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By Allison Babka
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A year and a half ago, during a sweltering North Carolina summer, a trio of young musicians started busking on Franklin Street, a key thoroughfare in Chapel Hill. Fiddle, banjo and guitar the traditional (more on that impossibly thorny word later) instruments of the old-time string bands rang out in the spirit of for-the-hell-of-it fun. And also for cold hard cash: $50 in an open guitar case by the end of the day. They played "Black Eyed Susie" and "Tom Dooley" and "Sally Ann," the standard repertoire of a new generation of college and just-post-college kids smitten by the whirly-gig stomp of all things stringed.
Nothing remarkable in any of that save the depth of their talent and the color of their skin. Black folk don't play fiddle tunes, certainly not twentysomething black folk, and they sure as hell don't contra dance. But don't tell that to Justin Robinson, Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, a.k.a. the Carolina Chocolate Drops. And don't tell that to history.
African-American string bands flourished in the first decades of the twentieth century. Not even the minstrel shows which were popular with black audiences, too could put them out of business. This was especially true in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where black musicians like Odell and Nate Thompson, Dink Roberts, Libba Cotton, and Joe Thompson the elder statesman of black fiddlers and the band's mentor developed an ensemble sound that was more of a duet between banjo and fiddle, with a driving stress on rhythm, than a showcase for the ace fiddling that white string bands tended to favor. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, who take their name from the 1920s black band the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, put this tradition into overdrive.
"It was magical," says fiddler Justin Robinson. "It was never forced. We came together organically, which is how music should be. Rhiannon and I knew the same songs, and then Dom just fit in and we gelled. We let the sound evolve. And going to see Joe Thompson was the biggest way it evolved."
The last surviving black fiddler of the original Piedmont tradition, Thompson, now in his eighties, embraced the youths and taught them all he knew. The lessons weren't just musical.
"What he taught me is that if you want to play music you have to really want to do it," Robinson says. "You have to practice all the time, as much as you possibly can. Joe's family doesn't play music. He tried to encourage them, but he knew he couldn't force them. It's not something you can force yourself or anybody else to do."
Less than eight months after first busking in Chapel Hill, the band spent just two days recording, mixing and mastering their debut, Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind. "Half the tunes are one take," Robinson says. "We'd been playing the songs so much we could play them backwards."
The album collects dance numbers, folk warhorses and surprising string experiments (on "Tom Dula," bottleneck slide attacks the banjo, and on "Dixie" the fiddle leaps and flies around the melody like it's on fire) that have a fierce-minded purpose: to reclaim a tradition from which the musicians themselves have been all but whited-out.
Although countless bands have recorded these public-domain songs before them (and nearly as many are rediscovering them today as part of a new old-time and bluegrass movement), the Carolina Chocolate Drops play the old songs with a precise abandon, with all the scratchy, frayed edges dangling around the sound, and with a groove that's inchoate and ultra-danceable. This isn't toe-tapping music; it's a full-body thump.
"It's the same difference as listening to rock & roll music in the '50s from a black performer," Robinson says of his band's sound, "and listening to the same song and style by a white performer. There's a certain swing or groove, whatever word you choose, that black players seem to have. That gets translated into the music. The repertoire is pretty much the same, but there's an overarching emphasis on rhythm over melody."
While committed to the string-band sound (whatever that is), the band has begun exploring early Cuban music, vaudeville tunes, fife and drum, and hardcore blues. Robinson says that "the next record will reflect a broader range of American music in general."
For many bands immersed in tradition, the limits imposed by the past and by the quest for authenticity can be deadly. The Carolina Chocolate Drops carry a double burden, not just of a past they refuse to let die, but also of the inescapability of race. A cynic might view them as a novelty act or, far worse, as another form of minstrelsy: black musicians putting on the style of white musicians who were putting on the style of black musicians to earn cash.
But if tradition means anything to this band, it's the opposite of what it has long meant to folklorists and purists.
"We don't normally like to use that word," Robinson says. "What is exactly 'traditional'? Traditions are always changing. What's traditional to one person isn't traditional to somebody else. Tradition can make it seem to be more than the music actually is. String-band music is fiddle, banjo and guitar. That's our idea of tradition. But in an actual old-time situation, there could have been a clarinet, a piano or a mandolin. That would have been your dance band back in the day. Or there could have been fife and banjo, or banjo and bones. The combinations really are endless."