'Fresh Air' Favorites: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Jan 1, 2020

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy New Year, and happy new decade. Today we continue our end of the decade series, featuring staff picks from the 2010s or whatever we call that decade. Today, some of our favorite studio concerts that we recorded over the last 10 years.

First up is the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that follows in the tradition of Black string bands from the 1920s and '30s. They all play a variety of instruments, including fiddle, guitar, banjo and bones. We recorded this interview in 2010 when the Chocolate Drops consisted of Don Flemons, Justin Robinson and Rhiannon Giddens. Only Giddens is still with the Chocolate Drops, and all three have gone on to have solo careers. We started the concert with them performing "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Everybody talking about the sweet nowadays. I got the one with the sweetest ways. Your baby may roll a jelly fine. Nobody's baby can roll it like mine. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do. Yes, she does.

She even call me honey. She even let me spend my money. Never has a baby put me out though. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to brag; just want to put you in line, your baby ain't sweet like mine, no, no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. Oh, play that horn. Oh, play like you just don't like it. Yeah mine, you look very good. Blow on that jug.

Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do, yes, sir. She even call me honey. She even let me spend the money. Never had a baby put me out of though. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to brag; just want to put you in line, your baby ain't sweet like mine, no, no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine, yeah, yeah. Your baby ain't sweet like mine.

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Laughter) Fantastic. That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Who chose that song, and why?

DOM FLEMONS: Oh, that was a song that I chose. That was a piece that was originally recorded by a fellow named Papa Charlie Jackson, who was a six-string banjo player out of New Orleans. And I just really liked the number. And a lot of his numbers aren't performed anymore, so that was one that I've kept in my repertoire for quite a while.

GROSS: String bands are usually considered a white Southern tradition, and you're a band of African American musicians. And you've found a black string band tradition that you feel part of, but did you fall in love with this music before you knew that there was a black string band tradition?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Yep.

FLEMONS: Absolutely.

GIDDENS: Yeah.

GROSS: And did you fall in love with about it?

GIDDENS: Well, I fell in love with the rhythm. I was a contra-dancer and a square-dancer, and I just - I was seduced by the banjo, the rhythm of the claw-hammer banjo. That just really pulled me in. And then - then I found out about the history, and then I went, oh, this is really deep. And then it just - I was done. I was done for then, you know? It was - that was it.

GROSS: So discovering this music and falling in love with it without knowing there was an African American tradition, did you feel like maybe you weren't supposed to like it, you know, maybe you would never fit in with it, maybe there wouldn't be a place for you, where people would think you were odd to to gravitate toward the music?

FLEMONS: Well, definitely the odd thing. That's a definite just because there - any black person who's involved in a folk music scene anywhere knows that they're - it's either they've been just the one of them or maybe someone else. And I think that's how I was in Phoenix. I was the only black person, but I was also the only person that was under, like, 40...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FLEMONS: ...In the scene in Phoenix that I was in. But I just kind of plowed on myself, and I know Justin had a really similar story.

JUSTIN ROBINSON: Yeah, I - oh, lord, I just forgot the question.

(LAUGHTER)

FLEMONS: Weird - being a weird black person.

ROBINSON: Oh. Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's it, being a weird black person.

GIDDENS: We're all really familiar with being a weird black person.

ROBINSON: Yeah. I mean, guess for me, it was sort of - I didn't have the same thing with the age thing because there were certainly lots of people - when I started playing in Chapel Hill, there were certainly lots of people around my age doing it. But I certainly was the only black person at the time doing it. But that was not going to stop me. I mean, I think it's characteristic of all of us is that we were sort of misfits, you might want - you might say - in our own right when we grew up. So doing something just because it wasn't cool or because you weren't supposed to, we're certainly not any stranger to that.

GIDDENS: Yeah, I was sort of used to it because I was - after I graduated from college, I really got into, like, Scottish music. So I was always getting, you know, so, you know, how come you're playing this kind of music, you know? And so I was just kind of used to that. So it didn't really - I just kind of just kept on going just like Justin was saying.

GROSS: How come you were playing that kind of music?

GIDDENS: Oh, I just liked it.

GROSS: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm.

GIDDENS: Yeah. I mean, there's really nothing more to it than that.

GROSS: Well, you were already used to not being cool, too, because, I mean, you sang opera before doing...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's a pretty quick way to not be cool, yeah,

GIDDENS: Yeah, it's true. That's true.

GROSS: Part of the tricky aspect of string band music is that part of its roots are in minstrel shows, part of its roots are in blackface. And so it gets really kind of complicated when you go back to the early history of that music. So I wonder how - what it was - what it's been like for you to negotiate that aspect of the music and to deal with separating the music itself from some of the stereotypes that were foisted on the musicians who played.

