A Crush on History, a Love of Change
A few years ago I interviewed Dom Phlemons, who plays, by turns, four-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, and quills in one of my all-time favourite bands, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, an American acoustic ensemble playing in a traditional string band style. Their instruments include four-string banjo, five-string banjo, guitar, jug, harmonica, kazoo, snare drum, bones, quills, fiddle, beatbox, tambourine, mandolin, and cello. They use a mix of both traditional arrangements and their own creations, performing both their own and traditional American songs. Occasionally they also do covers of recent pop songs.
Invoking the Glory-Beaming Banjo
When you want genuine music—music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo! ~Mark Twain
Sound quests are among the most fascinating of journeys—you never know where you’ll end up or what you’ll be doing at the end of one. Dom Flemons arrived at traditional Southern string band music via a long musical exploration that began with a period of collecting Bob Dylan albums from the ’60s. Rhiannon Giddens came to the same musical subgenre from a classical career that included several operatic roles. She also dabbled in English contra dancing and had a stint in a Celtic band.
These are the kind of cultivated people who populated New Orleans after the Civil War. Were it not for the Jim Crow laws, they might have simply merged with the white upper crust and contributed to the high culture that already existed. Instead they were compelled to channel their refinements into “low” culture, eventually spawning a myriad of new musical genres, including jazz. In the course of all this, the United States developed one of the most vibrant popular cultures in human history.
The two founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons and Giddens, have now made it a five-member (and sometimes more) string band with fiddle, cello, guitar, and three kinds of banjo (including the gut-strung minstrel banjo which I’d never heard of before now) as well as the jug, the bones (like castanets), the quills (like a pan pipe), and the kazoo. Their performances include flatfoot dancing.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ repertoire sprouted from the early 20th-century folk tunes and string band arrangements of songs from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, much of it harking back to 19th-century minstrel shows wherein fiddles and banjos figured prominently.
Is there a pattern here? Earlier in the same week I’d reviewed Akal, an album by the Moroccan group Izenzaren, led by Igout, a master Moroccan banjoist playing in the Ahwach and Gnaoua styles of North Africa. This led me back to my own sound quest, a perennial exploration of the influence of slaves from northwestern Africa on American music and how parallel musical traditions developed in Africa and the Americas.
Inspired by the sound quest, on a recent visit to my folks in Canada I retrieved my two dusty banjos from the attic and brought them back to New Hampshire to play at our Friday night gatherings, nicknamed “Marty Night” after the son of our musical friends Frister and Chris, who they bring along to our music sessions. Marty is so popular with my brother’s kids that the named the soiree after him.
We had discovered early on that we were all devotees of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. When we realized we’d now have both a five-string and a tenor banjo among us, we decided to start learning some of their songs. “Cornbread and Butterbeans” rolled off our tongues like we’d sung it all our lives; it’s the kind of song that’s easy to do at home when you’re having fun, but hard to do well if you let your ego get in the way.
Which makes you wonder how a group of such deeply gifted and rigorously trained musicians can pull it off so well. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are creative intellectuals dedicated to preserving a priceless past by keeping it alive with innovative approaches uniquely their own. Yet not for a moment do they sound like prima donnas; nor is there an ounce of the commercial veneer that renders so much of traditional repertoire false and hollow.
They sing the kind of song I heard growing up: the music of Aunt Nellie on the spoons and Uncle Paul on the hambone and Mom on the autoharp. My experience was not so different from that of rural boomers all over North America, and much of the style and aesthetic of these homely tunes was revived by folk singers of the 1960s—luckily, or they might have faded from awareness.
I’ve heard white folk singer versions of so many Drops songs that I was surprised to even discover they had originated in African-American communities that sooner or later abandoned them. The hard times evoked by these songs were just too painful a reminder to black musicians, who by the 1960s had embraced urban musical genres like soul, rhythm-and-blues, jazz, and funk. I remember hearing an African-American musician in a radio interview saying he hated the word “blues” because for him it evoked all that was nasty, brutish, and short about the life of the African-American.
But full circle we’ve come at last, and here we have a band that’s not only composed of superlative musicians passionate about this quite narrow segment of traditional American folk music, but that also has the chutzpah to give itself a name that’s dangerously close to a racial epithet. Their 2010 Grammy- winning debut album was called Genuine Negro Jig, the title alone a supremely confident flipping-of-the-bird to political correctness.
Another beautiful thing about this music is that it brooks none of the ethnic boundary lines that in spite of their absurdity we’ve allowed ourselves to accept. The Drops just keep on mixing genres the way normal musicians have done for millennia. They remain true to the original—and incredibly thrilling—bricolage quality of American folk music, while performing the supreme political act of forcing politics to bow its head to art.
Enough. Let’s see what Dom had to say.
Dom Phlemons Speaks— on Oldies, Field Recordings, and Dixieland
Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table
Eating them beans and making love as long as I am able
Growing corn and cotton too and when the day is over
Ride the mule and cut the fool and love again all over.
What role did music play in your background?
I’ve always had a love for history and for older music in general. My first interests in music were from the oldies station. A lot of rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop, ’60s rock, and pop. Later I grew an interest in folk music from the ’60s, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and people like that. I also enjoyed a lot of field recordings and New Orleans jazz as I got into college, and bebop when I was still doing slam poetry. After I did slam poetry for a bit I really got into the older songster repertoire and started going from there. That was around the time I first went to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005.
What was your most mesmerizing musical experience?
