One day not long ago, the Carolina Chocolate Drops formed out of the ether. Well … not really. But the ether is where two of the three hung out, so to speak, chatting on a listserv with other Black Banjo enthusiasts.
Over the course of the next few months, Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens of the string band Sankofa Strings met up with Justin Robinson, then Joe Thompson, followed quickly by Etta Baker and Algia Mae Hinton. Flemons, Giddens and Robinson eventually became the Carolina Chocolate Drops, while Thompson, Baker and Hinton influenced and furthered the already-substantial musical education of the three. There’s a distinct difference between learning the music formally, or by “transmission,” growing up with it. Transmission is more of an osmotic process than an educational process, and that’s what the frequent visits by the CCD to their adopted mentors hope to achieve.
The name Carolina Chocolate Drops is an homage to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a 1920s band led by a somewhat well-known fiddle and mandolin player of the time who went by the name of Louie Bluie, and whose brothers joined him in the band. Since two of the three CCD members are from North Carolina, the name choice became rather obvious.
The two hours mentioned above is a bit of literary license, referring to CCD’s onstage appearances. When CCD are onstage and going through their repertoire, they’re also educating the audience by throwing out bits of information between the selections. They explain the difference between old time Piedmont string music and old time Appalachian music, making the learning experience a real joy.
When the trio were at a banjo conference at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, they met Joe Thompson, one of the last surviving authentic Piedmont old time string players. Joe, who was in his eighties, learned music from his father, who learned it from his father, making it authentically handed-down folk music, although current vernacular calls it mountain music or old-time music. This type of music originated in the western parts of the Carolinas and Virginia, and was formed during the early settlement of those Appalachian areas, mainly by Europeans who had come to work the forests in those areas. These immigrants had brought their own music with them, the abundant forests at the time gave them the raw material. Over the course of the next hundred or so years, the music now being revived became the end product of an isolated environment that steered the path of the music with very minor “outside” influence.
Until the late 1800s and early 1900s, the roads in this part of the country were more paths or tracks than roads. This, paired with the mountainous terrain, made any visitor a curiosity. The music later made a split with its spread into the Piedmont area, which lays between the mountains of the west and the Atlantic coast. The banjo takes on a more prominent role in Piedmont style, alternating with the fiddle as the lead instrument, weaving in an out of the lead.
Both areas, Appalachian and Piedmont, had both black and white population, and both played essentially the same type of music, for themselves and for each other. It was as common a century ago to see a black band playing for a white square dance as for a black square dance. Square dancing took no sides then; it was an equal part of the heritage of blacks as much as whites. Current times show a distinct minority of black country string bands. Then again, most blacks aren’t aware that the banjo was invented by blacks, who played the instrument long before leaving their native lands in the 1500s and later.
Following that fateful meeting at ASU, the three CCD members began getting together with Thompson on weekends to play. Later, the CCD added more area players to their weekend schedule, including Etta Baker and Algia Mae Hinton. If you’re not familiar with those names, shame on you! Do your homework or you’ll go to bed hungry.
CCD began tearing up the music circuit shortly after that first meeting, and now they’re world travelers, spreading the Piedmont Gospel far and wide. Between Thompson coming up with the music, and the CCD coming together for the music, not much happened in string band music overall, and even less in black string band music. The folk revival which took place in the 1950s and 1960s brought mainly whites together playing some of the music to mainly white audiences. The later bluegrass and newgrass bands were also almost solely a white domain. It wasn’t until four decades after the folk revival that several black string bands began forming, causing most blacks to express surprise or even dismay that these groups were playing what they perceived as white people’s music. Which explains both the group’s need for and mission of educating its audiences.
And that brings us up to Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind, which is a 16-cut CD that CCD released in 2006 through MusicMaker.org, also out of North Carolina. “Dona” is an almost 48-minute slice of 1880 Americana, that will not let you remain seated for long. I don’t go to theaters or performance centers to see groups like CCD for that very reason. An outdoor venue, a nightclub, a dancehall, fine. This music, however, is not made to sit through. Even the musicians know that!
When you hear of the Carolina Chocolate Drops coming to your area, get your tickets sooner, rather than later. There may not be a later, since CCD are playing to packed houses that will be even more packed following their return from Europe.