Past Present Future: An Interview with the Carolina Chocolate Drops

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Leaving Eden

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” wrote southerner William Faulkner in his 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun. Thirty-six years later, Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved, from the point of view of an African-American woman in Reconstruction-era Ohio, that “The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out.” Faulkner’s argument: the present is always full of the past, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Morrison weighs the beauty and foundation of the past against its terrors and threats, but her characters can choose what to keep and what to leave behind.

These differing perspectives are partly what makes contemporary old-time music so interesting, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops so riveting. For seven years the North Carolina-based black string band has played deeply historical music, choosing on their own terms what to keep, what to leave out, what to revive, rearrange and, in the case of their cover of R&B artist Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, what to re-imagine completely. Any number of indie-folk bands will dip into the American songbook with abandon, load up a banjo and fiddle, and put on button-up vests and bowler hats, but I can’t think of any who are as invested in and connected to a living history as the Chocolate Drops. Or anywhere near as good. Without pretense, they put the discussion onto the stage; their live shows are raucous and casual, their performances intense and their instruction subtle and always from a personal point of view.

“We don’t want to be the end of the dialogue, we want to be the beginning,” singer and fiddler Rhiannon Giddens tells me over the phone from North Carolina as the band prepares to tour in support of its new album, Leaving Eden. As an example of that dialogue, Giddens offers the history of the banjo, a crucial component in black string band music and often assumed to be exclusively a white, bluegrass instrument. “Just saying black people were the only people playing the banjo for the first hundred years of its existence — that’s a huge statement, you know? It’s a fact, and that makes a lot of other questions come into being: ‘What does that mean? What came next? How can I find out more about this?’ Which is what we want.”

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Leaving Eden sounds like a statement, too. After the increased exposure thanks to relentless touring and the success of their Grammy Award-winning breakthrough Genuine Negro Jig, Giddens and Dom Flemons were faced with the departure of their fellow founding member, Justin Robinson. They could have doubled down on what they already knew best, but instead they expanded their lineup to include multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins, cellist Leyla McCalla, and Adam Matta on beatbox. The result? Leaving Eden is just as electrifying as Genuine Negro Jig (sans electricity, of course), a more diverse and, with Nashville vet Buddy Miller at the board, warmer recording that blends contemporary originals with covers of nearly-forgotten string band tunes like “Riro’s House” and “Po’ Black Sheep”. Listening the first time around, you feel like anything can happen.

So is the past never dead? Or should it be stomped out? Which past, you might wonder. The history of black string bands in America has been little more than a whisper in commercial and even academic circles, despite its fundamental influence. While it certainly never died, it stayed on the margins while the genres it helped create flourished. And the discussion about black string bands is not purely a musical one. “It’s about American history,” Giddens points out, “and so much that’s been covered up and not talked about: the whole idea of the Great Migration, blacks living in the country, the formation of roots music. There are things that are happening now racially that go all the way back to the beginning of the country.”

Curating the past is important, but it can be easy to forget that there are musicians still alive today who’ve been carrying the torch. One such musician is the old-time fiddler Joe Thompson, an enormous influence on the Chocolate Drops with whom they recorded an entire album. The band helps other musicians by sitting on the board of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that financially aids and furthers the careers of mainly older, southern roots musicians — and some younger ones, too. “They really have helped direct and develop us since the very beginning,” says Giddens, “so we’re giving back in kind. Dom in particular will play with some of the older blues musicians, back them up on their records. We were their first young group. They’ve been expanding, looking for people who are bearing tradition in their own way.”

Supporting and furthering that tradition has personal meaning, too. A classically-trained singer who studied opera at Oberlin College, Giddens describes how playing black string-band music has connected her with her own history. “I can find pieces of my great-grandparents, my grandparents, and even my parents,” she says as her young daughter plays in the background.

Generations, time, and geography — as we talk, I’m struck by how strongly Giddens identifies with the South, which courses through her powerful original, “Country Girl”. “I was partly raised in the country,” says Giddens. “I just wanted to write a song about being in the South, and about the realization that I never want to live anywhere other than North Carolina. I’m not really a big songwriter, but there wasn’t anything out there that said what I wanted to say. So I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll try my own.'”

“Country Girl”, Giddens tells me, became possible with the band’s new collaborators, particularly McCalla on cello and Matta doing a subtle beatbox. “Some stuff that we’d been wanting to do for awhile that’d never quite worked with the trio, we were able to pull out and put on the table.”

A lot is on the table on this record. You’ve got Flemons and Jenkins arranging South African guitarist Hannes Coetzee’s buoyant “Mahalla”, and the entire group belting out “Read ‘Em John”, learned from the Alan Lomax-collected recordings of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, another nearly-forgotten body of American song. Combining all of these sources on one record seems to beg the question, Is there anything the Carolina Chocolate Drops won’t touch? The band often gets asked about covering “Dixie” on their 2006 album Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind — “If reclaiming it means we just decided to record it,” says Giddens, “then okay” — and the title of their last album spins many directions, but I’m thinking more about those pesky ‘rules’ and expectations that can creep up in traditionalist circles. Do they ever think, “Oh, we can’t do that?”

