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Carolina Chocolate Drops provide rare, sweet treat

By Brian Baker, November 2007

Page 2...

Through this roundabout series of events, Flemons, Giddens and Robinson began playing together, both with Thompson and on their own.

"We got our hands on a copy of a movie called 'Louis Bluie', about a fellow named Howard Armstrong who played fiddle and mandolin from the late '20s on," says Flemons. "He had a group with his brothers early on called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, and Rhiannon up and said, 'Well, why don't we call ourselves the Carolina Chocolate Drops?'"

With the thought of amplifying the Piedmont style with their performance and aiming toward the prestigious festival circuit, the Carolina Chocolate Drops began rehearsing in earnest.

Beginning with the Mt. Airy Fiddlers Convention, the Drops have captivated every audience they've entertained, from the Folk Alliance Festival to Merlefest to the Newport Folk Festival. The Drops have already done three successful circuits of Canada in the past year and a half and will add a European tour to their resume next spring.

In the midst of their relentless touring/festival-going, the Drops recorded their debut, "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind."

A mix of traditional tunes that the trio has picked up themselves over the years on and rearranged to suit their current style (including "Dixie," "Tom Dula" and "Sourwood Mountain") as well as old time songs they learned from Thompson (from "Georgie Buck" to "Black Annie" to the title track), "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind" offers an amazing glimpse into the black string band heritage with a reverence for the style's roots and an energetic ear for bringing the style into the present tense without losing its original flavor.

The album came about more by virtue of economic necessity than artistic desire.

"We were doing a lot of school shows at the time, and we needed something to sell," says Flemons. "We jumped into the studio one day after a school show and cut all the tunes in a take or two then we mixed it the next day. We weren't expecting 'Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind' to go as far as it has gone so far. We've just been amazed by it."

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the album at this juncture in the band's short history is the positive reception that it's generated, considering that it represents the Drops in a very early mindset. Flemons is quick to note that the trio plays all of the material on the CD with much greater proficiency now but that it remains an accurate representation of the band's skill and passion.

"It's nice to know that we have something that's representative enough to have people come out, and we're not hanging our heads in shame," says Flemons with a laugh.

A good many groups have started down this path of discovery and interpretation of songs gone by, only to abandon it in favor of writing their own songs in a similar style.

Although Flemons admits that he and the Drops have written a handful of originals (he's released a solo album of his own compositions), he says that the band is more than content to uncover and disseminate musical nuggets from the past than to try to create their own from that inspiration. The fact is that the Drops are examining so many obscure sources for their material that the songs, unheard for years by the wider public, almost play like new tunes.

"It's amazing what's gone down," says Flemons. "I'm a big fan of the music that American culture has produced. If I never wrote another tune, I'd be okay for material. I wouldn't need it because there's so much out there. Even taking the same forms and changing verses or making it fit a modern context, that may be the way to go. A lot of bands will start out in old time music, and then they'll start writing songs, and that's the end of them. They start doing original material, and all of a sudden, it becomes a battle of 'How good is their original material compared to the old time stuff?' That shouldn't be the case but that's what ends up happening. It's a real sensitive area. If we have tunes that we've written that we approve of, then we'll start putting those out there. For now, interpreting old tunes and redesigning and rearranging them has been fine."

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have seen their profile rise exponentially over the past few months, especially since the official release of "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind" on the Music Maker Relief Foundation label.

Back in September, the Drops joined Thompson on stage at the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship awards ceremony where he was honored with the fellowship, the highest accolade in folk and traditional arts. Given the importance being placed on the cultural aspects of this music, Flemons says he and the Drops recognize and yet try not to overemphasize the responsibility that they all share in bringing it into the light.

"It's mind blowing to think we're young blacks that are picking up on Joe's tradition, and he's the last in his family, and if he'd passed at any point before we had come along, his family tradition would be done," says Flemons.

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