When Rhiannon Giddens walks onto the stage of Raleigh's grand Meymandi Concert Hall for two appearances this weekend, the Carolina Chocolate Drops will no longer be with her. For the last nine years, Giddens has been part of the groundbreaking black string band; together, they've won a Grammy, appeared in a Denzel Washington film and become something of regulars on National Public Radio.
But since December, Giddens has been the only remaining member of the original trio. That doesn't mean they've broken up; they've actually grown. The name Carolina Chocolate Drops has become less a signifier of a band than a newly sprawling collective of like-minded folk musicians, now working in different spheres to show that the history of black music in the United States is richer than audiences might've presumed.
Though the first portion of this weekend's program will focus on reinterpretations of minstrel songs, a frequent pursuit of the Drops, the second will spotlight Broadway numbers written right around the turn of the 20th century by black composers. Giddens will reinvent that music with the help of the North Carolina Symphony. Once again, she is giving new life to a secret history of African-American music.
"The whole idea is to remind people that there's just more to the story of American music. That's what we've done from the beginning with the Drops," says Giddens. "When this opportunity came along, it was just, 'Yes!' It will be something different for our fans, and then what we do will be different for the orchestra fans who come expecting an orchestra concert. It's the best possible kind of crossover."
Giddens has orchestrated and reworked three pieces by Will Marion Cook, a black composer who graduated from Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory and then moved to New York, where he began writing for Broadway in the early 1900s. Musicals were as segregated as any other part of society, so his works were performed during all-black productions. No matter the evocative and intellectual topic, his lyrics had to be rendered in a dialect not far removed from minstrelsy itself. Giddens will sing two numbers as they would have been delivered then; but for the other, she untangled the patois to reveal a more complete and contemporary picture of the piece. "Ob," for instance, becomes "of."
"What's going to be the best choice for the audience to get as close as we can to what an audience back then would have been listening to?" she says. "They wouldn't have really heard the dialect as dialect. They would have just been listening to the words. Wherever I can make that transition, so that it's still being true to the song but not wrenching the audience, I try to walk that line."
For the last decade, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have taken a similar tack by using antiquated folk material as a springboard for energetic albums and performances. As they've entertained, they've also offered an education about the role of blacks in the banjo and string-band music normally ascribed to white folks.
After nine years, though, the Carolina Chocolate Drops aren't the same band they were, either in regard to membership or musical choices. The jug-playing and driving guitar of founding member Dom Flemons were integral catalysts to the group's old-time beginnings. He departed their ranks following a two-night December stand at Charlotte's Neighborhood Theatre. Justin Robinson, the fiddle-playing third from the original trio, exited in 2011. For three months now, Giddens alone has led the Drops, backed by guitarist-plus Hubby Jenkins, who is beginning his fourth year with the group. Cellist Malcolm Parson and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett are the newest members. Though the Drops once performed most of their shows sitting down, they stand now. And Giddens has started trying a few of her own originals with the band, something the Drops did sparingly in previous configurations.
This new iteration of the Drops faces down a daunting heritage: The original trio, which met in 2005 at Boone's Black Banjo Gathering, rallied around the songs of unheralded black string musician Joe Thompson. They've since been invited to the Grand Ole Opry and appeared multiple times on A Prairie Home Companion. They contributed several songs to the soundtrack of the 2007 film The Great Debaters and have sold out amphitheaters and concert halls across the country. Their major-label debut, 2010's Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Giddens should be accustomed to this turnover. In less than a decade, the Drops have sorted through at least eight members. Since Robinson left, the lineup has been especially fluid. New members have brought along new talents and interests—Jenkins' inimitable swing and jazz chops, for instance—that have expanded the outfit's once minimal palette.
"Dom brought a whole heck of a lot. The way he plays guitar on old-time tunes, nobody does that," Giddens concedes. "Rowan's got a different tool set. What is it about the tune as we used to play it that worked really well? Let's take those elements and make them work in the new band."
On Genuine Negro Jig, for instance, Robinson sang the rambling rave-up "Sandy Boys." That version throve on the tension between his slicing fiddle and Flemons' staggered guitar strums. But they're both gone now, so the new group has recast the tune, entrusting Flemons' trademark instrumental pull to Parson's throbbing cello.
