For the Carolina Chocolate Drops there’s a fine line between offering a history lesson and a foot-stomping good time. The Durham, N.C., trio has spent the last five years unearthing the largely unsung traditions of black string band music, and along the way become one of the most dynamic live acts on the continuously exploding youth-charged old-time revival scene. The formula mixes a throwback of past generations—plucking banjos and sawing fiddles—with an underlying progressive edge.
“We’re depicted as a very traditional group, but the way that we approach the music is not very strict,” says band member Dom Flemons, who plays guitar, banjo, and a variety of old-fashioned percussion, including jugs and bones. “We add things to bring it forward.”
The group, which also includes versatile instrumentalists Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, met in 2005 at the Black Banjo Gathering. The event was held at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., by scholars as a one-time symposium and festival to discuss the African roots of the banjo. After realizing a shared love of old-time sounds, the trio was collectively mentored by Joe Thompson, a 91-year-old elder statesman of traditional Carolina Piedmont music, who’s regarded as one of the last original black string band players. With Thompson’s tutoring, the Chocolate Drops soon started bringing pre-Civil War sounds of the rural South to stages across the country.
While the group is committed to mining material from the past, they also can’t help but incorporate the influences that come from being in their ‘20s. The band’s latest album, last year’s Genuine Negro Jig, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Folk Album, strikes a proper balance between the generation gaps. In addition to longstanding traditional tunes like “Cornbread and Butterbeans” and “Cindy Gal,” the effort also features front porch-style takes on Tom Waits’ “Trampled Rose” and R&B singer Blu Cantrell’s dance club anthem “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” It’s all part of a dual mission to be ambassadors of forgotten sounds and to encourage crowds to get up and move.
“We’re presenting a particular form of music, but interpreting it in a way that’s true to our generation,” says Flemons. “All of the history is important, but what’s most important is that the music needs to be hot and swinging. We want people to get up and shake it.”