It’s easy to think that the Carolina Chocolate Drops were all about “reclaiming the banjo” and taking back a strand of American vernacular music of the 19th and early 20th centuries that had been culturally appropriated. And, despite the band members protestations to the contrary in interviews there is surely something to that – for here’s a strand of folk music that had been debased through vaudeville and beyond. Hard to credit but our own cultural bastion that is the BBC was still putting out the unbelievable abomination that was ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show‘ as recently as 1978. The Carolina Chocolate Drops though presented a far purer form of music than that – gathered from scraps of collected material, early pre-jazz age recordings and from the surviving few members of the kind of band they were aiming to recreate. And they did it in style.
We’re talking ‘Old-timey‘ or ‘String-band‘ music, but across their releases the Carolina Chocolate Drops demonstrated that there was a lot going on – musical influences coming from Africa and Europe blending together into something unique and exciting. Dance music is at the heart of it – there are various jigs and hornpipes typically played at a frantic pace – and these illustrate that crossover effect well. ‘Snowden’s Jig (Genuine Negro Jig)‘ is an eerie stately fiddle led tune with percussion provided by clacking bones and finger cymbals – it sounds like something from Southern Spain, maybe in the 17th century. This isn’t the whole story of the Carolina Chocolate Drops by any means across their five albums (and one live album). There are plenty of bawdy call and response songs revolving around the delights of jellyroll, there are original songs including one by Justin Robinson ‘Kissin’ and Cussin’‘ which adds some auto-harp to the sound and may just be the best thing they recorded. Amongst their covers the reworking of ‘Hit ‘Em Up Style‘ shows how a modern song can be successfully rejigged to fit a string band style.
The band were originally Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, with several guest members. All three sang, and their live performances would see a deal of instrument swapping. From 2010 there was a series of line-up shakeups, with first Robinson and then Flemons leaving the band. This left Rhiannon Giddens as the only founder member, and after her hugely successful solo albums The Carolina Chocolate Drops pretty much went on permanent hiatus.
The Canon: a series of five albums, a live album, a film soundtrack appearances on the OST of ‘The Great Debaters’ and a track on the surprisingly good ‘The Hunger Games: songs from District 12 and Beyond‘.
Key Release: It’s all good, of course, and what else could be expected from such a talented band? Rhiannon Giddens has a knock-you-down-dead vocal, Dom Flemons is the master of the sly innuendo and Justin Robinson is a superb songwriter. If you only grab one album though then it has to be ‘Genuine Negro Jig‘ which shows off every side of the band superbly, and casually drops in an unaccompanied version of ‘Reynadine‘ gorgeously sung by Giddens.