4 to Watch: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Making old traditions new again

Music Features Carolina Chocolate Drops
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Hometown: Durham, N.C.
Members: [l-r]: Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, fiddle), Dom flemons (guitar, jug, harmonica, banjo), Joe Thompson (mentor), Justin Robinson (fiddle); (all sing)
Fun fact: The band recorded its rootsy debut, Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind, twice—once DIY-style and once with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which aids impoverished Southern roots musicians (see p. 60).
Why they’re worth watching: Giddens, flemons and Robinson met at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., and they invoke a similar sense of community and purpose with every show they play. For fans of: Etta Baker, Ma Rainey, Merlefest

When twentysomethings Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson gather ’round the fireplace of fiddler Joe Thompson’s humble Mebane, N.C., abode, business is underway.

Sure, the fiery foursome trades both story and song late into the night, but when Thursday becomes Friday and laughs turn to yawns, the sheer import of the task at hand—a musical changing of the guard—trumps any sense of recklessness the group might have felt otherwise.

Said to be the last traditional African-American stringband player, Thompson turns 90 next year. Though he still performs regularly with his wide-eyed protégés, he’s not going to live forever, and that’s where they come in.

“Joe’s the genesis of our group,” says flemons, an Arizona native weaned on Dylan and The Beatles. “Most of the tunes we do right now are his.”

With one finger on the pulse of history and the others plucking a 4-string banjo, flemons seems acutely aware of the tradition he’s inheriting from Thompson, albeit one ragged folk song at a time. Despite youth and talent in spades, his Chocolate Drops can’t carry the burden of history alone, and thanks to their ongoing work in the public school system, they won’t have to.

“We want to expose kids to new music but also to the very idea of black string players,” he explains. “If another black person looks at us and says, ‘I can do that’ or thinks, ‘Oh yeah, my granddad used to buck dance or used to play the fiddle,’ that’s all we can hope for.” Matthew Grayson