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To catch the music 

Led by hands that have known the way for more than seven decades, a new generation restrings an old music.

Picture this: Three young black men, two on banjo and one on fiddle, are playing music at a square dance in Orange County. The music is driving and raw and at the same time melodic, joyful and fervent, inspiring the mix of dancers on the floor, black and white.

"Frolics" was the term for these gatherings, according to Odell Thompson, one of the banjo players in the above scene. The young man on fiddle is Odell's cousin, Joe Thompson. The other banjo player is Joe's brother, Nate.

Now jump ahead some 70 years to two Fridays ago. Four African-American musicians—three of them in their 20s—with banjos, fiddles and guitars coming alive in their hands, are playing string band standards for a black and white audience gathered at a Greensboro church. The players are from Sankofa Strings and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, two new bands at the vanguard of a revitalization of music styles and traditions slowly forgotten over time. Joining them for "Georgia Buck" and several other tunes is 86-year-old fiddler Joe Thompson, who rode up with the quartet from his home in Mebane. When Sankofa Strings founder Rhiannon Giddens' banjo meets Joe Thompson's fiddle and his voice wanders in, as much chanting as singing, there's the feel of something if not quite ancient, at least the product of an era long gone. You start seeing things in sepia tones and even though the music's being played right in front of you, you expect to hear crackles and hisses as if the sounds were being torn from a salvaged 78.

But then you're again aware of the young faces sharing the scene, and as you listen to the notes find their way from Thompson's fiddle to the people on the dance floor, the world snaps back into Technicolor. And the possibility that his music will live on in the black community feels real.

"We all joined in together and all played together. Old-time country music," Thompson says a few days later. "That's all I ever knew how to play, old-time country music, old square dance stuff."

Tying these scenes together, in addition to Thompson's fiddle, is what took place—or, more accurately, what didn't take place—in the world of string band music during the seven decades that passed between the two gatherings.

In the time of frolics, the first third of the 20th century when string band music driven by banjo and fiddle was thriving, whites and blacks stood together in the crowds to hear the music, and, in the case of racially integrated groups such as Taylor's Kentucky Boys, stood together on stage as well. All-black outfits such as the Mississippi Sheiks and the Memphis Jug Band, the latter with a rotating roster of players that occasionally numbered a dozen, made some of the most inventive and exhilarating music of the '20s and early '30s.

It was around that time, suggests Sankofa Strings and Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons, that elements of string band music jumped in the pot with gospel, hollers and work songs to create the blues. "By the time the record industry came along, you had the string band as a whole in the black community starting to break down and the blues already starting to get into full swing," Flemons says. "That [the blues] was the popular music in the black community." The rise of the blues saw the decline of string band music, as least as far as most black practitioners were concerned. With this emergence of the blues, as well as urbanization, economic pressures and other societal factors, the black string band tradition quickly began to die out. The music was played close to home, if at all.

The folk revival of the '50s and '60s was a predominantly white movement, with the simpler times/back to basics rallying cry not exactly resonating with most black musicians. But the history of string band music and of the instrument most associated with it was not ignored by some of the revivalists. "The banjo is still thought of as a 'hillbilly instrument,'" recalls Gail Gillespie, a respected string-band musician and the editor of the Durham-based Old-Time Herald. "Those of us that got into it through the folk music era knew that wasn't true. Pete Seeger always had paintings showing slaves playing banjo-like instruments. He always had the history of it in there. People who came at it from that angle knew about this, and that included people like Tommy Thompson and Cece [Conway]. When they found out that there were black banjo players in Orange County, they just went for it." Among the players that the pair tracked down in the '70s were Odell and Joe Thompson. In the '80s, an eager-to-learn banjo player named Bob Carlin sought out Nate Thompson in Nate's adopted home of Philadelphia. Carlin, author of String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont and these days recognized as one of the top clawhammer-style banjoists around, went on to organize several concerts that reunited Nate with Odell and Joe.

