One of the best moments of the current season of NBC's Parks and Recreation (in a season full of great moments) was the show's spot-on NPR spoof in the episode "Born and Raised." Interviewing on a sort of a Fresh Air-meets-Talk of the Nation show hosted by Dan Castellaneta, Amy Poehler's character is forced to listen to "lesbian folk duo" Nefertiti's Fjord. If you spend any amount of time listening to public radio, you get the poke at the soft but constant strive for diversity, no matter the cost. "Oh. yes. They are quite awful," Castellaneta's character says once he's off the microphone.
There probably were a few listeners who felt the same way hearing African-American string band Carolina Chocolate Drops described by several NPR hosts. It sounds like an odd combination. "Huh? A black trio performing ol'-timey white folk? How's that going to sound?"
Well, turns out it sounds pretty damn good. The banjo-strumming trio — Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, and Justin Robinson — sing and strum with confidence and ease on Leaving Eden (released in February on Nonesuch Records). Giddens' brassy, soulful voice incorporates elements of soul, and the rhythmic shifts illustrate a crossover between the traditional and new, with hip-hop bumping against jig shuffles (Robinson left the group after finishing the album and has been replaced by beat-boxer Adam Matta and multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins). And it turns out the idea that string band music is strictly the domain of white hillbillies is historically inaccurate.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are scheduled to perform Sunday, April 15, at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival at Compound Grill.
"When we first started out, there was a select group of people that knew about the black string bands' contributions to bluegrass music or how diverse the scope of the music actually is and was," says Flemons. Though he lives in Brooklyn and started the Carolina Chocolate Drops with Giddens in North Carolina, he grew up in Phoenix, where he learned the basics of folk music and collected records.
"I was exposed to [bluegrass] through the local folk community that was around Encanto Park at the time," he says, adding that trips to the Glendale Folk Festival, Prescott Folk Festival, and Flagstaff Folk Festival shaped his perception of folk music. "I got to go and meet with a lot of the people that were around there and that's where I learned about folk music and bluegrass, on top of the record-collecting I do." Flemons picked up records at spots around Phoenix, citing Tracks in Wax, Zia Records on Indian School, and Revolver Records as favorite spots to stock up on platters. He didn't discover any black string bands in Arizona's past, but found plenty of music that shaped his personal approach in the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
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"One set of recordings I've listened to a whole bunch is [Tohono O'odham combo] the Gu-Achi Fiddlers out of Yuma . . . It's string-band music influenced by Tejano music, this really great tradition of double fiddle and strings that has these strains of Mexican music put out by Canyon Records in the late '80s . . . And there's a whole bunch of cowboy singers that have always influenced me, too."
Arizona has a particularly Southern connection, too, he says.
"One thing I learned as I researched more about this music was that in the Great Migration, a lot of people from the Deep South moved up to places like Milwaukee and Chicago, and people in North Carolina and Virginia moved up to Philadelphia and what not. But people that were in Louisiana and the eastern parts of Texas, they moved out toward the West Coast, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. My grandparents, both of them, they moved out for work. My grandpa is from a place called Pineland, Texas, near the Texas/Louisiana border, and he moved out with his brother doing sawmill work, to California; then he moved to Flagstaff. There's a migration pattern that is there . . . the way people [in those] places lived their lives and made their music is a lot different than Chicago or Philadelphia."
And though the CCD are comfortable playing the roles of educators (in regard to traditional music), they don't have to sacrifice entertainment to do it. "You know, we've been very fortunate that people have been interested enough to want to listen to it," Flemons says. "They want to hear what we're putting down."