The Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005 intent on reclaiming the vital role that African Americans played in the string band tradition of the 1920s and ‘30s. On Leaving Eden, their fourth disc and the follow-up to the Grammy winning “Genuine Negro Jig,” the band continues to revisit old string band music while also going in some new directions. Roots musician Buddy Miller (Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris) handles production, recording the band live in one room resulting in a refreshingly warm sound. But the biggest change here is in the lineup. // READ MORE
For the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, their music has been a sparse affair: a fiddle, a banjo, and vocals. But the results were tremendous. They garnered a Best Traditional Folk Grammy for their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig. // READ MORE
In Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have two of the most charismatic performers in any genre. When Flemons, his round glasses sliding down his nose beneath his flat-brim hat, starts twirling his banjo between bursts of notes and sings about the “Viper Man” or that “Short Dress Gal” with a sly mischievousness, it doesn’t matter that these songs come from the long-forgotten corners of African-American music—the tunes could have been written yesterday they’re so compelling. And when Giddens, her thick, long black hair trailing down her back, belts out “Two Time Loser” or “Wayward Girl Blues” in her clarion soprano, she reminds you not of history but of our own relationships. And when she lifts up her vintage, flower-print skirt to give her long legs room to buck-dance barefoot on the stage, she can electrify a room with the same voltage as the best rocker or R&B diva. // READ MORE
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The band is releasing their new album, Leaving Eden, this week via Nonesuch Records. As you will read, Dom was extremely dedicated to this project, and he clearly devoted a lot of careful time to this interview. I hope that you enjoy reading this as much as I am sharing it with you. // READ MORE
Carolina Chocolate Drops, ‘Leaving Eden’ (Nonesuch)
Winning a Grammy for your first album might have intimidated lesser souls, but the Carolina Chocolate Drops — an African-American folk-roots trio — have turned in a second disc that’s even better than the first. The Drops’ banjo ‘n’ bones romps through mountain music give a spare, percussive, African-American twist (sometimes with panpipes called quills) to the kind of haunting strains folkies may already know from Mike and Pete Seeger, among others.
Untainted by ethnographic purism, the group ranges outside traditional lines, including Rhiannon Giddens’ vibrato-drenched revival of the Ethel Waters Broadway declaration of independence, “No Man’s Mama,” Hazel Dickens’ melancholy “Pretty Bird” and even a lovely original ballad, “Country Girl.”
My favorite is the chunky, trotting blues track “Boodle-De-Bum-Bum,” the nonsense chorus of which affectionately conjures the hokum street-corner entertainment the Chocolate Drops specialize in. The title track, written by the brilliant Laurelyn Dossett, references the demise of North Carolina’s textile mills, reinforcing this trio’s latent message that the past and present are a continuum and that traditional music has no monopoly on suffering.
To listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops is to hear the history of the United States of America, distilled to its brightest and blackest realities. The African-American string band bravely draws from bluegrass, African music, and hip hop, while never really straying from the rich vein of Americana that ribbons through its home state of North Carolina and its own history (founding members Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons cut their teeth at the home of famed fiddler Joe Thompson). // READ MORE
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band dedicated to playing the fiddle and banjo music of the Piedmont region, has exposed many new listeners to the music of early 20th-century black string bands. The musicians have become the most visible members of a revivalist movement that, by nature of its existence, is doing away with the cultural perception that old-time music is nothing more than the soundtrack of a racist South. In fact, it’s a style that has African roots and has had African American practitioners since its beginnings. // READ MORE
Two years ago, this North Carolina string band turned heads with a smart, sharp cover of “Hit ’Em Up Style,” the R&B hit by Blu Cantrell. The song illuminated connections between cultures and eras; it taught listeners about what’s changed (and what hasn’t) in the South and in African American vernacular music. But the Carolina Chocolate Drops learned, too, from their version of “Hit ’Em Up Style”: The most immediately arresting cut on the band’s new album is “Country Girl,” an original tune in which singer Rhiannon Giddens ponders her background over Adam Matta’s beatboxing. // READ MORE
February 27, 2012
By Michael Mechanic
Carolina Chocolate Drops
The Carolina Chocolate Drops third album, Leaving Eden, begins with a bang, a rousing fiddle tune (“Riro’s House”) whose driving beat promptly had me bobbing my head and squinching up my face and generally looking rather stupid. But I didn’t care. After a brief instrumental chillout—a sparse minor traditional called “Kerr’s Negro Jig”—it regains momentum with a percussive rendition of an old Cousin Emmy tune, “Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man,” a fine platform for the soulful, classically trained Rhiannon Giddens to let loose a bit with her powerful pipes.
In case you’re not yet familiar with the Chocolate Drops, much of their repertoire harks back to a time early in the last century when there were quite a number of uncelebrated black string bands—including their namesake, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops—playing and composing this type of music. (When I checked in with her a while back, Giddens talked a bit about being inspired by the TCD’s leading man, Harold Armstrong.)
This is the Drops’ first album since losing the talented Justin Robinson, who has embarked on other projects. But they’ve have made up for Robinson’s departure with the addition of Hubby Jenkins, a black multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who shares his bandmates’ passion for reinterpreting traditional American music. As before, there’s so much instrument-swapping that it’s well neigh impossible to keep track of who’s doing what, when. Dom Flemons, Chocolate Drops’ quintessential showman, guitar ringer, and third banjoist, also stands out on the percussion, driving that “Riro’s House” beat and embellishing tunes with bones, quills, and jugs—which is always fun live.
I was mildly surprised a while back to learn that the Drops’ were also picking up Adam Matta, who features prominently on several tracks. Matta is a human beatboxer who can do absolutely unbelievable things with nothing more than a microphone. It’s an interesting combo so long as it’s not overdone, and I think the Drops were pretty smart about it; in proper doses, Matta’s unique skills adds a retro-modern spice to this mix. But you’re unlikely to catch Matta on the band’s current US tour, Giddens told me in a recent email. He’ll be playing selected dates, but he’s become more of a part-timer. But they will be bringing along cellist Leyla McCalla, who also plays on the album.
Leaving Eden continues the Drops’ MO of reviving old tunes, oftern with a black twist. You’ll find quite a variety here, from the backwoods-y vibe of Etta James’ “West End Blues” to an adaptation of “Mahalla,” a slack-key instrumental by South African spoon-slide player Hannes Coetzee, to Ben Curry’s goofy “Boodle-De-Bum-Bum” and “Run Mountain,” a traditional that Flemons sings in such a way as makes me want to go to the back door to see if the chickens have got out.
I’m also liking Jenkins as cantor on the traditional call-and-response “Read ‘Em, John,” while the swing-bluesy “No Man’s Mama” has a just-divorced wife reveling in her independence. I found Giddens’ original tune “Country Girl” pretty but a tad earnest; she regained my attention and more on the sweet, mournful title track—a tearjerker whose lush instrumentation includes fine cello work by McCalla.
Bottom line: I dig this album at least as much as I did Genuine Negro Jig, the Drops’ last recording—which veteran music critic Greil Marcus told me was his favorite album of 2010. Did I mention that it also hit #1 on the bluegrass charts and won a Grammy to boot, for best traditional folk album. Nope, I don’t believe these guys are leaving Eden quite yet.
Here’s the new lineup doing the old hobo tune “Milwaukee Blues.”
They opened a gig for Bob Dylan last year and just recently snagged a few dates kick-starting shows for the Dave Matthews Band this spring.
Their first album for indie label Nonesuch Records in 2010 earned them the Grammy Award for best traditional folk album and their Buddy Miller-produced follow-up, out next week, is even better. // READ MORE