Five years after they met, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson are exactly where they started—the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. This time, however, they are the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a trio with a major-label record deal and a packed slate of performances scheduled around the world. Five years ago, they were simply three individuals interested in keeping a dying tradition—that of black people playing string-band music—alive. Now, they're the premier act doing exactly that.
In 2004, Flemons performed slam poetry and busked in Arizona. Giddens, an operatic vocalist, sang in Greensboro-area Scottish and Celtic bands. Their interests in string-band music grew separately until their paths crossed on an e-mail listserv called "Black Banjo Players Then and Now." They met face-to-face at the first Black Banjo Gathering, organized by members of that listserv, in April 2005. Robinson met them there, too.
Giddens shared a piece of information with him that changed everything: She told him how to find 86-year-old black fiddler Joe Thompson, who lived between Durham and Burlington and Mebane. Robinson began traveling to Mebane every Thursday night to play with Thompson. Unbeknownst to Robinson, a classically trained violinist, the octogenarian fiddler required a banjo player to accompany him.
Giddens was happy to oblige. Eventually, Flemons—who had since moved to North Carolina and started another band with Giddens—joined in on the Thursday evening jams as well. Thompson taught them most of what comprised their 2006 debut, Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind. Since then, they've been on national television, National Public Radio, big and small stages everywhere. Their third album, Genuine Negro Jig, was released in February by Nonesuch Records, home to Philip Glass, Wilco and Bill Frisell.
"We were the first black string band to exploit the digital revolution," says Flemons, referring specifically to new listeners who spread the strange band from North Carolina's music via YouTube and MySpace. "Nine times out of 10, I ask people how they heard about us and they say from a friend. Then they look us up on YouTube and get amped up watching the videos."
In the intervening five years, the Chocolate Drops grew from a trio of youngsters still learning the trade while picking their way through gigs at schools and folk festivals into seasoned, hard-touring professionals that played more than 100 shows last year. Now, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are unquestionably the most prominent African-American string band in the nation. But the question that remains is when—or if—they'll be able to lay claim to that title without the racial qualifier—and, to an extent, the string band qualifier, too. That is, can they just be a great band making great music?
The talent and versatility displayed on Genuine Negro Jig—along with the Chocolate Drops' ability to educate while entertaining live—suggest the answer is yes.
"There were three places that we specifically talked about playing when we first started: Merlefest, Prairie Home Companion and the Grand Ole Opry," Flemons remembers. "Now, we've been able to play all of them."
The rest of the world is just now starting to notice the Drops' unique spin on tradition; they've been stars on the folk scene mostly since the start. Besides receiving a standing ovation in June 2008 after becoming the first black string band to play the Opry, they've been invited back to make their third visit to the Opry stage this May.
"I think our sound and the way we play together has struck a chord in the same way that white string bands like Old Crow Medicine Show have hit it off with the general public," Flemons posits, "and I think that because we're black too, that jumps out a lot. We don't try to exploit that, but it's just something that you can't get around."
The Drops' success thus far has also hinged on their flexibility. The group's known for dispensing cultural history lessons, song backgrounds and instrument demonstrations during live performances. In fact, they've just released a photo-heavy songbook full of sheet music, lyrics and notes on a dozen tunes. But Giddens insists that they still work to entertain. "Unless we're at a school, our first job is to entertain. Right below that is to educate a little bit." There's a careful balance, she says. "We don't want to beat people over the head with it, but it's such an unknown quantity—the whole black string band phenomenon—that we do want to talk about it."
That realization became especially important as the Drops started playing more and more rock clubs, filled with crowds with less scholarly interest than the schools and cultural crowds that were once typical. Those crowds keep growing, Flemons says: "In the rock clubs, more of those people are jumping up and down and dancing."
"If everybody's on their feet and they've had a couple beers and really want to dance, we run a different show than if we're at an arts center and everyone's seated," Giddens clarifies. "Our job is to give the audience what they want, but sometimes they don't even know they want to be educated."
It's fitting that the Chocolate Drops encourage dancing alongside discovery. Not content with simply maintaining this relic with life support, or by playing the music as it's always been played, the trio wants to breathe vitality into the form, expanding it and revitalizing it for the next generation of interested pickers.
"We're not seeking to reproduce stuff that's been done note-for-note," Robinson says. "That stuff's already out there and has already been done, so there's no point in doing it again. We're able to play this music to a much wider audience and, while we have a basis in black string band music, it's not all that we do. Anything we do is going to sound like the Chocolate Drops—that alone is adding something to the tradition."
