Interview and story by Don Wilcock
When Rhiannon Giddens 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 who return to The Egg in Albany on Sunday evening. A month later, the band – whose name is derived from the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, the 1930s trio of African American musicians Carl Martin, Ted Bogan and Howard Armstrong – releases “Leaving Eden,” their third full-length CD. Rhiannon plays fiddle, five-string banjo and sings on this follow-up to the group’s 2010 Grammy Award-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, noting that 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 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.”
Perhaps the mass market is not plugged in to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but at a time when the major record labels are going down like dinosaurs in a tar pit, the Chocolate Drops are a phenomenon that’s shaking up the status quo. They’re threatening to eclipse the big bang of “O Brother Where Art Thou” in the roots music world. In less than six years, the group has risen from weekend jammers in Mebane, North Carolina to be the darlings of Merlefest, soundtrack performers in Denzel Washington’s film “The Great Debators,” guests on “Prairie Home Companion,” the first black string band to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, and featured performers at Bonnaroo. Rolling Stone said they have “dirt floor dance electricity.”
“I just don’t see it,” says Giddens. “To the world at large, this kind of music is still very specifically one thing which is like ‘Hee Haw’ instead of the beautiful multi-faceted world it is, and so I think that is a fight. It’s a fight to get out of there. ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ was huge. If we got to be as big a force as ‘O Brother Where Art Thou,’ I would be like dancing in the streets, you know, because that really is a game changer.”
Okay, I admit to hang such a comparison on them may be in league with the albatross journalists used to tar and feather singer-songwriters back in the ’70s when they called them the next Dylan. But what I can say with assurance is that the Carolina Chocolate Drops are 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, Giddens remembers watching “Hee Haw” as a kid. “When I got out (of college) I was really burned out, and I went home and started getting into fiddle and banjo stuff and then the history of it. 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.”
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 band 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 on to our own electric blues by artists like B.B. King, but after Dylan went electric, interest in acoustic old time string band 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 even safe to be so.
What better person to spearhead the movement than Giddens? “I always felt culturally adrift as a child,” she says, “because I’m mixed race. I’ve had to deal with that since I was little. Who am I? What makeup do I have? What are the black and the white? There’s Indian blood on both sides, and they’re both very rural, just rural parts from around Greensboro in North Carolina.
“I look very native to a lot of people. So that just kinda made me even question what is in our background, and then hearing bluegrass and old country Hank Williams stuff and then hearing ’30s and ’40s jazz and blues records, and hearing all the music that makes North Carolina like growing up and not being aware of it, and then getting my mom who is into Andre Segovia and exposing me to a whole different side of things. I was having the perfect storm of all those different things coming together.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are to today’s Americana music what B.B. King was to the British Invasion. “What people have done to bring seriousness back into (roots music),” says Giddens, “is to borrow from jazz and classical, and from other genres and pull it to that genre whereas I think our approach is more – instead of going to other places, it’s to go back within the music.
“‘Genuine Negro Jig Music,’ the title track of our last album that came out in 2010, 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. So it’s like a culmination of the vaudeville stuff and the minstrel stuff, and then you had a lot of minstrel stuff make its way into folk songs and children’s songs and become tunes. The first exposure most people have in this country is through seeing that stuff as elementary school students.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops 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.