Bledsoe: Carolina Chocolate Drops cross divide

"Genuine Negro Jig," Carolina Chocolate Drops (Nonesuch)

There was a time when the musical divide between rural white Americans and rural African-Americans wasn't quite so vast. While mores and laws may have prohibited blacks and whites from officially inter-mingling, black and white musicians were trading songs and licks across the racial divide on a regular basis. Listen to "the Father of Country Music" Jimmie Rodgers or "the Father of Bluegrass" Bill Monroe and you're hearing the influence of black musicians who introduced those artists to the blues.

However, the black contribution to string band music has been poorly documented or intentionally hidden in country music and, even worse, disowned by African-American culture where the term "country" became a supreme insult.

Count Dom Flemmons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, who call themselves the Carolina Chocolate Drops, as three African-Americans who aren't afraid to embrace their country roots. It might be enough that the group act as much-needed historians and revivalists (the group's title is an homage to the Knoxville-based Tennessee Chocolate Drops of the late 1920s and early 1930s), but the trio reclaims string band music with a sense of passion and fun that is infectious.

The 'Drops' sound is definitely pre-old Bill Monroe. The title cut, credited as "Snowden's Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)," was introduced by Dan Emmett (who also introduced "Dixie") in the mid-1800s. However, Emmett may have gotten both this song and "Dixie" from an Ohio black family named Snowden. The joyous and lovable "Cornbread and Butterbeans" was first recorded by a North Carolina group called the Carolina Sunshine Trio. And, the 'Drops' understand that much of this music was built for dancing. Other vintage songs were picked up from jazz, blues, folk and country musicians.

Yet, even when the group contributes new original songs, the old-time stamp is heavy. Robinson's "Kissin' and Cussin'" features an autoharp and banjo and sounds as if it could've originated from some isolated holler where some unhappy lover composed it on his porch.

Producer Joe Henry is smart enough to step back and let the trio do their stuff. The members trade banjos, fiddles, guitars, other instruments and vocal duties with ease.

It's easy to tell the Carolina Chocolate Drops aren't just tourists in old-time music. This is their home.

Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or bledsoew@knoxville.com. He is also the host of "All Over the Road" midnight Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays on WDVX-FM.

Get Copyright Permissions © 2010, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!

© 2010 Knoxville.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

fgraffeo writes:

The Drops are playing a benefit concert for the Joy of Music School on May 16 in the Bijou. (Joy of Music provides free lessons for kids who can't afford them.) Can't wait! Should be a great concert.

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.

Already activated? Login