The Right Sound, The Wrong Century
A first listen to the Carolina Chocolate drops calls to mind a bye-gone era, days of cotton, genocidal terror and an assortment of stereotypes applied to our friends who reside south of the Maxon-Dixon line. So why does the preservation of such music, when played by people not typically thought of as fans of it and the culture that produced it sound so vibrant and joyous?
How is it a band fueled on standards older than their grandparents can somehow sound as fresh as the day’s hottest memes? The answers are as complicated America’s thorny history of race relations, but as simple as the rich but raw sound they concoct.
The Carolina Chocolate drops formed as a three-piece band when founding members Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, fiddle) Don Flemons (bones, jugs, guitar) and occasional guest Justin Robinson attended a 2005 gathering of Black banjo players in Boone, North Carolina. With the addition of multi-instrumentalist Sule Greg Wilson, weekly jam sessions with eighty-six year old Joe Thompson sparked the basis of the band’s connection.
The years that followed saw an expansion in the band’s popularity as well as a broadening of its aesthetic reach. After mastering a repertoire based on the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, the band secured high-profile gigs opening gigs for the likes of Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan.
In addition to the standard dates of clubs and arenas, they performed on A Prairie Home Companion, Fresh Air Radio and Nashville, Tennessee’s famed Grand Old Oprey.
Apart from the usual line-up permutations a band endures over time, The Carolina Chocolate Drops have seen their shifting line-up reflect a shift in sound. Most dramatic of these changes was the 2011 addition of beatboxer Hubby Jenkins, who joined them after the departure of Justin Robinson.
By embracing a percussive style heard almost exclusively in the realm of hip-hop, the band further galvanized a nod toward the future of music — while continuing to lovingly bring the past to life. They had previously done a cover of Blu Cantrell’s 2001 R&B’s smash ‘Hit Em’ Up Style.’ Simply put, the Carolina Chocolate Drops were spinning ahead while gazing at the lovely scenery behind them.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops perform "Hit 'Em Up Style"
Since then, the band has continued to graciously accept praise, awards and opportunities to widen their audience. In their earliest years, they boasted a fan base of mostly older supporters of traditional country music. But an appearance in the Denzil Washington movie ‘The Great Debaters’ introduced them to a larger black audience. And the introductions continue across various cultural lines as their popularity skyrockets.
Although more than a decade old and based on a music tradition that dates back centuries, The Carolina Chocolate Drop’s first album somehow sounded — and sounds — as fresh as anything released that year, or for matter in 2021.
Genuine Negro Jig
Despite a fairly long delay since their last release, Giddens, who has since embarked on a solo career, continues to champion the band and their agenda. When asked of the Carolina Chocolate Drop’s latest pursuits, she speaks in epic, international terms:
There’s so much amazing material out there — not just African-American music from North Carolina, but there’s the whole black Diaspora to look at, all over this country, in the Caribbean, South America. There’s such a rich tradition that it’s kind of endless. So there’s plenty of material and I’m always inspired by finding new things.
What seems to be freshest about the band’s approach is that they find ‘new’ things while also unearthing — and preserving — old things. What could be more breathtakingly novel than that?