Carolina Chocolate Drops: Slow Change

Music Features Carolina Chocolate Drops
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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.

This stage presence complicates the band’s mission to preserve the nearly lost tradition of African-American string bands and jug bands. By featuring banjo, guitar, jug, bones and acoustic guitar, the Chocolate Drops have resurrected that legacy, but how can we remember those marvelous musicians of the ’20s and ’30s, whose Southern, rural sound was often discarded in the mass migration to the cities, when we’re so dazzled by Flemons and Giddens in 2012? How can they stay true to their purpose when their rapidly growing popularity—sparked by a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy for their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig—brings them more bookings and more crossover projects, putting more pressure on their time and more temptations in their path?

To meet these challenges, Giddens says, her band has to “slowly change,” laying equal emphasis on both halves of that phrase. The Carolina Chocolate Drops know the black-string-band genre must evolve to stay alive—nothing can fossilize a tradition faster than a purist’s obsession with the past. On the other hand, if the band’s sound evolves too quickly, it can become something entirely different from what it started as. “You want to keep that thread going,” she says, “but not so it’s pulled so thin that it snaps.”

Calibrating the right rate of evolution has become more difficult over the past 13 months. Two members left the band during the making of the follow-up album to Genuine Negro Jig. There were further distractions as the group contributed to the Hunger Games soundtrack, to the Amnesty International Chimes of Freedom Bob Dylan tribute and to the Chieftains’ new album, Voice of Ages. Despite it all, Giddens, Flemons and new member Hubby Jenkins have made a new album, Leaving Eden, that seems a natural outgrowth of their previous albums. They’ve changed—but slowly.

Produced by Buddy Miller (Robert Plant’s current music director and Emmylou Harris’ former music director), the new disc places less emphasis on a democratic band sound, less emphasis on representative history and more emphasis on those moments from the live show when Flemons or Giddens step forward and rivet the audience with idiosyncratic talents emblematic of no one but themselves. If the album sounds as if it were recorded by comfortable old friends playing music in someone’s living room, it’s because Flemons and Giddens have been making music together for more than six years, and they cut the disc’s 15 tracks in Miller’s Nashville living room. The record isn’t a bold departure from its predecessors, but they do perform with a new confidence and an expanded repertoire.

“When we started off, Dom and I had two bands,” Giddens explains. “Sankofa Strings was more of a blues and jazz group, while the Carolina Chocolate Drops were more of an old-time band. When it became clear that the Chocolate Drops were the ones who could tour, we emphasized the old-time music. We’ve always wanted to do more blues and jazz numbers, but in the original trio Dom was the only one who played the changes, because Justin was a fiddler and I play melody on the banjo, not chords. Now we have Hubby who can play jazz chords on guitar, banjo or mandolin, so it’s easier. Having another chordal instrument frees up Dom to play more single-note stuff, and we can do a lot of songs we’ve wanted to do but could never figure out how.”

One of those songs is the old blues standard “No Man’s Mama,” originally recorded by Ethel Waters. Backed by Flemons’ tenor banjo, Jenkins’ acoustic guitar and Adam Matta’s human-beatbox bass, Giddens’ brassy vocal crows about the satisfactions of the single life after getting rid of a troublesome husband. It’s one of those performances that grabs the listener by the throat and won’t let go.

“That’s my job,” says Miller, “to create a situation where those moments can happen and to identify them when they occur. I hope I can hear the best performance and grab it when it comes by. I try to stage things, to have a room where they can feel at home, where we can get a take where they’re at their best.”

“I’ve always wanted to do ‘No Man’s Mama,’” Giddens says; “I’ve always been drawn to strong-woman-centered songs. A divorce song in the ’20s was a huge statement, because women couldn’t even own property back then, but this song doesn’t hold anything back. Dom had always wanted to do ‘Mahalla,’ the South African tune by Hannes Coetzee, who plays guitar with the spoon, and now he could do it because Hubby could play rhythm guitar while Dom played the solo. I’d always wanted to do ‘Leaving Eden’ by my friend and neighbor in North Carolina, Laurelynn Dossett. It has really good lyrics that describe the whole phenomenon of globalization through the lens of one small mill town. We couldn’t figure out how to do it until we brought Leyla [McCalla] in to play cello on the sessions, and that just clicked the arrangement.”

