What is it? African-American string music straight from the Carolina Piedmont; this talented young trio studied directly under traditional string band legend Joe Thompson in North Carolina. This is a hand-clapping, foot-stomping good time with fiddle and banjo aplenty.
Why see it? Named among the artists to know by Paste Magazine in 2007, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been appearing everywhere from Rolling Stone, Relix, and Living Blues Magazine to a spot in the Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters.
Who should go? Anyone with a thing for damn fine mountain music who doesn’t mind getting swept away back to a dusty time of banjos and fiddles, jugs going woot-woot, and singing as crisp as a mountain stream.
SPOLETO FESTIVAL USA • $25 • 1 hour 15 min. • June 4, 5 at 6 p.m., Recital Hall, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. • June 4, 5 at 9 p.m., The Cistern, 66 George St. • (843) 579-3100
Hot Drops: Carolina Chocolate Drops revive the Piedmont fiddle tradition
“Sourwood Honey” from the album Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind
Try this: Close your eyes when the Carolina Chocolate Drops start playing and let yourself sway with the rhythm.
Should there be just enough heat from the day still clinging to the trees, you might imagine yourself long ago (though not so far away) on a dusty back road in the Carolina Piedmont with the barbecue hot and the beer cold, as folks got ready to shrug off the day and dance on into the night.
The Drops would understand. That’s what they’re all about.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops consist of three young and talented musicians — Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson. But the story isn’t complete without mentioning the man who inspired them: Joe Thompson, reportedly the last surviving traditional African-American string band player.
In April 2005, Flemons moved from Arizona to attend Appalachian State University’s Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. There, he not only met Giddens and Robinson, but he also noticed the wealth of knowledge, experience, and talent that Thompson wanted to share with others.
“Joe’s always been open to showing anybody his music,” Flemons says. “So we came along, and he did the same with us.”
Individually, and later as a group, Robinson, Giddens, and Flemons began visiting Thompson and absorbing all he had to offer. They learned the how and, more importantly, the why of old-time music. It was exactly the kind of hands-on tutelage that Flemons had moved halfway across the United States to experience.
“I started by listening to a lot of different music,” Flemons says. “When I was 16 or so, I played percussion and snare drum. Then, I got interested in the guitar, in folk music, ’60s musicians like Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton. I listened to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and became very interested in their influences. I just let it all wash over me.”
As the Carolina Chocolate Drops began to mesh and form their own unique sound, their personal contributions to the long history of folk and strings, they also began to discover a pleasing fact: Audiences loved it.
“We don’t really have to do anything beyond what we already do,” Flemons says. “There’s nothing better than having an audience open and willing to hear.”
He credits Thompson with keeping the tradition of old-time folk music alive even through the times when popular interest waned. It was his sheer love of, and lifelong dedication to, the music that inspired them.
Now they, in turn, are awakening a new generation to the sounds of long ago.
The individual personalities and background experiences of the musicians in the Carolina Chocolate Drops add a new richness to the old Piemont style. Multi-talented vocalist Giddens has worked in country, folk, gospel, Celtic, blues, and opera. Robinson is trained in classical violin as well as bluegrass and old-time fiddle. Flemons, with his eclectic musical background, is an electrifying showman.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops take little sprinkles of all those individual flavors, mix them in the pot, and make it hot. The result is a whole new awakening of Piedmont fiddle and banjo music.
“I wanted to be a part of this music revival that I saw growing in North Carolina,” Flemons says. “First off, this is music that I enjoy. That’s where it starts. After that, it gets into how we, as a group and as individuals, can help promote another aspect of black music.
“I like the way the music sounds, the way it feels, the way it moves,” he says.
“And I like the history it can tell about people.” —Jason A. Zwiker
Carolina Chocolate Drops • Spoleto Festival USA • $20 • 1 hour 15 min. • June 4, 5 at 9 p.m.• The Cistern, 66 George St. • June 4 at 6 p.m. • Recital Hall, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. •