When Rhiannon Giddons sang mezzo soprano last year she wore a long gown so people wouldn’t see her in her bare feet. “It’s really nice having found the confidence in myself as an artist through another medium and being able to bring that back to the opera side. It’s really kinda cool,” she says.
The other “medium” she refers to is the old time string music she plays in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The band’s name is derived from the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a 1930s trio of three African American brothers Howard, Martin and Bogan Armstrong.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops were founded in 2006 by Giddens and Don Flemons. They are extremely talented and serious musicians, and they are causing an ever wider audience to rethink the stereotypes of the American music legacy, the role blacks played in that history, and the stereotypes the music industry imposed on our perceptions of that music as part of the step-and-fetch-it mentality that was pervasive through much of the 20th century.
Leaving Eden is their third full length CD. Rhiannon plays fiddle, 5-string banjo and sings on this follow-up to the group’s 2010 Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig which climbed to # 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart and #2 on the Billboard Heatseekers and Folk Charts. Giddens dismisses the Grammy with a shrug. “Nobody gave two farts that we were there,” she says after the group’s publicist tried to set up interviews following the win and telling them they were on the red carpet. “It was great. We had a great time. I’m not unhappy about that. It’s a big music world, and there’s a certain degree (of success), but it’s a reminder that in the bigger music world nobody knows who we are.”
The Chocolate Drops are a phenomenon that’s shaking up the status quo. In less than six years this group has risen from weekend jammers in Mebane, North Carolina under the tutelage of old time string master Joe Thompson to be Taj Mahal’s darlings at Merlefest, soundtrack performers in Denzel Washington’s film The Great Debators, guests on Prairie Home Companion, and featured performers at Bonnaroo. They were also the first black string band to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, an appearance host Mary Stewart called “A healing moment.”
“The overwhelming thing I felt from it was that the old timers who knew what they were thinking in terms of the black thing were too polite and southern to even say anything, but they were more excited about the fact that we were playing old time music than the fact that we were black. I feel like our job is to really kind of open the doors, and then people maybe can come behind us and sort of pin stuff down.”
The group is shattering glass ceilings and breaking stereotypes about a style of music that for too long has been stigmatized, first by minstrel shows, then vaudeville and finally by the country corn pone humor of the Hee Haw stereotype. A graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in opera, Rhiannon remembers watching Hee Haw as a kid.
It’s been half a century since blues blossomed out of “the folk scare” that in 1962, at least in Harvard Square and Greenwich Village, gave equal credence to southern Appalachian string music and the delta blues of Big Bill Broonzy. It took the plugged-in British Invasion sound of the Stones, Clapton, and Led Zeppelin to turn Americans onto our own electric blues by artists like B. B. King, but after Dylan went electric, interest in acoustic old time string music evaporated. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are bringing it back with a verve, energy and solid musicianship that’s causing a new generation to re-examine a history that was bi-racial long before it was chic or seven safe to be so.
Don Wilcock for The Alternate Root: I am so thrilled that the other shoe is finally falling with your music because I watched the blues progress in popularity from the folk roots back in the early ’60s, and it seemed like the old timey music was left by the wayside.
Rhiannon Giddens: Yeah, I mean you just do what calls you, and just hope and pray that it gets out there more. I think we’re very fortunate at our timing in that, this overall movement in terms of sort of going back to homemade things, and I think there’s a huge movement in music – has seen in the music world that comes out of that larger movement. I think the old timey stuff is coming back for sure which is really, really great.
DW: Do you feel as an African American that there’s an added burden to push this kind of music because culturally African Americans in the last 40 years seem to have been running in the other direction in terms of embracing those roots?
RG: Yeah, I do. It’s just kind of the consequence of that history that you just said. When a white group comes in with fiddles and banjo music they just present the music, and that’s all there is to it, but I think –
DW: Drop the other shoe. So, what happens when a black person does that?
RG: People come in, and the first question is, “Oh, okay, I like the song. Whoa! I didn’t know black people played this kind of music. What’s going on?” Not everybody thinks like that, but that is a common thing that we’ve dealt with since we began. We kind of started off going, “Well, you might think of this as white music, but actually it’s white and black music, blah, blah, blah,” and that got old really quick. So that kind of stuff will make you bitter if you’re not careful.