Indeed, each member contributes his or her own passion—and wealth of knowledge and training—to the group. They don't simply do those old songs that old way. Whether it's Flemons' boundless vigor and showmanship, Robinson's classical background and streetwise beatboxing, or Giddens' vocal versatility that runs the gamut from Gaelic balladry to sassy string-band soul, the mix makes for a trademark sound. On Genuine Negro Jig, for instance, Giddens leads a cover of Blu Cantrell's 2001 R&B chart-topper "Hit Em Up Style." Flemons hopes that cover will help the Drops reach a new audience.
But, if not, it serves simply as another example of the Chocolate Drops' effortless melding of modern sensibilities with a grasp of broad folk styles—blues, gospel, country, jazz and bluegrass. The Cantrell cover, for instance, is sandwiched between a kazoo-filled take on New Orleans bluesman Papa Charlie Jackson's ragtime number "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" and the Appalachian folk song "Cornbread and Butterbeans," popularized by Carolina Sunshine Trio and embellished here by Flemons' percussive double-duty on jug and bones.
Elsewhere on Genuine Negro Jig, Giddens soars through an a cappella rendition of the traditional English folk ballad "Reynadine." The eerie aura of an autoharp and Robinson's vocals haunt on his original "Kissin' and Cussin'."
Like their repertoire, the Drops' fan base is expanding beyond the predominantly white crowd that follows folk music—slowly but, it appears, surely. The Drops briefly appeared on screen and were featured alongside Alvin "Youngblood" Hart on the soundtrack of the 2007 Oprah Winfrey-produced, Denzel Washington-starring film The Great Debaters. Flemons credits this cameo—along with articles in EbonyJet and The Crisis—with helping to put the Chocolate Drops in front of the eyes and in the ears of black listeners. He remembers a young black teen that approached him after a show in Illinois. The kid had seen the band in the Washington film at school and fallen for the soundtrack.
"That was a beautiful thing," Flemons remembers. "We've hit upon a folk music that has been documented, but it's been so underrated in popular culture that people are breathing a bit of fresh air when they hear us doing it."
However, Flemons thinks that popularity within the black community is particularly tenuous, because cultural attention seems to be so fleeting.
"Even James Brown, after a certain point, had a lot trouble getting black people to come out to his shows. In general, black people are always progressing forward and going for the new thing," he says. "That's good to a degree, but at the same time, there's a lot of music that has been left behind and white people like it, so they'll keep listening to it. You don't see a lot of black people coming out to a blues show.
"We're rooting ourselves in that community, little by little, and over the years we've seen a growth, but we've still only gone so far," he continues. "The best any of us can hope for is that someone from the community will pick up [the music] and do something with it. I know Lil' Wayne went to jail, but if he picked up a banjo, that would change a whole bunch of stuff. Kids aren't just going to pick up banjos. They have to see that there's a function and relevance in the culture to do so."
Flemons insists, though, that there is no ulterior motive in the name Genuine Negro Jig. It simply borrows from the original title of the fiddle tune that the Drops rechristened "Snowden's Jig" for the album, in honor of the 19th-century Ohio family of ex-slaves that purportedly wrote it. Minstrel performer Dan Emmert allegedly appropriated the tune and dubbed it "Genuine Negro Jig."
"It really embodies a lot of what the band does. It's a very old tune that defines a lot of what our group's doing now," Flemons says. "We're not trying to have any gigantic political message."
Flemons does admit that it's become easier for the Chocolate Drops to negotiate the sometimes tricky territory of the music's origins and minstrel show associations.
"In American society, we are at a spot where people can understand it and enjoy it and want to learn a little bit more about it," says Flemons. "There's a population of black people who are coming up where they have the opportunity to look back.... To look back, you must be in a spot where you're safe enough to know your place in the present to be able to look at the past."
And that's where the Black Banjo Gathering comes in—the scene from which the Drops were born took time to do the research, to study the past. Now, they're hoping to move it forward. After all, simply educating others about the music's background won't allow the band to connect with everyone.
"You can tell them all about the history until you're blue in the face," Flemons says, "but if they don't connect with that music, there's nothing you can do about that."
The Carolina Chocolate Drops play Cat's Cradle Thursday, April 1, for a dual release party behind their new book and their new album. The 8:30 p.m. show costs $15, and Katharine Whalen's Parlour Folk Troupe opens. The Drops will return to the Triangle for a show with Joe Henry, who produced Genuine Negro Jig, at Duke University Sept. 25.