Growing up in Flagstaff, Ariz., as an African-American kid in love with prewar American folk music, Dom Flemons knew he was a little weird. He didn't quite know how weird, though, until he went to see bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley in concert.
"I noticed I was the only black person there at the entire event, out of 3,000 or 4,000 people," he says over the phone a day before his group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, opens for Bob Dylan in Kettering, Ohio. "Stuff like that made me aware that this was something different."
Even now at his own gigs, as a member of one of the few all-black string bands left in the country, Flemons is still usually among the only black people in the room. And that's at least part of the reason the Carolina Chocolate Drops exist: to remind audiences—or, perhaps more often, enlighten them to the fact—that this music, typically associated with white Southerners, is part of African-American culture as well. Although the group's most famous song is an old-timey makeover of Blu Cantrell's 2001 R&B smash, "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!)," when it got together six years ago it took on the role of a de facto historical preservation society. Instead of culling from the already well-surveyed Appalachian songbook, the Chocolate Drops drew the bulk of their repertoire from the music of North Carolina's Piedmont region, where communities of freed slaves developed a style placing the banjo—an instrument of African origin—at the forefront. Illuminating the black roots of those forgotten songs, the band presents a living education on a piece of America's musical heritage it hardly knew existed.
If that makes the group sound like it should only be touring libraries, that's not how it comes across on record or in performance. Even when they're not reworking new millennium pop hits, there's something intangibly modern about the Chocolate Drops' interpretations of tunes that, in some cases, are over 100 years old. The band stays faithful to traditional string-band instrumentation—members trade off on fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, jug and even kazoo—but kicks the songs into the 21st century. The band's energetic music isn't simply a re-enactment of the past; just by existing, the Chocolate Drops represent the quickly changing perception of what it means to be black today.
"It's breaking past a lot of stereotypes people have ingrained in their minds," Flemons says. "America has an obsession with white people liking black music. No one thinks of black people liking white music."
Talking about the group in terms of race isn't a discussion the band is uncomfortable having; after all, it titled its Grammy-winning 2010 breakthrough Genuine Negro Jig. It's a crucial element of the band's identity, Flemons says. Coalescing in 2005 around a meeting of African-American folk music scholars, players and enthusiasts called the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, the trio—Flemons, singer Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson, who has since left the group—connected over growing up as self-described "misfits," the only young black people in their respective towns obsessed with roots music. Under the mentorship of 90-year-old fiddler Joe Thompson, the Chocolate Drops learned the songs that would make up their repetoire. As it's toured the Americana circuit, the band has been approached by other "misfits," thanking it for embodying the music in the present tense.
"It's a visceral reaction to seeing the visual," Flemons says. "Many scholars talk about black string music, but to see it is another thing."
Flemons acknowledges that the novelty of an all-black string band in 2011 isn't going to sustain the Chocolate Drops' career. After that narrative runs its course, what'll keep the group going is its music. Or, more accurately, its resurrection of this music. Although the group has dabbled in original songwriting before—one of Jig's standouts, the elegiac "Kissin' and Cussin'," was written by Robinson—Flemons says the band has no intention of ever making an entire record of its own material.
"There's so much stuff that people just don't know about in terms of music," Flemons says. "We want to reach back and grab that stuff and make it live again.â
SEE IT: The Carolina Chocolate Drops play the Oregon Zoo on Friday, Aug. 19, with the Be Good Tanyas. 7 pm. $19. All ages.