passes, for people to continue to play his repertoire, and I think we’ll always be there to present it no matter what.”

The end result, then, is the creation of an entirely new set of fusions, a self-made tradition created by going into the past and bringing it back to the present. If a young Flemons could become interested in the origins of artists like Bob Dylan and The Beatles, there’s every possibility that the Carolina Chocolate Drops can bring the same sense of history to their own fans.

“If I become an old man, which I eventually will, and someone asks me about Joe Thompson, I can tell them,” says Flemons. “Those are things I hope for, and those are things I’d like to continue doing. Just presenting music, hoping people enjoy it and then if there are other parts I can help with, I’d like to help out. And if I can open up people to other parts of the music, so much the better.”