When you talk about what we'd call hillbilly music – fiddle, jug, banjo, and other like instruments — the immediate association one makes is with the hardscrabble farmers of the Appalachians in Tennessee. You think of poor white people singing the old Irish and Scottish folk tunes they changed to suit their environment and temperament. The furthest thing from your mind is going to be young black musicians.
Yet if you think about it, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are not as much of an anomaly as you'd first think with their old time banjo and fiddle tunes. The thing about the whole country blues tradition – and you realize the most logical explanation is it had its roots in the music of the hills – was there were black people singing the music at one time.
One simply needs to remember there were slaves in the Carolinas and black people would have been exposed to that music much as their counterparts in the Deep South were to the spirituals of their masters for it to make sense. But it still comes as a shock to see and hear three young black musicians playing the music of the Tennessee Valley. But there they are: Rhiannon Giddens on banjo, fiddle, and voice; Justin Robinson, fiddle and voice; and Dom Flemmons, guitar, banjo, jug, harmonica, snare, and voice, belting out the tunes you'd hear from any string band.
Of course, the other thing to remember is the banjo was introduced to North America by slaves from Africa, so it shouldn't be considered such an oddity. But it is to our contemporary eyes and minds that have established for us how things are supposed to be. That there has been little or no interest in this type of music, except as a historical oddity, has also meant it's been kept out of the public eye for quite some time as well.
The North Carolina Piedmont style of playing they represent hasn't had many proponents recently, so they are picking up the threads of something that has been long ago put down except for a few old time musicians who have kept the music alive. It was in April of 2005, at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, that the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops met and discovered they shared a common passion for this old time music.
They attached themselves to an elderly fiddle player, Joe Thompson, and spent Thursday nights at his home learning the ins and outs of their new craft. In two days, last April, the 11th and 12th, only a year after they first met, they entered a studio to make their first recording Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, a collection of traditional songs that range from the gospel themed, "Starry Crown," to the more secular, "Ol' Corn Likker".
In case you were wondering, this isn't any museum piece or something to be dismissed as a quaint little historical recreation. This is a genuine attempt to regenerate an almost lost art form. The music is alive and vibrant, with the band members' enthusiasm for their material decidedly infectious. They play at festivals all throughout America now, and if the included video on this enhanced CD is anything to go by, their reception is enthusiastic no matter who their audience, although the sight of people step-dancing, or clogging, in plastic fluorescent pink and green clogs may cause some more traditionally minded people to wince.
With so many bands laying claim one way or another to the now fashionable label of "roots music", simply because they're happening to play rock and roll like it was supposed to be played, it's awfully refreshing to come across music that is genuinely one of the tap roots of a good chunk of what's played today. What's really interesting is how the stripped down nature of these songs gives them an edge even the most basic of rock and roll lacks today.
There's a quality to this music that only seems to come about when songs are played in a back porch state of mind. By that, I mean when people get together for the love of playing and no other reason, and play anything that comes to hand that can contribute to the song. Back porch music is straight from the heart of the singer to the heart of the listener, without interference from any of the normal accoutrements of the music business.
It's simple without being simplistic in that it speaks of things that are important to the people singing and the people listening without innuendo or conceit. To the ears of today's sophisticated audience, the songs on Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind may seem primitive due to their lack of sophistication and production values, but that's what makes this music so wonderful as far as I'm concerned.
What's great about the Carolina Chocolate Drops is their willingness to simply be the folk singing and performing the music instead of letting themselves become more important than what is being sung and played. What you get when listening to their disc is the music played as it has been for the last hundred years, and hopefully as it will be now for the next hundred years.
This disc is produced by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, whose mission is to not just preserve and ensure the future of the roots of American music, but to raise funds for those elderly performers of this music who no longer have the means to support themselves. Not only do they assure dignity and quality of life for the pioneers of the music we all love today, but ensure they get the recognition they deserve.
Whereas people like the Carolina Chocolate Drops represent the next generation of musicians, Music Maker also produces albums with people and acts who have been playing unnoticed across the South for decades. These are the people, both black and white, whose creativity and passion are the real roots of the music we listen to today. Without them, it's doubtful any of what we hear and love would exist to this day.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are an important step forward in guaranteeing some of the best music of the past isn't relegated to a few memories, but continues to be a living, growing, and evolving tradition. Not only are they a reminder of who came before, but they are also the present and, hopefully, future of American music.