"It changed the sound a little bit," Giddens says, "but the feel is still very similar."
The most essential aspects of the Carolina Chocolate Drops remain intact, despite the personnel shifts. The members are still black, continuing their excavation of old-time's overlooked history. Though Robinson is gone, they still adhere to one of his favorite dictums, a quote from British playwright W. Somerset Maugham: "Tradition is a guide and not a jailer."
These paradoxically complementary goals—trumpeting forgotten history while not letting that pursuit shackle creativity—have allowed the Drops to incorporate new tools into old tunes. The group has included a cellist (first Leyla McCalla, now Parson) for several years, while a previous lineup boasted beatboxing marvel Adam Matta.
That idea enables former members to move on and try new things, too. When the Drops were only one touring act, Flemons explains, they could only play for so many people at once. As a wider collective of like-minded artists unlimited by the expectations of a single fanbase and free to roam stylistically, the possibilities explode. For Flemons, this was always the goal.
"When we first started the Carolina Chocolate Drops, it was always a three-person collective. For it to be a collective, each individual has their own intentions, their own ways of doing their material and the way they decide to play it," Flemons recalls. "The idea of it being a band lessens the purpose of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. It's an umbrella. It should be a place where we help out musicians."
Flemons is making the most of this newfound freedom. He is currently in talks with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for an exhibition, and he's almost done with a new album, his first since he put his solo career on hold to play with the Drops. He recently published a piece on blues singer Gus Cannon in the magazine Oxford American. By himself, Flemons thinks, he'll be able to expose even more of the country's hidden arts history.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to get more purveyors of different parts of folk music and different parts of the old-time continuum across America," he says.
The Drops have proven a fine launching pad for those subsequent pursuits. Robinson and his new backing band, the Mary Annettes, goad old-time tradition along with dizzying diversity. They weave chamber orchestra complexity with hip-hop energy, using (mostly) violas, dulcimers and other acoustic instruments that fit within the Drops' wheelhouse. Their 2012 debut LP, Bones for Tinder, worked through vivid tunes that fell somewhere between folk and pop. While the Drops have ventured into non-traditional directions (they covered Blu Cantrell's radio hit "Hit 'Em Up Style"), it's unlikely that they'll ever press as far afield as Robinson has.
"Some of the things that we learn and we take pieces of aren't necessarily what we're going to be doing 24-7," Giddens says. "We're not going to do a night of R&B covers, but it's an element of what we do. That's the way it's been for us from the very beginning."
So musicians tend to do their time with the Drops and move ahead to their own pursuits and interests, their output informed by their experiences with the group. Giddens has side-projects such as her work with the symphony. For Flemons and Robinson, that meant leaving the fold completely.
"Carolina Chocolate Drops—I made that name up along with Rhiannon and Justin. That group is always a part of me. It is something that I helped create, and I made a market when there wasn't really a market," Flemons says. "I write songs, too, and I play in a lot of different styles, a lot of different instruments."
The Drops see historical works not as dead artifacts but as interactive documents. That was the takeaway of the two years that cellist Leyla McCalla spent with the group. She exited just ahead of Flemons. Her new solo album, Vari-Colored Songs, blends seemingly unrelated traditions—the poems of Langston Hughes, melodies informed by traditional Haitian numbers, cello lines picked with the assuredness of a wizened blues musician—with purpose. McCalla's parents are Haitian emigrants. Her music is an attempt to expand and correct peoples' notions of her often-maligned ancestry.
"I feel like it's become part of my mission to help shift people's perception about what Haiti is in the same way that the Drops are like, 'You thought that folk music was this, but it's also this, this and this,'" she says. "There's a couple of black string bands, but the Chocolate Drops have actually engaged people on a much bigger scale."
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, then, represent more of an ethos than a simple-minded mission. Their approach to forgotten or misunderstood sounds makes room for a variety of angles and adaptations.
"It's not like Leyla released an album of navel-gazing indie pop hits. She released an album of Haitian folk tunes and Langston Hughes poetry set to music," says Giddens. "It's still very much within what we're doing, and it's still connected. The more that happens, the better."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Liquid courage"