Carolina Chocolate Drops find common ground between old, new
It seems history is set to repeat itself. The trio of young African-American string band musicians are heading back to town for two nights at The Ark on Oct. 2 and 3, and Dom Flemons (at right in the photo), who plays banjo and bones, couldn’t be happier. And he has a special reason for looking forward to the Ann Arbor show.
“It’s an actual folk crowd,” he said. “Seeing the way the people really enjoy the folk music is awesome.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops learned their craft from 90-plus-year-old Joe Thompson, said to be the last representative of a once-flourishing tradition of black string band music. The group plays everything from old-time tunes with an African-American flavor to jug band music, gospel, sometimes a song in the Scots Gaelic of the Cape Fear River region, and even acoustic treatments of contemporary R&B and hip-hop. Listen to Carolina Chocolate Drops "Starry Crown" (MP3).
Among the tunes that delighted the Folk Festival crowd — and possibly raised a few eyebrows among purists — was a cover version of R&B singer Blu Cantrell’s tune “Hit ’Em Up Style,” with Rhiannon Giddens providing vocals, Flemons on banjo and Justin Robinson offering vocal percussion, beat-box style.
Carolina Chocolate Drops perform “Hit ’Em Up Style,”:
Flemons says the group has found a common ground between some of the traditional music and newer music.
“It’s all the same stuff in the end,” he explained. “(It’s) just a matter of what you call it. Even in the traditional world, 100 years ago, a pop number gets into the folk music, and people just start requesting it. Stuff like ‘Pop Goes the Weasel.’ We were down in Alabama and people wanted to hear ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ String band musicians have always done that, taken pop music tunes and applied them to the music that they were already playing.”
Although it seems like good bones players are few and far between (anyone remember the late Ann Arbor bones player Percy Danforth?), Flemons said it shouldn’t be considered an endangered art.
“There are a lot of bones players around. It’s easy to hide them in the background,” he observed, adding the bones are a visual experience as well as musical.
“Once you have a handle on them, they follow every body motion that you make. It’s an interesting experience when you let the music take ahold of you and let rhythm flow from your body. That’s one of the strengths of our group — in our very best performances you’ll see that all three of us are moving as one unit. There’s a certain power, energy that’s formed when you are all moving at one time that a single person just can’t do.”
The Ark shows are some of the first the group has played since the birth of a child to vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and dancer Giddens, and Flemons said she’s up to the challenge.
“She’s been fine with it,” he said. “She’s doing a little more here and there practicing up. ... Since she had the baby, we’ve been taking a break.”
By “break,” he means a hiatus from touring. Now signed to the prestigious Nonesuch label, Carolina Chocolate Drops have a new studio CD coming out in January.
“They were as just as good people as we always heard,” Flemons said of the label. “They are an amazing company. They got us hooked up with (songwriter/producer) Joe Henry, another good fellow, Now we’re just waiting. It’s been 8-9 months we’ve been working on it.”
Flemons also had a few words to offer for the uninitiated about what to expect at the show.
“Some good old fiddle and banjo music, good music to dance to, so get your dancing shoes on. On top of that, you’ll get a little jazz in there, and a little bit of country music, and then some surprises (and) ‘Hit ’Em Up Style,’ most likely.
“We’re really glad to be coming back,” he added. “We’ve really had a good time in Ann Arbor each time we’ve been asked.”
Carolina Chocolate Drops Who: Trio of young African-American string band musicians — a huge hit at the 2009 Ann Arbor Folk Festival. What: Traditional fiddle and banjo tunes from the Carolina Piedmont. Where: The Ark, 316 S. Main St. When: 8 p.m. Oct. 2 and 3. How much: $15. Info: The Ark web site.
Roger LeLievre is a free-lancer who writes about music for AnnArbor.com