In Conversation with . . .
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Part II
Volume 21 Issue 18 2013-05-17
To Make a Living Song
The Carolina Chocolate Drops is an American acoustic band playing in a traditional string band style. The band’s instruments include four and five-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, quills, fiddle, beatbox, tambourine, mandolin, and cello. They use a mix of both traditional and original arrangements and perform both their own and traditional Americana songs. Occasionally they also do pop songs in their own style. (Read the Voice review of the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ new album, Leaving Eden.) Recently the band’s co-founder, Dom Flemons, told Wanda Waterman the band’s secret for preserving tradition: feed it well and keep it active.
Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens have researched American fiddle and banjo music like Ph.D. candidates and are often asked to address audiences on the history of regional folk music. How do they escape academic strictures and keep this music so vibrant and alive?
“By making sure the music is good,” Dom states simply. “It’s one thing to hear a lecture about a song style and then to hear an authentic presentation, but the only way to really get it out to an audience is to make it a living song. The history is important, but it’s just as important to construct and arrange songs well. Folk music is not ‘popular’ music; folk music has to be presented in such a way that the audience can appreciate it whether they know the history or not.”
The Drops are not easy to pigeonhole. Purists they’re not, although in terms of musical authenticity they’re the best act in town. They keep tradition alive by allowing it to grow and develop along purely creative lines, following the dictates of the work in process rather than according to any set of rules imposed from the outside.
“‘Riro’s House’ is not a traditional arrangement,” Dom says. “Hubby and Rhiannon are playing the main arrangement that she and I learned from Joe Thompson, and I added snare drum and bass drum in the fife and drum style. While this may not seem like a big difference, these subtleties are the way we give the music our personal stamp, which is truly the way to make a modern song out of a traditional song—taking material from the past and making something new out of it.”
Repertoire also emerges organically; some songs simply show up unannounced and immediately win the agreement of all band members, while others need some time to incubate.
“My good friend Mike Baytop, who showed me a lot [of] things on the bones, told me this one time: ‘Music is like a good pot of greens. When you make it right, it tastes good, but it’s when you’ve let it sit for a day or two in [the] fridge that the flavors all really mix together.’ It’s like that.”
It takes time to nurture this kind of aesthetic, which is both exacting and libertarian: “Time off is the biggest thing I’ve been needing. I have a wife at home, and just being able to get back to her and my music collection is what I need to keep creating. Besides that, I do all of my work on the road.
“I listen to a lot of records, looking for unique songs and deciding which ones would be worth working on. It’s really a fun time since I enjoy listening to music in general.”
Dom feeds his creativity from a number of sources. Some of his favourites:
Books: African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia; Stomp and Swerve; The Chitlin’ Circuit: And The Road to Rock ’n’ Roll; Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem; Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words; The Negro Cowboys; and Where Dead Voices Gather
Albums: Altamont; Good For What Ails You; Atlanta Blues; Deep River of Song: Black Texicans; Henry Thomas, Texas Worried Blues; Blind Willie McTell, Last Session; and Gus Cannon, Walk Right In
Films: Festival!; Hallelujah; Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be; Rashoman; City Lights; And This Is Free; and Let It Be (bootleg)
“In terms of politics,” Dom says, “I’m a fan of our American culture. My contribution as an American citizen is to present the culture of America through its music, while not sugarcoating it. Our country always needs improvement and I feel that we can learn a lot from the music that’s been made by the people over several hundred years.
“Also, as a mixed-race person (black and Mexican), I find it so important to be able to create awareness about an important part of black culture that before we started was just not generally known by the public. Our group is one of a whole community of people, white and black, who’ve worked hard to bring this knowledge out to the world and discuss it seriously and critically through a love of music.
“Tour and start work on a new record. Rhiannon has a second baby on her way. I have a wife and it'll be good to spend time at home and also work on my own projects, whether solo or with friends. The future is wide open.
“We couldn’t do what we do as a group without the support of all of the folks who share a love for the old-time music, past and present. It’s been an honour to do what we do and I’m humbled to know that we've reached a few people so far and hopefully we’ll reach a few more before long.”
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