The Carolina Chocolate Drops made the trip to Los Angeles on February 10 with their latest album Leaving Eden nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Folk Album category. A couple of years ago they won a Grammy for their album Genuine Negro Jig. While the group went home empty-handed this time, the level of success and recognition achieved by this all-black old time string band is remarkable considering they have only recorded three studio albums since forming in 2005.
While the studio recordings provide an entertaining attack on the senses, the Carolina Chocolate Drops truly thrive during live performances when they can interact with the audience. Before their sold out show at Knoxville's Bijou Theatre in December, members of the group spent a couple of hours doing sound checks on more than a dozen instruments ranging from a variety of banjos, guitars, fiddle, quills pan pipe, cello, kazoo, an old jug, to the bones.
Entertaining and Educating
Live shows are where the Carolina Chocolate Drops flourish as they are allowed to entertain and educate audiences on the history behind the music.
"People are there to listen to music," said Rhiannon Giddens, a founding member of the band who sings and plays banjo, fiddle, and kazoo. "We feel like you get more out of the music if you just know just a little bit [of the history]. And we are finding that people really like that. They really like knowing about the history."
The group maintains tempo by avoiding overly-long lectures between songs, but takes time to concisely explain how particular instruments became popular, who originally performed a song, and describe the differences found in their historically accurate instruments. Some of those details relate specifically to race, such as the banjo's roots as an African instrument played by American slaves.
"I play an 1840s replica banjo, based on Joel Sweeney's banjo. He's known as one of the first white Americans to play the banjo, obviously learning it from black players and slaves. It sounds a lot different than modern banjos. If I play something on this banjo, that sound, you can all of the sudden hear where that used to be a gourd banjo, an African instrument," said Giddens. "We tell people this is some history that we ourselves did not know until we got into it."
The bones are an old time handheld percussion instrument. The beat comes from holding two bones between your fingers. One bone is held tight while the other bone loosely swings and bangs together for a rhythm that moves with both subtle and flamboyant hand motions.
"The bones changed my life and the way I played music," said Dom Flemons, another founding member of the group who can play a dozen instruments. "The bones are actually cow short rib bones. They became popular during the blackface minstrel shows."
The backgrounds of the members of the band are as eclectic as the instruments they play. Flemons is a poet and one-man-band "songster" who originally hails from Arizona. Giddens comes from Greensboro, North Carolina, and was an opera singer who also excelled at science and math before she was bitten by the old time string band music bug.
Giddens and Flemons originally founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops as part of a three-person group with Justin Robinson of Gastonia, North Carolina. Robinson was part of the group when it recorded the Grammy-winning Genuine Negro Jig, but retired from the touring lifestyle to complete his graduate degree. The vacancy opened the door for Hubby Jenkins from New York City to join the group fulltime. The last couple of years the group has also regularly toured with a fourth member, New Orleans-based cellist Leyla McCalla.
Tennessee Chocolate Drops Namesake
Teaching is in the Carolina Chocolate Drops' bones in large part because the group formed after meeting at an educational event called the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina. Shortly after the members decided to form a band, their own education included watching an obscure film about Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong from LaFollette, Tennessee. Armstrong was an incredible black musician and prolific painter whose artistic acumen was only equaled by his talkativeness and sense of humor.
"Dom had this documentary called Louie Bluie. We're watching this and just going, 'Man, this is awesome. This dude is so cool.' This jazz fiddler knew all of these old-time tunes and just kind of brought it home to us," said Giddens.
"We were completely blown away by his [Armstrong's] story, which tells a lot about black string bands," said Flemons. "The music was really great, as well. It was actually the version of 'Cackling Hen' he does that just totally knocked us out. After that we were just all about Louie Bluie. It was just 'Louie Bluie this, Louie Bluie that' all day long."
Before Armstrong earned the nickname "Louie Bluie," he played music with his brothers and in a band called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. The Tennessee Chocolate Drops recorded the songs "The Knox County Stomp" and "The Vine Street Rag" for a record company at the St. James Hotel in Knoxville in 1930 (mp3s of the recordings can be heard and downloaded for free at this link about the St. James Sessions).
"We were just talking about how cool it was that he was in a black string band called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. And I was like, 'Well, why don't we just call ourselves the Carolina Chocolate Drops?' I mean, it was really that casual," said Giddens.