“There’s definitely songs we’d stay away from because of questionable language,” says Giddens, “and we’re like, ‘We’re not going to touch that right now.’ Maybe someday. There’s plenty of stuff that we can do right now that’s fabulous. Sometimes we try a song, and say, ‘Eh,’ that’s not going to work. And there are some things that, as a southerner, I’m not really comfortable with us doing, or doing in a different way. But for the most part, we look at it from an artistic and musical point of view.”

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Along with “Pretty Bird” by the late Hazel Dickens, the song “Leaving Eden” anchors the record with notes of melancholy, survival and change. The title track was written by the band’s North Carolina neighbor, Laurelyn Dossett. Giddens calls it “one of those timeless pieces” and yet, with its story of a family leaving a town destroyed by the closing of a mill, “very current.” In one verse, Giddens’ voice lilts mournfully that “The crows are in the kitchen, the wolves are at the door/Our fathers’ land of Eden is paradise no more”. While some make a stand, the narrator and her family hit the road in search of work, exhausted by a “hard life of workin’ with nothing much to show, a long life leaving with nowhere to go”.

You can hear in the song a personal story, a portrait of a place at a certain time — in December 2011, North Carolina’s unemployment rate was at ten percent — and a broader story of the American working poor. But the Carolina Chocolate Drops take the subtlest of political stances in their music, having decided as a group to stay away from anything too overtly political. I ask if a song like “Leaving Eden” doesn’t lend itself, though, to social commentary and a political discussion, given the state of the economy.

“The thing is, we’re just telling the story,” says Giddens. “That’s the story of people in a town, and that’s just the way it is. If people want to put things onto it, we can’t help that. Our job is to tell everyday stories about what’s happening with people on the ground. It’s more effective to tell a great story than it is to try to be political.”

So the listener can find a political message in the song, but that’s what he or she is bringing to it?

“That’s it,” says Giddens. “We’re there to entertain first, and educate second. Anything else that comes out of that, people have to take for themselves.”

“So many things get politicized in this country,” she goes on to say. “What we’re doing, it’s not like we’ve been around for twenty years, or there’s been a lot of other groups doing what we’re doing. So we want to keep the focus on the music and the history. I did a little stuff myself for Occupy Wall Street, but that’s mine and I don’t pull it into the band. We already have so much to say, we don’t want that to get lost in politics.”

That approach applies to other political issues besides economics and work. Women’s rights, for instance. In the jaunty “No Man’s Mama”, the narrator is so happy to have left her husband, it’s unlikely anyone could miss the message. Giddens pulled the Ethel Waters song from Blues Ladies, a collection of early jazz tunes. “She’s a fabulous singer,” says Giddens. “I couldn’t believe that nobody had covered the song. The chorus is great, the verses are so clever. That was back when people wrote clever songs. I have a history of picking stories with strong female protagonists, just because I feel like there’s never enough of that in the world.” But, as Giddens points out, “The song isn’t really a statement on divorce, per se, it’s one person’s story.” She adds with a laugh, “I’m happily married, you know, and hopefully will never be divorced.”

As we talk, Giddens tries to keep her daughter entertained, and I’m reminded that future generations need to be looked after, too. The dialogue about race and music that arises from the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ live and recorded performances is an important one, even if — or especially if — some think we began magically living in a post-racial society once America elected a black president.

“They’ve done studies with kids and their parents,” says Giddens after I bring this up, “and when they don’t talk about it, that’s when kids get these terrible ideas. Dialogue has to happen or we’re doomed to repeat the past, and nobody wants that. Well, I don’t, anyway.”

But as with all things Chocolate Drops, the music comes first and opens up the conversation. Listening to Leaving Eden, it’s impossible to miss the vast and rich diversity of black music in America, from the Georgia Sea Island Singers to the minstrel tradition brought to life in “Kerr’s Negro Jig”, and from the great Piedmont musician Etta Baker (“West End Blues”) to the band’s mentor, Joe Thompson, who taught them the traditional string band number “Riro’s House” that opens the record. When they cover songs written by white musicians, including the propulsive “Ruby (Are You Mad at Your Man?)” by the Kentucky banjo player Cousin Emmy, you hear the give and take that has gone on for centuries between white and black musicians throughout the Appalachians and the south. It all complicates the too-narrow idea some might have about not only the tradition of black music in America, but what it means to be black.

“We try not to actively do anything other than put on a really good show,” says Giddens, “but we do believe in something holistic. I wrote ‘Country Girl’ from a personal point of view, and then it was Song of the Day on NPR, and they talked about how African-Americans are coming back to the south for the first time since they left it in numbers — a reverse migration. So country isn’t just about white, it’s about black, too. And you know, when I heard that, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m really happy the song would stand for that.'”

“But I wrote it personally,” she adds, “without any bigger theme. We do what’s in front of us, and then these themes develop that most of the time we agree with, and sometimes we don’t. We let the music go through us, and do our part.”