Giddens, Flemons and Justin Robinson had met at the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in 2005. Giddens and Robinson were from nearby in North Carolina, but Flemons had come all the way from Arizona, and each of them was surprised to find another twentysomething black person playing banjo and/or fiddle. They were soon playing together, as a trio called the Carolina Chocolate Drops (named after Howard Armstrong’s legendary Tennessee Chocolate Drops) and as a trio (without Robinson) called Sankofa Strings, led by Flemons’ mentor, Sule Greg Wilson. At the same conference, the young musicians met Joe Thompson, the octogenarian, black Carolina fiddler, who was a living bridge to a vanishing genre. They were soon visiting Thompson’s North Carolina house on a regular basis to learn the repertoire and techniques of African-American string-band music.

But as the group became more popular and were working more and more gigs, Robinson became more disenchanted with the road. As much as he liked the music, Robinson felt oppressed by the endless round of motel rooms and long van rides. He couldn’t decide if he could stay in the band or not.

“We tried to make some changes,” Giddens explains, “but he decided touring wasn’t what he wanted to do. It was hard. I was very sad, because the three of us had started this thing together while hanging out with Joe. But once he made the decision, it was a relief, because we knew what was happening. Justin’s a homebody and he wanted to go back to school at North Carolina State for forestry. He and I are still good friends and we talk all the time. He’s using this as a chance to explore some songwriting in other areas, but he’s not playing much old-time music, and he’ll never tour a lot again.”

This past winter, Robinson released a new album, Bones for Tinder, credited to Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes. The one cover tune is The Kills’ “Gypsy Death and You,” which gives you an idea of the kind of catchy, winsome pop-rock tunes Robinson has written for his string quartet and percussionist. It’s an album that reveals more potential than achievement, but in either case it’s a far cry from the Chocolate Drops.

“Once we got past that initial shock of change,” Giddens continues, “it was off to the races. I was like, ‘We have to keep going, because we have all these gigs. I’m not going to let down the fans; I’m just not.’ I wanted to keep doing the old material, the old favorites, so it was the same songs, even though it was a new line-up: the four of us with Hubby and Adam. That helped too, because it was an expanded sound, so we weren’t trying to reproduce what Justin was doing. We were keeping it the same while changing it at the same time.”

Hubby Jenkins was a young African-American multi-instrumentalist from New York, where Flemons had moved to live with his future wife. Even in Manhattan, black string-band pickers are a rarity, so the two inevitably met and bonded. Matta contributed human beat-box and mouth-trumpet to the 2011 EP, The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Luminescent Orchestrii. Matta, however, tired of the Chocolate Drops’ heavy touring schedule even more quickly than Robinson and dropped out of the full-time line-up at the end of 2011. He will continue to make semi-occasional appearances with the Flemons-Giddens-Jenkins trio, which will also be joined on most shows by cellist Leyla McCalla.

“When I first met them, Justin was still in the band,” Miller says, “but when they came in to record, he wasn’t. But they have such a clear vision of what they want to do that it wasn’t hard for them to keep going as the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Dom and Rhiannon have listened to so much music; they know just what they want to do—they have a clear idea of what the band should sound like on stage and in the studio. It’s not calculated, but it’s focused. They just know who they are. When a band comes in like that, they are what they are, even though they’re changing members.”

The Chocolate Drops recorded Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” and Run-DMC’s “You Be Illin’” in Miller’s living room, but decided to release them as bonus tracks rather than put them on the album, because they didn’t fit Gidden’s credo of “slowly change.” For the same reason her side project, Rhiannon Giddens & Sonic New York, which specializes in Celtic, string-band and hip-hop music is kept separate from the Chocolate Drops, as is Flemons’ songster side project. The band also performed a stage show, Keep a Song in Your Soul with ragtime pianist Reginald Robinson in Chicago last year and may remount it at some point. But all that is kept apart from the Chocolate Drops’ records to keep the trio’s ties to the black string-band tradition clear.

And yet, for all of Giddens’ concern about their rate of change, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are poised to become the second group, after the Avett Brothers, to bust out of the new-wave, old-time, string-band revival and reach a much larger audience—and for the same reason: a rare charisma that can’t be denied. Slow or not, change is coming.