"Justin and Rhiannon were both from North Carolina, so we just said Carolina Chocolate Drops and that was it," smiled Flemons. "We've had some people raise some eyebrows when they hear the name because of the racial connotation, but whenever they find out about the history and our mission they are not offended."
"When we came up with the name, we were really naming ourselves after another band. When I was growing up I never heard the term 'chocolate drop.' It's not something that I ever heard someone use in a negative or racist way. There have been a few folks who came up to me and said they would have had their mouths washed out with soap for calling someone a chocolate drop. Knowing the history of the term now, we know that was probably a name someone else gave the Tennessee Chocolate Drops because of their race. In a way, we've sort of taken ownership and control of the term and been able to redefine it in a way that is empowering."
Lasting Legacy of "Louie Bluie"
Armstrong only performed under the name Tennessee Chocolate Drops for a brief time. Most of his musical career was spent using his band members' real surnames. Carl Martin, Ted Bogan, and Howard Armstrong performed under the name "Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong."
The group was billed as one of the original black string bands could play just about anything with notes. A lot of their musical diversity derived from Armstrong's childhood in LaFollette. The small town was built from scratch by the local iron company and became an international melting because it heavily recruited skilled workers from Europe to operate the blast furnace. Armstrong learned German and Italian from neighborhood children.
"I grew up before integration laws but poverty knows no color line. There were little black kids and white kids all playing together. There was a time when I was a child that I spoke Italian better grammatically than I did English," said Armstrong during a 2000 interview with WBIR's The Heartland Series. "A guy said, 'you speak nice Italian' and I felt so fine I just couldn't eat those grits and gravy when I got home you know. I wanted to eat ravioli and pasta."
Armstrong's appetite for international cultures melted multiple musical backgrounds into majestic melodies.
"I had old Bogan singing songs in German and Chinese and everything else. And a man said, 'My God, whoever heard of a black Deutschman before,'" said Armstrong. "They say music is a universal language. A guy would rather hear you play a beautiful song than to hear you running some jive on him."
Armstrong spoke the universal language with fluency rarely found among even the finest fiddlers. He entertained audiences at the National Folk Festival in 1974 and was subsequently paid by the U.S. State Department to share our heritage during a six week diplomatic musical tour of Latin America. Armstrong's musical journey around the world eventually brought him back home in 2000 for the unveiling of the music mural in Knoxville's Old City. Armstrong is featured on the mural wearing a beret and yellow coat along with his iconic pencil-thin mustache.
"It's just like coming home again, in a big way," said the 91-year-old Armstrong to WBIR's Bill Landry. "When I was here, I didn't have a hard time. I didn't have time to think of hate, prejudice, and all that stuff. I played songs people want to hear, black and white, and went about my business."
"Armstrong was an amazing fiddler and mandolinist. His devotion to trying to play a lot of different styles and a lot of different languages, that's the way of the true songster," said Flemons.
In the city where he had recorded songs 70 years prior, Armstrong proved he could still put on a one-man-mandolin-show as he strummed and spun his strings to what he called a "low-down dirty blues" tune.
Armstrong died in 2003. His home county celebrates Armstrong's life and legacy with the annual Louie Bluie Festival at Cove Lake State Park in Caryville. The Smithsonian Institute also honored Armstrong's all-around artistic abilities with a National Heritage Award. Now his legacy lives on with a new generation of Grammy-winning black musicians who describe their genre as "a modern take on a traditional sound." In doing so, the Carolina Chocolate Drops preserve and build upon a rich American heritage
"It's not so much, 'reclaiming it for black people.' It is really American History and it needs to be filled out. Not only for the African American community and culture, but also for everybody's culture," said Giddens. "Our society is strengthened when everyone can be together."
Reporter's Note: There are multiple "web extra" video clips attached to this story. They include extended footage of various comments by Armstrong during his 2000 interview for WBIR's The Heartland Series; Armstrong singing and playing the mandolin during the 2000 interview; a 1974 performance by Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong; Dom Flemons explaining how to play the bones and performing the song "Cindy Gal"; Flemons discussing the history of the quills pan pipe and performing the song "Run Mountain." Mobile users may have to navigate to the video section of their WBIR app or go to the full website to view this additional material.
Full thanks and credit to WBIR's The Heartland Series, Janus Films, WETA/PBS, and Leah Mahan Productions for archive footage of Howard Armstrong used in this story.