Music Interviews
1:33 pm
Fri March 9, 2012

Carolina Chocolate Drops: Hooked On Old-Time Sounds

Originally published on Sat March 10, 2012 10:49 am

Carolina Chocolate Drops breathed new life into old-time music with the 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig, which put a contemporary spin on Southern string tools from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That collection went on to win a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

"I really didn't hear old-time music until I got into the contra dance community," says Rhiannon Giddens, singer and founding member of Carolina Chocolate Drops. "I just fell in love with the banjos, played claw-hammer style. I'd never really heard a whole lot of that, and that was it. I was completely hooked."

Giddens was trained in opera at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music — an unlikely start for her current career, but one she says has come in handy.

"The breathing that you'll learn, being able to sing through colds, being able to hold notes, that really does come from training," she says. "I'm really happy about that."

Here, Giddens and fellow band member Dom Flemons speak with NPR's Scott Simon about the group's new album, Leaving Eden.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Carolina Chocolate Drops put new life into old-timey music with their 2010 release. "Genuine Negro Jig" put a contemporary spin on Southern string tunes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And that collection went on to win a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Now, Chocolate Drops have returned with their banjos, bare bones and fiddles.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS SONG, "RIRO'S HOUSE")

SIMON: That's the opening cut of the Carolina Chocolate Drops' new CD, "Leaving Eden." In addition to string and jug-band music, the album includes folk, blues, fife and drum - and more. We're joined now by two of the band's founding members, Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons. They join us from the studios of Louisville Public Media. Thanks so much for being with us.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Thanks for having us.

DOM FLEMONS: Yes, thanks for having us.

SIMON: It's hard to sit still in the studio with music like that.

FLEMONS: Well, as the people playing it, we can't move too much or else the instruments would fly out of our hands. But, you know, we hope the audience feels that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Now, did I get this right, Rhiannon Giddens, you have an opera background?

GIDDENS: I do. I was classically trained at the Overland Conservatory; sang a lot of operas, and wore the powdered wigs and hoop skirts and all that stuff, and sing the high Q sharps. And it was really fun, but I'm having, I think, a bit more fun playing fiddle and banjo music, even though I still - I still like to sing classically 'cause it's amazing music.

SIMON: How did you find this music, Southern string tunes?

GIDDENS: Well, I'm from the South, so I grew up hearing, you know, stuff like bluegrass and stuff like that. But I didn't really hear old-time music until I got into the contra dance community. And I just fell in love with the banjo played clawhammer-style. I never really heard a whole lot of that. And that was it. I was completely hooked.

SIMON: Don Flemons, you're from Arizona.

FLEMONS: Yeah, that's right.

SIMON: Is that a string tune hotbed?

FLEMONS: No, no, not really. It's a - well, I mean, there is string music with like, Mexican string band music. That's the main thing that's over there.

SIMON: And how does someone from Arizona wind up with a stronger Southern accent than someone from North Carolina?

GIDDENS: Oh, you haven't heard me with my family. I'm putting on the - I'm putting on the straight accent for y'all.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GIDDENS: Don't get me started.

SIMON: There's some awfully nice singing on this CD. Let's listen to the high, lonesome sound of "Ruby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) I've done all I can do to try to get along with you. Still, you're not satisfied. Oh, Ruby, Ruby, honey, are you mad at your man?

SIMON: Wow. So, opera training come in there?

GIDDENS: It comes in everywhere - the breathing that you learn, being able to sing through colds, being able to hold notes - that comes - really does comes from my training, and I'm really happy about that.

SIMON: Let's listen, specifically, to some of Dom Flemons on the bones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY")

SIMON: I partly feel your music is, you're not just reworking these tunes but you're - I mean, you're adding stuff. You're updating the music; cello now and then. In some songs, like "Ruby" and "Country Girl," you got a beat box.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Dom Flemons, where is the line for you between absolute authenticity and your own creative instincts?

FLEMONS: That's a very gray area, 'cause even the traditional players that I've been influenced by, they even varied the traditions as they went along. So one of the things that I try to do when I'm interpreting the music is, there's a certain vocabulary that goes around a lot of the older styles of music. And so trying to find how to use that vocabulary and still present your own self within that vocabulary, that's something that I work at all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAHALLA")

SIMON: Let me ask you about another tune that's here - maybe a little bit unexpectedly. And that's the South African tune, "Mahalla."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAHALLA")

FLEMONS: As I heard about this song - so, Hannes Coetzee plays the guitar, and he has a teaspoon that he has in his mouth. And he slides on the top string of the guitar to make this whole tune happen. And as I was dubbing through the DVD, I found that there was a string band tradition that he was a part of in South Africa, that's very similar to the American string band tradition except it was like, the Dutch and the establishment, the Afrikaans language. And so it was a very similar parallel evolution of string band music. And so that was something that interested me in general. And then I just started playing the song on the banjo - because they had banjos and fiddles in that particular tradition, too.

SIMON: I have to ask, given your affection for this music and its origins and its history, you know, there's another aspect to some of that history too, which are the old minstrel shows of whites just kind of pretending to be African-American performers. How do you feel about some of that history?

GIDDENS: Well, it's complicated. And there definitely is a lot of really negative stuff in there. I mean, it's hard to read some of these songs. And the music is blameless. You know, the music is - there's some really beautiful, amazing music but that's kind of one of the first bump-up of black and white cultures, musically speaking. And so it's a really important part of history, and it is in the underpinnings of our current entertainment, you know.

FLEMONS: And then also the way that that led into things like Broadway and combined with the, like, Jewish theater traditions. And also, everybody was getting parodied at that time, in American culture - in every type of theater entertainment. So that's something to take into context, too. You know, when you're in a very, very racist society in general, it's very hard to try to judge the stuff from that period with our own, modern sensibilities. And so trying to look at it objectively instead of just having the knee-jerk reaction and saying, oh, that's racist; we can't touch it.

SIMON: Let's close out the interview the way you do this CD - a lovely, a cappella rendering of a tune called "Pretty Bird."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY BIRD")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Fly away, little pretty bird. Fly, fly away, fly away, little pretty bird, and pretty always stay...

GIDDENS: I just was really taken by this tune. And it's not one that I perform very often because it's just really hard, because it's just like, very emotional and incredibly, you know, sort of deep tune. And it seemed appropriate. And I was exhausted, and it was on the porch, and it was like, 11 o'clock at night. And I just kind of had to let the voice...

FLEMONS: And your family had to go away so you...

GIDDENS: Yeah. My daughter was crying. So I just had to let the voice go where it was going to go. They had to talk me into letting - me put it on the album, 'cause my voice went places I wasn't really expecting it to go. But it seems like people like it. So I'm OK with it now, I guess.

SIMON: Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their new CD is called "Leaving Eden." Thanks so much.

GIDDENS: Thank you.

FLEMONS: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY BIRD")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) I see in your eyes a promise...

SIMON: You can hear more tunes from "Leaving Eden" at NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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