So (now) we just play our stuff and talk about it matter of factly and there’s like little tidbits you can throw in there. We just say, “This is from a black fiddle from 1935, and this is from a recording of a black banjo player,” and it’s just like being matter of fact about it, and the audience thinks, “There was a black banjo player in 1935?” And then they start thinking, “Oh, maybe what I thought was not –” This is what we do, and they have to meet us half way and go, “Oh, okay. You’re not going spell it out for us, but obviously there’s this big tradition because you keep talking about it, and either let me know more, or that’s really about it, and either let me know more.” I think that’s kind of the balance we try and strike with our audience if that makes sense.
DW: Yeah, it does. I’ve had many conversations with Eric Bibb about his dad, Leon Bibb who grew up – well, when I was in college, he was popular, and he went to folk music because the public wouldn’t embrace him as an opera singer.
DW: Because he was an African American and didn’t fit the stereotype. I find it fascinating that you studied opera at Oberlin, and I would imagine that you went voluntarily from opera singing to old timey music not because it was the stereotype.
RG: Yeah, definitely the world has changed, not as much as you’d like, but it has changed, and I’ve got several black colleagues at Oberlin who are now singing at the Met and having fabulous operatic careers. For me it was more of what mark am I gonna make on the world, you know what I mean?
RG: And what am I doing, and there’s like a million other graduate opera singers who are just as good as me who are gonna go out and who are more passionate about opera than I am. I was a late comer to opera, you know? I didn’t know how to write music until I was 18 when I was at school. I loved it. I’m so glad I did it, but it was like when I got out, it was really burnout, and I went home and started getting into fiddle and banjo stuff and then the history of it, and it’s like being from the south and just putting pieces together about my own family and why the black side of my family watched “Hee Haw” every Saturday night. Just kind of putting it together and realizing this is the mark that I could make.
So, this is something I feel really passionate about, that I can bring our unique talents to, and I’m actually doing some good in terms of helping a lot of people out there. It’s not the only one by any means but sort of being a part of this small group of people who are really trying to get the real history of American music and the banjo out there, and so the music really appealed to me.
Also the sort of mission. So that was kind of a one-two punch, and I could be bare foot which I couldn’t really do in opera. That was the final straw (giggle) although, now that I’m more comfortable with myself as an artist, I still do classical concerts. Last year did stuff as a mezzo soprano. Just try and keep my toe in it ’cause I do love the music. I just started to do my concerts bare feet. I have a gown that goes to the bottom so you can’t see ’em, but I’m really comfortable. It’s really nice having found the confidence in myself as an artist through another medium and being able to bring that back to the opera side. It’s really kind of cool.
DW: You mentioned watching “Hee Haw” and of course that was corn pone humor mixed with real music, and the same can be said of the whole minstrel cycle of the 1920s. How problematic is it that a lot of this music seems to come across as a caricature rather than being real and serious?
RG: Well, it’s depends on the music you’re talking about.
DW: Southern rural music across the board.
RG: There’s something, Genuine Negro Jig, the title of our last album that came out in 2011, that tune is very serious. It’s a very serious tune, and it’s a really gorgeous tune, and there’s tons of examples of that in the music, but they tend to get buried underneath “I Wish I Was in Dixie” and “Blue-Tailed Fly,” and that kind of stuff, and so it’s like a culmination of the vaudeville stuff, and the minstrel stuff. Then you had a lot of the minstrel stuff make its way into folk songs and children’s songs and become tunes.
The first exposure a lot of people – most people – have in this county is through seeing that stuff as elementary school students. You know what I mean? I remember studying that in a music book, like old folk songs that (call up) now, and it’s like, “Oh, my God. This tune is a minstrel tune that’s been changed and diluted.
So I think its’ hard for people to shake that, and then you find out with the record industry in the 20s painting hillbilly music like these people would show up to do their gig in suits, and they’d say, “Uh-uh. Here’s your overalls. Here’s the straw hanging out of your mouth. Now, here’s the straw hat because this is the idea we want to sell.” So that has become such a part of the consciousness that, it’s hard to fight against that, but I think our particular way of doing that is by just going back and getting even deeper in the music and presenting it in ways where it’s just like this is a different version of something you know, or just something you’ve never heard, or here’s the history of it. I think that’s how we try to combat that.
DW: Do you think that your act will make changes so that those stereotypes will disappear faster for old timey music than they did for blues because it took 40 years for blues to grow up, and it’s still a stereotype 40 years after the British invasion?