I think the most mesmerizing experience I ever had was when I went to go see Dave Van Ronk in Phoenix, Arizona in 2001. He was such an engaging performer. He was sick at the time and would sadly pass away maybe four or five months later, but he left an impression on me.
I was sitting in the back and had hooked up my four-track to the board. I recorded the show, which was an intimate audience of maybe 40 people. It changed my life and it made me want to do what he did. He not only played the songs he sang, but he had a story for every song.
Some were historical, some were anecdotal, and some were connected to his personal experience with the performer associated with the song (he told stories about John Hurt, Bob Dylan, Reverend Gary Davis, Tom Paxton, and Clarence Williams).
It blew my mind, and I started forming my shows around that idea. I found that it was so important to talk to an audience about the music. You never know what people are going to take away from it. I’ve kept this way of playing a show with me since from the Black Banjo Gathering to now.
Who were your main influences?
For the group, I know that Joe Thompson has been a huge influence. When Rhiannon, Justin, and I first started going down to see him there was a great sense of making good music and also that we were helping a long tradition of string bands live on. This was all just by going to Joe’s house on Thursday nights. We never talked a lot about those things when we were there, we just played music. I know that I always felt blessed to be able to be a part of that.
On my own level, I would say that a fellow by the name of Gavan Weiser gave me my most beneficial experience. When I first started playing guitar I had a flat pick, and I kept dropping it in the sound hole. It was a terrible experience every time I tried to get it out of there. I was about 16 and I saw Gavan play guitar with his fingers. His main gig was playing bass in a punk band, so when he played acoustic guitar he just strummed it. I adapted what I saw him doing, not knowing that playing with my fingers would open up a whole new [form] of guitar playing.
I’m always looking for a new sound, and even when I just sit and listen to records with other people it creates a new experience with that music. Also, folks who are into roots music usually have their own set of research they’ve done on their own and they’re usually more than willing to share, which is also a wonderful thing. That’s probably the best training I’ve ever received: Share the knowledge if you’ve got it.
Are you ever accused of being politically incorrect?
Surprisingly, we haven’t received a lot of flack face to face about our choice of titles and the like. Most times, once people see that we’re serious about our music and that we’re not trying to do a bunch of shuck and jive they get it. “Carolina Chocolate Drops” is an homage to older black string bands and we have never tried to shy away from the uncomfortable racial, social, and political aspects of our material.
That being said, our first notion has always been to present the music and material in a respectful and articulate way so that our audience can enjoy the music without needing to know the history, while making sure the historical materials are present for those who are interested.
How do you escape academic strictures and keep this music so vibrant and alive?
By making sure the music is good. It’s one thing to hear a lecture about a song style and then to hear an authentic presentation, but the only way to really get it out to an audience is to make it a living song. The history is important, but it’s just as important to construct and arrange songs well. Folk music is not “popular” music; folk music has to be presented in such a way that the audience can appreciate it whether they know the history or not.
The Drops are not easy to pigeonhole. Purists they’re not, although in terms of musical authenticity they’re the best act in town. They keep tradition alive by allowing it to grow and develop along purely creative lines, following the dictates of the work in process rather than according to any set of rules imposed from the outside.
“Riro’s House” is not a traditional arrangement. Hubby and Rhiannon are playing the main arrangement that she and I learned from Joe Thompson, and I added snare drum and bass drum in the fife and drum style. While this may not seem like a big difference, these subtleties are the way we give the music our personal stamp, which is truly the way to make a modern song out of a traditional song—taking material from the past and making something new out of it.
Repertoire also emerges organically; some songs simply show up unannounced and immediately win the agreement of all band members, while others need some time to incubate.
My good friend Mike Baytop, who showed me a lot [of] things on the bones, told me this one time: “Music is like a good pot of greens. When you make it right, it tastes good, but it’s when you’ve let it sit for a day or two in [the] fridge that the flavors all really mix together.” It’s like that.
How do you keep your creativity strong and healthy?
Time off is the biggest thing I’ve been needing. I have a wife at home, and just being able to get back to her and my music collection is what I need to keep creating. Besides that, I do all of my work on the road.
I listen to a lot of records, looking for unique songs and deciding which ones would be worth working on. It’s really a fun time since I enjoy listening to music in general.”
What do you feed your muse in terms of reading, listening, and viewing?
Books: African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia; Stomp and Swerve; The Chitlin’ Circuit: And The Road to Rock ’n’ Roll; Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family’s Claim to the Confederate Anthem; Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words; The Negro Cowboys; and Where Dead Voices Gather
Albums: Altamont; Good For What Ails You; Atlanta Blues; Deep River of Song, Black Texicans; Henry Thomas, Texas Worried Blues; Blind Willie McTell, Last Session; and Gus Cannon, Walk Right In
Films: Festival!; Hallelujah; Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be; Rashoman; City Lights; And This Is Free; and Let It Be (bootleg)
Do you have any political beliefs that influence your art?
In terms of politics, I’m a fan of our American culture. My contribution as an American citizen is to present the culture of America through its music, while not sugarcoating it. Our country always needs improvement and I feel that we can learn a lot from the music that’s been made by the people over several hundred years.
Also, as a mixed-race person (black and Mexican), I find it so important to be able to create awareness about an important part of black culture that before we started was just not generally known by the public. Our group is one of a whole community of people, white and black, who’ve worked hard to bring this knowledge out to the world and discuss it seriously and critically through a love of music.