The immediate roots of both Sankofa Strings and the Carolina Chocolate Drops are easier to trace than banjo migrations and under-the-radar songsters. Flemons, Sule Greg Wilson and Giddens of Sankofa Strings met online as members of the Black Banjo: Then and Now listserv, a group formed to, among other goals, celebrate the banjo's place in black music and culture. When the listserv's contributors decided that they wanted to put faces with names and words, and maybe talk and play a little banjo in the process, the first Black Banjo Then and Now Gathering was held in Boone last April. After getting to know each other at the gathering, the trio decided to practice what they'd been posting and formed Sankofa Strings to play string band music but also early blues, early jazz and minstrel tunes.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a Triangle/Triad offshoot of Sankofa Strings, with Flemons and Giddens joined by young fiddler Justin Robinson and longtime area musician Ed Butler. The Chocolate Drops are more of a straight-up string band, centered on the interplay between Giddens' banjo and Robinson's fiddle, with an emphasis on Piedmont-born material. "Justin and I are Piedmont natives, we're like one generation removed from the farms," Giddens explains. "In that way, [playing this music] is a reclamation. And I think that's happening across the board in old-time music. A lot of youngsters are picking it up because it's something that's real. It's not prepackaged, prefabricated and spoonfed to you on MTV."

One thing that both Sankofa Strings and the Carolina Chocolate Drops share is the burning desire to get the audience involved. The Greensboro show that featured the combined version of the two bands found Wilson leading the crowd in a rousing call and response, as well as Giddens and Robinson engaging in an impromptu Charleston. Throughout, audience members were invited to sing and dance along. The amazingly versatile Giddens—in addition to playing fiddle in Sankofa Strings and banjo in the Chocolate Drops, she's an opera singer, leader of a Celtic band and a gifted Web designer—offers this description of way the music comes together: "Justin and I are able to represent the black string tradition of fiddle/banjo tight together, Sule brings in the African elements of dance, rhythm and griot teaching, and Dom ties it all together with a showman's charm and nimble fingers."

Something else shared by the two bands is a desire to educate people about the history of the movement, a goal also acknowledged by the New York City-based Ebony Hillbillies, a longstanding African-American string band that's taken its music to subways and street corners. "Education was of course the furthest thing from our minds when we all started playing, but the amount of people who have no idea what black people are doing playing a violin or banjo is astounding," says Ebony Hillbillies fiddler Rique Price. "Teaching, for any musician, is an 'and.' History lessons are a necessary part of the territory." The idea of selling string band music to kids, African-American or otherwise, conjures an image of trying to woo youngsters raised on SportsCenter's dunks and diving catches to a new sport by showing them vintage squash footage, but Giddens and the others remain committed. "We really want to get out there and perform, just say 'Hey, you can do this if you look like us. You can play this music,'" she says. "With both groups, we like to educate the audience just a little bit between songs, since it's still quite a novel thing to see a black string band."

You can't ignore the role of a kind of racial categorization in this. The rules haven't been written down anywhere, but that lack of documentation hasn't prevented them from feeling like facts in a lot of heads. Country is "white music," as is rock 'n' roll—DeFord Bailey and Big Joe Turner be damned, and the likes of Charley Pride, Stoney Edwards, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Vernon Reid merely exceptions that prove the rule. Blues, soul and hip hop represent "black music," with teenaged Stevie-Ray-worshipping guitar-slingers, blue-eyed soul singers, and Eminem just aberrant subcategories.

"You have to see some people's faces when they ask 'So what are you doing these days, Ed?' I say, 'Well, I've started playing the banjo.' They laugh and then say, 'No, really, what are you doing?'" says Butler, a drummer by trade who's played in countless bands during his 20-plus years in the Triangle, including serving as an auxiliary member of the Red Clay Ramblers. Butler recalls being enamored with the sound of the banjo for a long time, but says what finally sold him on learning to play it was when ex-Rambler and five-string banjo ace Mark Roberts described the instrument as a drum with strings.