RG: Yeah, I mean it’s a really good question. You know we’re fighting against a lot of stuff ’cause some of this stuff is older than blues.
DW: Way older than blues. I’m looking at this stuff on your Leaving Eden album, and you’ve got stuff from 150 years ago which is great. That’s really cool.
RG: Yeah, I mean, it’s a lot of history. It’s a lot of perception because the history is much more complex than most people want to give it credit for being, but it’s a lot of perception to fight against. It’s a lot of years of perception, and it’s a lot of different things, too. You know, starting off with the minstrel perceptions going on to the vaudeville perception, going on to the hillbilly corn pone perception. It’s a huge fight, so we can’t really think of it as such.
We just try and put the good music out there. It kind of boils down to that, and we do think a little bit about if there’s a song. I’m getting into minstrel stuff. I’ve got a minstrel banjo replica now, and I’ve got the books and I’m really learning. It’s fascinating stuff.
DW: Give me a two-minute synopsis of Joe Thompson, your mentor.
RG: Awesome old guy, just like my grandfather. My family is from Nebbins which is where he’s from, and I didn’t know who he was and old gentlemanly kind of fella said come on in and embrace us and never said that’s good or bad. He would just kind of like peer at us, and he would stop playing and he’d go, “I think we’re taking that a little fast,” or “I think we’re taking that a little slow.”
We’d know we weren’t quite kicking in with him, and we’d play again, and we’d get it right that time. So just a really blissful soul at this point in his life anyway. He was a bit of a firecracker early I understand, but just an amazing moment in time that we were able to learn a very old style of music that’s almost dead from a black practitioner of it, probably the last in the family that’ll never come again. We were just incredibly fortunate and blessed that he was willing to open his house and his music to us, and that we were able to spend the time those Thursday nights with him.
DW: You must spend a lot of time researching material, and it must be fascinating digging up stuff the rest of the world has no idea even exists.
RG: I’m putting a lot of time going to these historic sheet music websites for universities put their sheet music on line, stuff from 1908 to 1967, whatever and there is a kind of thrill finding stuff that hasn’t been done since it was published or not that we know of anyway. There is the thrill of the hunt. You’re on the lookout for good songs of course, but it’s even better if they’re good songs that have somehow managed to be bypassed.
“No Man’s Mama” was recorded obviously because Ethel Waters recorded it, but you have not gotten anybody else who has done that song since 1929, and it’s this great song, and it’s like this has just been handed to me on a silver platter, like, oh, my God, you know? You get a thrill, you do.
I was interested in the eclecticism of your producer Buddy Miller in having done Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, Patty Griffin and Solomon Burke.
DW: Producers vary enormously in how and how much they participate in the production. What was his role in Leaving Eden?
RG: He basically was separate. We were putting a new band together the end of December, and Hubby (Jenkins) joined in January, and Leyla (McCalla) joined as a guest artist, and Adam (Matta) had joined in January. So we were putting a new band together and figured out new tunes as well as rejiggling some old tunes, and he had a real soft touch which is great. He just kind of let us do what we needed to do but then shaped it a bit here and shaped it a bit there and that was really good because that was really what we needed. I think any closer than that and it would have been too much.
We already had a lot of pressure, and it was a lot of change at once and trying to do a record under that. We’ve never traditionally been a band that hooks up together in the studio so that was kind of a new thing, and that was I think where he really shined in suggesting this or that, and then ’cause there were a few things we did put together in the studio, and he was great for that. He was just great all around. He’s such a nice guy. He’s laid back and a really good ear, very humble, too humble if you ask me, but yeah, and I think all of the different soundscapes that he’d worked with. He just sort of brought that, didn’t want to push us any way or the other. He didn’t want – you’re going in this narrow category. He’s just kinda let the music do it, and you just do.
DW: I get the impression it hasn’t dawned on you how much of a fast track you’re on. Are you aware how hot you are?
RG: I don’t know. I mean I’m aware of how lucky we are. We are working hard. I’m not gonna say we haven’t ’cause a lot of musicians never see the attention we’ve seen already. So, I don’t know. I just try to put my head down and just do it, and if we go up and whatever, okay, we’ll handle it, and be fine, but I don’t know. I’m jut happy we’re making a living, and I can support my family and buy health insurance. That’s a huge feat, you know? I’m still kind of in that realm of, oh, my God. I’m actually making enough money to survive. More than survive. So anything else is gravy.