In the summer and fall of 2005, three young black musicians, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson, made the commitment to travel to Mebane, North Carolina, every Thursday night to sit in the home of old-time fiddler Joe Thompson for a musical jam session. Joe was in his 80’s, a black fiddler with a short bowing style that he inherited from generations of family musicians. He had learned to play a wide ranging set of tunes sitting on the back porch with other players after a day of field work. Now he was passing those same lessons on to a new generation.

When the three students decided to form a band, they didn’t have big plans. It was mostly a tribute to Joe, a chance to bring his music back out of the house again and into dance halls and public places. They called themselves The Chocolate Drops as a tip of the hat to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, three black brothers Howard, Martin and Bogan Armstrong, who lit up the music scene in the 1930’s. Honing and experimenting with Joe’s repertoire, the band often coaxed their teacher out of the house to join them on stage. Joe’s charisma and charm regularly stole the show.

The Chocolate Drops started playing around, rolling out the tunes wherever anyone would listen. From town squares to farmer’s markets, they perfected their playing and began to win an avid following of foot-tapping, sing-along, audiences.

“Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition but we are modern musicians.”
—Justin Robinson

While the young Chocolate Drops were upstarts in a stable of deep tradition, they were also the link between past and future. They began to expand their repertoire, taking advantage of what Dom calls “the novelty factor” to get folks in the door and then teaching and thrilling them with traditional music that was evolving as they performed. They teased audiences with history on tunes like “Dixie”, the apparent Southern anthem that musicologists suggest was stolen by the black-face minstrel Dan Emmert from the Snowden family, black Ohio musicians who missed their warm, sunny home. The “Drops” gave new energy to old tunes like John Henry and Sally Ann, adding blues songs, Gaelic acappella, and flat-footing to the show.

The band moved up through the festival circuit, from the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s Convention to MerleFest. They shared the stage with their new fan, Taj Mahal, and traveled to Europe. In 2007 they appeared in Denzel Washington’s film, The Great Debators and joined Garrison Keiler on Prairie Home Companion.  In 2008, they received an invitation to play on the Grand Ole Opry. The Drops were the first black string band to play the Opry. Opry host, Marty Stewart, pronounced the performance a healing moment for the Opry.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ latest disc, Genuine Negro Jig, is more revelation than revival. The old-time music that this trio of African-American musicians has been exploring for the last four years—with banjo, fiddle, guitar, snare, kazoo, jugs, and bones—offers pleasures both immediate and deep. “Trouble In Your Mind” and live-show favorite “Cornbread and Butterbeans” insist upon foot-tapping, if not a whirl around the closest dance floor, while others, like the brooding “Kissin’ and Cussin’” and the more sensual “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” invite comfortably seated rumination. But these generations-old songs, performed with both faithfulness and modernity, also represent a significant yet near-forgotten part of American musical history.

Behind its grooves, Genuine Negro Jig harbors extraordinary tales about the role of largely unsung black musicians who, from the pre-civil war south to the mid-20th Century, composed, performed, and passed on songs such as these, from parent to child, neighbor to neighbor. The Carolina Chocolate Drops focus on the sound of the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, the foothills where both black and white families settled and where musicians from both sides of the color line shared and swapped tunes.

Rolling Stone Magazine described the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ style as “dirt-floor-dance electricity”.  If you ask the band, that is what matters most. Yes, banjos and black string musicians first got here on slave ships, but now this is everyone’s music. It’s OK to mix it up and go where the spirit moves.

“We’re first and foremost entertainers and musicians,” Giddens emphasizes. “The other stuff enriches, deepens the experience. If you can’t enjoy the music on the surface, we aren’t doing our job. That’s been the problem with some historical-based music. Sometimes it feels like a lesson injected rather than just something to be enjoyed. We’re just pleased that we have the platform and that we can make a living playing this music. In this day and age, that’s no mean feat. Everything has fallen into place so nicely. We’re incredibly blessed; there is no other word for it.”

“Being able to play in an old vaudeville theater really creates an amazing atmosphere since so much of this music was performed in nice houses like this,” reflects Flemons. “This is for both the performers and the audience.  They are transported to an earlier time just by being entertained the way that people have been entertained for over a century.”

On Saturday night, be prepared to be transported back in time, yet also into the future of music, as the Carolina Chocolate Drops hit the stage of the Rivoli Theatre. In the music of the Chocolate Drops, we see what it truly means to be a Deep Blue Innovator.

For more information, please visit the Chocolate Drops website. Also, be sure to visit the Chocolate Drops artist’s store on Amazon.com.

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