One More Seed: Carolina Chocolate Drops: Thursday, 8:30 p.m., Adler Theatre Print
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 02 July 2008 03:18

Carolina Chocolate DropsThree years ago, the Black Banjo Gathering was held in North Carolina to celebrate "the African American heritage of the banjo, which has not only a historic past, but also a resurgent present, and a great future," according to the event's Web site (http://blackbanjo.com).

Part of that future is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African American string trio whose members first met at the gathering. The young group - two members are in their mid-20s, and one is 31 - should help keep alive a rich tradition of the Piedmont string band.

Dom Flemons, who plays several instruments with the North Carolina-based group, said in a recent interview that black string-band music is the missing link between the blues and its obvious forebears: spirituals, field songs, and hollers.

"You can't get an instrumental tradition of music off that," Flemons said of the widely acknowledged sources of the blues. "String-band music is the older music, and blues is formed off of the string band. If you look at most blues histories, the thing that is missing from it is the idea of ... an instrumental dance music."

The "dance" element is also crucial to understanding the difference between Appalachian string-band music - the white style that comes to mind when most people think of a banjo and fiddle ensemble - and the Piedmont style. "It's very subtle," Flemons said, but Piedmont was made for dancing, so there's more swing and jump to it, and often more emphasis on the banjo leading instead of the fiddle.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops got much of their knowledge firsthand, through weekly sessions with Joe Thompson - who will turn 90 this year and is considered the only remaining black traditional-string-band player.

"Joe's just been kind of a guiding force," Flemons said. "Learning from Joe as a group was very important, and we learned how to work together from that. ... We played with him, we learned his repertoire. ... We just talk to him."

While the Carolina Chocolate Drops adapted much of their repertoire from commercial and field recordings, a valuable resource is the people who know the songs - folks such as Thompson. "Sometimes they can show you something that you don't see when you're listening to the recording, or they show you a way of playing that you wouldn't have guessed would have been the style of playing from hearing it," Flemons said. "It's a lot easier to digest when you see it in front of you rather than just hearing it aurally."

But he added that the group isn't beholden to a traditional style, and doesn't feel that it must preserve the songs as they first encountered them. "It starts as an immersion into the music, and then different aspects of the music ... come out in the music that we make," Flemons said. "As we start performing it, it starts growing into its own thing. ... I feel that you should at least do justice or show some of the excitement that you got from that original recording, but I don't think you have to do it exactly the same."

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have hooked up with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which last year released the band's Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind. It's a bit of an odd pairing, as the foundation's mission is to assist "the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs."

Flemons, though, said the partnership makes sense. Because Music Maker primarily works with older artists, "there are problems ... [with the artists'] health and then travel," Flemons said. "Tim [Duffy, Music Maker's founder] saw that we were good for getting out there and doing gigs and playing our music, and he jumped on it." And while the Chocolate Drops might not be pioneers, they are playing an important role in the preservation of an at-risk style of music.

Flemons deflects any such praise, though. "If it wasn't for us, someone else would've come along," he said. "Music is energy, and music ebbs and flows, just like anything else in culture. There's a chance that the stuff would be lost without us, but at the same time, I'd like to think that there'd be hope that before anything dies, one more seed gets planted that will lead to the next thing."