FLEMONS: I think something that we have that as a new generation of player in the old-time music is that we are educated, and we're approaching the music at a emotional distance that just has not been there in earlier generations.

Before, you'd look back at those aspects of history, and people just would say, don't touch that. That's the worst stuff in the world, and that's what's ruining the world. And now in this generation, we're able to actually start piecing those things apart just because, you know, we want to take the benefits and also try to make what's right or see what actually happened or what was misappropriated or what was good because the thing about a lot of the black string band music is not much of the music was put down on recording. And that's a very essential part of understanding black music is hearing it. And, you know, delving into it, you find some things that are off-putting. But at the same time, you got to think in the context of the past instead of thinking in the context of the present.

GIDDENS: And that's been - I think that's been something in the African American community that's been - it's not something that we've done very much of, is looking back, you know? It's really been a forward push for lots of different reasons. And as Dom was saying, I think we are one of the first generations who - I mean, there's still a lot of stuff that's, you know, needs to be fixed. And there's a lot of people that are still, you know, in bad situations. But I think as a whole, we're one of the first generations in the African American community that has been able to look back without personally being as touched by it.

You know, like our parents, they went through the civil rights movement. They - you know, they went through all of these things. And they're really personally wrapped up into a lot of this stuff, whereas we're of a generation where we can - we're getting it through - filtered through our parents and our grandparents and that we can step back and go, OK, so what can we glean from this, and what can we take from some of this really painful stuff that, you know, we might want to just kick under the rug? What can we take from it that it's the good stuff, you know?

A lot of our early African American history, you know, there's a lot of bad stuff in there. But, you know, there's a lot of good stuff, too. I mean, the minstrel shows and the stereotyping and that's all clearly very bad, but there's a lot of great music and dance. And there's a lot of black musicians and dancers who persevered through the stereotype and who were able to, you know, show their skill and their entertaining, and they were able to do that. And so what - we can take the good stuff from that now, I think, along with knowing that there was bad stuff.

GROSS: Now, Dom, among the instruments you play are four-string banjo, bones and jug. Do you actually use, like, animal bones? Or are they...

FLEMONS: Yeah. In one hand, I do have cow bones. And in my other hand, I carry wood bones. But that's just a - that's a sound thing.

GROSS: Get out the cow bones for us.

FLEMONS: All right. Cow bones are set. (Playing cow bones).

GROSS: Are cows like - do cows have the best bones for percussion?

FLEMONS: Well, they have big bones. And those are - that makes for the best - like, you know, you can't use the little ribs that you see in, you know, your, you know, the smaller pork ribs in the barbecue shack or anything. You have to have the big Texas Longhorn, like, bones.

And I haven't made any myself. I've been fortunate that people have given me different bones. And it's a pretty intense process. But I've heard different ways to do it. One fellow told me that you can put it next to an anthill and then throw it on the roof for a week.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. The anthill is so - to eat off the meat?

FLEMONS: Yeah. Yeah, because that's what - I mean, you got to remember when you got these, you got these gigantic bones that have all the meat and the fat on it. And you got to get all that off. And the two ways I've found is that, put it next to an anthill. And the other one is boil it in water for a couple of days. And I heard that that's an awful thing to have in a house.

And once you get the meat and stuff off it, then you have to - you either bake them in an oven and, like I said before, throw them on the roof or, you know, just dry them out. And once they're dry, you cut the bone down because at first, they're gigantic. You cut those bones down, and you sand them. And then you can put a lacquer on it or, you know, a lacquer or, you know, whatever you want to do after that to make them look nice.

GROSS: I'd like to ask you to perform another song, and the song is "Trouble In Your Mind." So before you play it for us, tell us why you chose it and what you love about the song.

FLEMONS: Well, this is one that Justin was playing that I reminded him one day at a jam that he played it. And it's a piece from an album called "Music From The Lost Provinces" put out by Old Hat Records. And it's just a nice breakdown, and we just started doing it.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE IN YOUR MIND")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) I wished I had a nickel. I wished I had a dime. I wish I had me a pretty girl. You know I'd call her mine. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind.

If you see that gal of mine, you tell her if you can, well, before she goes to make my bread to wash her nasty hands. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind.

GROSS: That was the Carolina Chocolate Drops doing "Trouble In Your Mind" recorded in 2010 on FRESH AIR. If you enjoyed that, we also have solo performances and interviews with Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens which you can find on our new FRESH AIR archive site. That's at freshairarchive.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.