Giddens has her own experience with the race issue. "When I started getting into it, I really liked old-time music, but I was like 'That's white stuff,' you know, so I kind of felt weird about it," Giddens recalls. But the more she learned about the music and the more time she got to spend with Joe Thompson, who turned out to be from the same hometown as her mom's side of the family, the more right it felt. "I went from starting out thinking that this is not really my music to finding a traditional practitioner of it."

Cece Conway, a respected voice in banjo circles and a genuine triple threat thanks to related work in books, films and archival recordings, zeroes in on the significance of this cross-generational relationship. "To me the most important thing is the extent to which they're trying to connect with the older tradition. For example, the Ebony Hillbillies have become friends with Algia Mae Hinton," she offers. "I know that Rhiannon [Giddens] has been in touch with Joe for two or three years, and more recently they are visiting him every week. It gives the opportunity for young people who are interested in the music to be connected to the tradition."

Robinson had heard an NPR piece on Joe Thompson, and when he learned that Thompson was going to be at the Black Banjo Gathering, he made the drive to Boone to make that connection. Robinson had been playing the fiddle for only a couple of months following a long layoff after four years of violin lessons as a kid, but he soon found himself visiting Thompson almost every week. However, it wasn't your typical teacher-student setup. Thompson had learned to play the fiddle, quite literally, at his father's feet. "I learned after my father. My father was a heavy fiddle player. He'd play a lot, and I was laying around on the floor listening to him," is how he puts it. Robinson presumably remained upright, but other than that, the method—or lack thereof—was about the same. "There was no formal training. He didn't show me anything specifically," Robinson recounts. "I just had to listen to [the tunes] a million times. We'd just play together until I got it." When this story is shared with Conway, she says, "That's more in keeping with 'folk transmission,' which is not being taught, but 'catching it.' That's a phrase that they use: to catch the music."

Giddens and Flemons have become frequent visitors to the Thompson home as well. "The more we go down there, the more we just click into his rhythm and the better it gets," says Giddens. "You can't get that from a recording. You can get some of it, but just being in his presence gives that much more." Flemons adds, "It's nice to be next to him, an actual traditional player, and learn how to make a tune swing a certain way, which recordings don't tell you." Both of those statements bring to mind something that banjo player Bob Carlin said. "Playing with Joe is one of my favorite musical experiences. There is a depth to his music that one finds in the 'tradition bearers' that is wonderful to tap into and that, no matter how long I play, I just don't have."

"It's real important," Thompson says when asked about the significance of these young African-American musicians playing the music that he grew up with. "I've gotten old, and that's the only thing that's bothering me." But then he adds, probably thinking of the alternative, "I'm proud to get old." A stroke has slowed his left hand a little, but his right hand, the bowing hand, is just fine, thank you. So he's not happy about the passing of the years—who is?—but he's happy to still be playing music.

Actually, there is one other thing bothering him: the reluctance of relatives to carry on the family music business. "Let me tell you, it's a strange thing to me. I've got nephews, grown nephews, ain't none of them tried to play nothing!" he proclaims at one point, the frustration with his kin showing. Flemons senses Thompson's consternation, and the young man clearly understands the significance of these journeys to Mebane. "They've brought the band from his family tradition back," he says, watching the trio of Giddens, Robinson and Thompson play a tune. "It's now alive again. It was getting ready to die out."

And others, not just those who come to Joe Thompson's house to jam, are also picking up the torch. The Ebony Hillbillies used to refer to themselves as "the last black string band in America." But it's worth noting that a recent e-mail message from Rique Price ended with this new inscription: "The Ebony Hillbillies, one of many black string bands in America."

Find the Carolina Chocolate Drops online at www.sankofastrings.com/ccd/index.html.

Watch Lissa Gotwals' photo slideshow with music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

  • A new generation restrings an old music

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