The Carolina Chocolate Drops Shine a Light on Country Music’s Neglected Roots

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Genuine Negro Jig

According to Patrick Huber’s Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South, the role of North Carolina’s Piedmont region — the pre-World War II textile capital of the world — in the formation of country music tends to be ignored, as many tend to view the genre as solely a product of the rural South. The Carolina Chocolate Drops have spent the last five years touring and recording extensively, drawing attention to the oft-ignored history of the African-American string band and reviving the Piedmont sound as they blend it with… well, just about everything. Their newest release, Genuine Negro Jig, effortlessly transitions from Civil War Era fiddle tunes to Blu Cantrell’s 2001 single “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, placing old songs in modern context and imbuing new songs with centuries-old sound. Perhaps the most dynamic band in roots music, the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ live shows are, quite simply, spellbinding as they make a joyful noise with fiddles, banjos, bones, autoharps, jugs, and good old handclaps. Having recently nailed down a Bonnaroo slot, the trio (Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson) will get the opportunity to bring their irresistible sound to their largest audience to date. We caught up with Justin Robinson, the band’s fiddler/beatboxer/footstomper fresh off their European tour.

The son of an opera singer, Robinson grew up studying violin (he’s not the only one with ties to opera, either: bandmate Giddens is a classically trained soprano; contra dancing was her gateway drug into the world of old time and folk music). It wasn’t until he attended the University of North Carolina that he began developing an interest in old time music: “I really liked it, I really wanted to play it, and I’m the type of person who goes for things whole hog.” One thing led to another and soon Robinson found himself at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering, which is where the musicians who would eventually become the Chocolate Drops first met. Under the tutelage of fiddler Joe Thompson, the last surviving African-American traditional string band musician, Robinson, Flemons, and Giddens began honing their own sound.

Although the Chocolate Drops are heavily influenced by the Piedmont sound, they wouldn’t describe themselves as a purely old time band. “We listen to a lot of traditional music but we can only use it as it’s relevant to us,” Robinson says. “We don’t try to recreate stuff [exactly as it is on a record] because that recording is already there.” Instead, the goal is to keep the “bare bones” of the original song and then incorporate their own varied influences. The result bridges past and present, and in a time where many aren’t aware of the banjo’s heritage or of the African-American influence in folk and country music, draws connections between genres often thought of as disparate.

While the Chocolate Drops have been very vocal about Joe Thompson’s influence on the band when they were first getting off the ground, they also had another important artist in their corner: the late, legendary musician and musicologist Mike Seeger. “Dom and I went to see him and we were just thrilled. We kept turning to each other and saying ‘Did you hear what he just said? Did you see what he just did?’” Robinson recalls, his voice channeling the giddiness of that day. “We were just giggling, and I think Dom even spent more time with him after that. But yeah, he was really, really encouraging, helping us out and giving us recordings, giving us advice. He was sort of seeing a parallel between our music and our career with his work with [The New Lost City Ramblers]. He was so humble but also very passionate about the music, and he wasn’t going to compromise it for anybody.”

There are similarities between the way Seeger and the Chocolate Drops approach their music. Attending a Carolina Chocolate Drops show is an experience that’s half front porch sing-a-long, half history lesson. Nearly every song gets introduced by one or more of the band members relating when and where they first came across said song, whether it’s from another band or a childhood viewing of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Perhaps the most interesting of these anecdotes is the one behind their footstomping, bone-rattling take on “Snowden’s Jig/Genuine Negro Jig”, which made its way to the Chocolate Drops via a 19th century manuscript.

The Snowdens were an African American family string band from Ohio; some credit them with composing “Dixie” and subsequently teaching it to Dan Emmett, the man who’s most often associated with the song. Whether this anecdote is factual or not, the use of “Genuine Negro Jig” as an album title can be interpreted in several ways. Robinson acknowledges the potential divisive nature of the album title, but denies any deeper meaning to it. “We knew it was going to be provocative… People have asked us ‘Are you trying to say something about the reclamation of this, that and the other?’ No, not really. That was the title on the manuscript for that particular tune and we just sort of lifted it wholesale. It’s not a statement about anything in particular.”

Like their previous projects, Genuine Negro Jig is almost entirely a covers album. The one original song, “Kissin’ and Cussin'”, was written by Robinson, who was “riffing off an Ike and Tina Turner song called ‘Cussin’ and Cryin’ and Carryin’ On’.” It may be inspired by late ’60s soul, but the finished product channels old-time murder ballads as Robinson sings, “Tell me, pretty baby, do you think you’re too sweet to die?” (The only other original in the Drops’ repertoire, “The Earl King”, written by Dom Flemons, is based on the old German folktale/Goethe poem “Der Erlkonig”.)

While the Carolina Chocolate Drops are quickly becoming a household name among folkies, the response from the African American community has been a little lackluster. Says Robinson “There are a couple things about our music that aren’t typical of [modern] black music. It’s been billed as folk music for a long time and there’s not really a built-in black audience for folk music — at this point, there’s not really a black audience for blues music either, so that’s the first battle. The second battle is that most black people do not associate black people with the banjo, and that’s an uphill battle. If they come to the show they usually end up enjoying it but it’s sort of like you’re working against a good 60, 80, 100 years of popular belief. That in itself can be hard. People enjoy the shows, it’s just getting them there.”

With Genuine Negro Jig finally netting the Carolina Chocolate Drops the attention they deserve, that might not be such a problem anymore.