Some music fans might be tempted to tag acoustic trio The Carolina Chocolate Drops as a stylish novelty act, but there are plenty of vibrant musical ideas bouncing and dancing within the North Carolina group's songs. What they do requires skill, knowledge, and a healthy dose of inspired, collective creativity. What they do isn't simply a tribute to an era and genre of music; it's a loving, soul-filled bundle of reinterpretation.
"That's been the enriching thing about getting into this group — and also getting into this particular set of music. We can do things with any genre," says Chocolate Drops singer/guitarist Dom Flemons. "On his Library of Congress recordings, Jelly Roll Morton once mentioned of jazz that it wasn't really a tone that you play, but it was really a style that you put on top of a piece. You can do that with any type of genre. You can take any type of song — it doesn't mater how old it is, or who wrote it — and if you find the right stylistic things to put on top of it, it can be that genre. Our group loves putting different traditional forms of music together and making something different out of it."
Flemons helped form the Chocolate Drops in late 2005 with Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, following their attendance at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. Flemons and Giddens played together in another traditional group called Sankofa Strings (the band name referred to a West African word meaning "Go back and fetch it"). Sankofa Strings' 2006 album Colored Aristocracy laid a good bit of the groundwork for the early Chocolate Drops set lists.
With the Chocolate Drops, Flemons usually handles a four-string banjo, acoustic guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, and bones. Giddens switches between the five-string banjo, fiddle, and kazoo. Robinson is the main fiddler and occasionally picks up the five-string banjo and jug as well.
The Chocolate Drops plan to release a 13-song studio album in February titled Genuine Negro Jig on the Nonesuch record label (nonesuch.com). A follow-up to 2007's Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind, Genuine Negro Jig was produced by acclaimed recording artist and songwriter Joe Henry (Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke), the album features string band interpretations of contemporary jazz singer Blu Cantrell's single "Hit 'Em Up Style" and Tom Waits' "Trampled Rose.
"I was really glad to work with Joe," says Flemons. "He knows how to put a little production on a song without changing the entire thing. He's really good at that. Nonesuch suggested him to produce, and when we saw who he'd worked with before, we knew he was the right guy. This new album has a couple of departures, but most of the stuff has been within the group the whole time."
Flemons grew up in Phoenix before relocating to N.C. in 2005. He recently moved to upper Manhattan, so he splits his time traveling back and forth between New York and the Carolinas. "It really isn't all that much different from what I was doing before I left North Carolina," he says. "It's a spot where it really doesn't matter where any of us live. I fly down from New York City, we do whatever, jump into the van, and do our thing."
All three of the Chocolate Drops grew up listening to vintage American musical styles. They each trained in the Piedmont banjo and fiddle musical tradition in recent years under the tutelage of Joe Thompson, a revered performer from the Carolina Piedmont string band heyday. During the early 1970s, a revival of interest in African-American folk music traditions led some researchers, folklorists, and music fans to Thompson's talents.
"We have that connection with Joe Thompson, but, you know, you can really make your own folk process as an individual," says Flemons. "At one point, you had to adhere to the idea that if you didn't do a specific style, you weren't authentic. Our group has been very fortunate in that those [purists] tend to think we sound very authentic. We haven't had much resistance. We're able to look at different pieces of the puzzle and put together our own thing."
The band earned a reputation for reworking the arrangements, rhythms, and even the lyrics (some of which are totally rewritten for the new versions) of obscure numbers and popular folk standards.
"At any show, the audience is hearing the Carolina Chocolate Drops' version of most of the songs," Flemons says. "We didn't necessarily write most of these wholesale, but it's our own version of them. We're always tweaking little things here and there.
"Generationally, musicians and audiences have access to so much music, compared to other bands before," Flemons adds. "It's a real fine line. You can approach the older 78s, you can approach the revivalists and the field recordings people did in the 1950s and 1960s, or you can approach the recordings made from them all the way to the present. Every minute, you can find something, so there are so many possibilities with the folk music."