In this age of beats, electronic manipulation and Auto-Tune, there is a refreshing quality to the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Its old-timey fiddle and banjo music has lively energy and bright musicality. There's an understated funk/swing to "Boodle-De-Bum-Bum" and desperate emotion and almost punk-rock drive on "Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man?" Founding member Dom Flemons got into this music as many have: by digging Bob Dylan and The Beatles, tracing their contemporaries and going back from there.
"From Dylan you can get to Jimmie Rodgers or back to Muddy Waters, and then Son House and Charlie Patton, and that's how I got into the music of the 1920s," Flemons says.
He and Rhiannon Giddens attended the Black Banjo and Fiddle Gathering and started working with the legendary Joe Thompson, a black fiddle player from the Carolinas. The two started playing gigs together and took up the revival of black string-band music.
The banjo and fiddle often are associated with bluegrass and country music and typically white musicians.
"The music is more diverse than given credit for," Flemons says. "Black and white people have always played music together. It's one of the well-kept secrets that's not really a secret in American culture. People talk about white folk playing and sound like black music, but never black folk who sound like white people. There's Charlie Pride and Solomon Burke and Deford Bailey. It's music that's now associated with white culture, but it comes from a communal culture."
The Chocolate Drops play songs preserved by Thompson. They also have dug up old songs and learned music from old LPs.
"On the new record, there's some 19th-century minstrel music that Rhiannon picked up off sheet music," Flemons says. "'Negro Jig' and 'Briggs Corn Shucking Jig/Camptown Hornpipe' have interesting melodies that haven't been played in 150 years. We put that onstage and talk about that and blackface minstrelsy. There's more to it than white-guys-making-fun-of-black-guys that was popular for 100 years. There's a musical culture within this very popular form of theater, music and dance."
The Chocolate Drops start with the banjo, fiddle and bones of minstrel music and then add guitar, mandolin, jug, harmonica, snare drum, kazoo and at times cello. Besides the musical elements, songs feature other cultural and historic aspects.
"There's a number called 'Read 'Em, John,'" Flemons says. "I was drawn to it due to the melody and the phrasing. Then I learned more about the song. It talks about emancipation and how learning to read and write was an important thing for people of color so they could tell their people in their own communities about the freedom they got from the Emancipation Proclamation. The song was interesting, but there is a whole other dimension to it that was brought out by its history."
The band also is interested in both entertaining and building a community around the music.
"(The music) is accessible," Flemons says. "Folk and old-time music has an inclusive quality to it. And now we need this more than ever."