A Crush on History, a Love of Change
The Carolina Chocolate Drops is an American acoustic band playing in a traditional string band style. Their instruments include four-string banjo, five-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, quills, fiddle, beatbox, tambourine, mandolin, and cello. They use a mix of both traditional arrangements and their own creations, performing both their own and traditional Americana songs. Occasionally they also do recent 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, took the time to answer some of Wanda Waterman’s questions about the band’s unique way of embracing tradition.
?Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table
Eating them beans and making love as long as I am able
Growing corn and cotton too and when the day is over
Ride the mule and cut the fool and love again all over.?
Oldies, Field Recordings, and Dixieland
I’ve always had a love for history and for older music in general. My first interests in music were from the oldies station. A lot of rock ?n? roll, doo-wop, ?60s rock, and pop. Later I grew an interest in folk music from the ?60s, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Lightnin? Hopkins, and people like that. I also enjoyed a lot of field recordings and New Orleans jazz as I got into college, and bebop when I was still doing slam poetry. After I did slam poetry for a bit I really got into the older songster repertoire and started going from there. That was around the time I first went to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005.
I think the most mesmerizing experience I ever had was when I went to go see Dave Van Ronk in Phoenix, Arizona in 2001. He was such an engaging performer. He was sick at the time and would sadly pass away maybe four or five months later, but he left an impression on me. I was sitting in the back and had hooked up my four-track to the board. I recorded the show, which was an intimate audience of maybe 40 people. It changed my life and it made me want to do what he did. He not only played the songs he sang, but he had a story for every song. Some were historical, some were anecdotal, and some were connected to his personal experience with the performer associated with the song (he told stories about John Hurt, Bob Dylan, Reverend Gary Davis, Tom Paxton, and Clarence Williams). It blew my mind, and I started forming my shows around that idea. I found that it was so important to talk to an audience about the music. You never know what people are going to take away from it. I’ve kept this way of playing a show with me since from the Black Banjo Gathering to now.
For the group, I know that Joe Thompson has been a huge influence. When Rhiannon, Justin, and I first started going down to see him there was a great sense of making good music and also that we were helping a long tradition of string bands live on. This was all just by going to Joe’s house on Thursday nights. We never talked a lot about those things when we were there, we just played music. I know that I always felt blessed to be able to be a part of that.
On my own level, I would say that a fellow by the name of Gavan Weiser gave me my most beneficial experience. When I first started playing guitar I had a flat pick, and I kept dropping it in the sound hole. It was a terrible experience every time I tried to get it out of there. I was about 16 and I saw Gavan play guitar with his fingers. His main gig was playing bass in a punk band, so when he played acoustic guitar he just strummed it. I adapted what I saw him doing, not knowing that playing with my fingers would open up a whole new [form] of guitar playing.
I’m always looking for a new sound, and even when I just sit and listen to records with other people it creates a new experience with that music. Also, folks who are into roots music usually have their own set of research they’ve done on their own and they’re usually more than willing to share, which is also a wonderful thing. That’s probably the best training I’ve ever received: Share the knowledge if you’ve got it.
Surprisingly, we haven’t received a lot of flack face to face about our choice of titles and the like. Most times, once people see that we’re serious about our music and that we’re not trying to do a bunch of shuck and jive they get it. “Carolina Chocolate Drops” is an homage to older black string bands and we have never tried to shy away from the uncomfortable racial, social, and political aspects of our material.
That being said, our first notion has always been to present the music and material in a respectful and articulate way so that our audience can enjoy the music without needing to know the history, while making sure the historical materials are present for those who are interested.
To be continued . . .