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Carolina Chocolate Drops: Tradition From Jug To Kazoo

Though they work as a tradition African-American string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops' members throw in some modern twists. The Durham, N.C.-based trio plays a wide variety of instruments, including the banjo, fiddle, jug, bones and harmonica. All of those sounds are featured on the band's newest record, Genuine Negro Jig.

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..DATE:
20100301
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
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..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Carolina Chocolate Drops A Brand-New Album

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

People are often surprised that my guests play the music that they do.
They're in a string – they play string and jug-band music of the '20s
and '30s, music most people associate with a white, Southern tradition.

But my guests are African-American, and they see themselves as part of a
little-known black string-band tradition. Their band is called the
Carolina Chocolate Drops. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."
They also have a new songbook.

The band members are in their 20s and early 30s, and they're not trying
to sound like they're old-timers. Along with the traditional songs,
their albums features songs by Tom Waits, a cover of an R&B hit and an
original.

The musicians each play several instruments and sing. Rhiannon Giddens
plays five-string banjo, fiddle and kazoo. Dom Flemons plays guitar,
four-string banjo, harmonica, jug, snare drum and bones. Justin Robinson
plays fiddle, autoharp and does the vocal beat box. They all live in
North Carolina, as the band's title suggests, but Don Flemons grew up in
Arizona. They brought some of their instruments to the WUNC studio in
Durham for our interview.

Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, Dom Flemons, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Let me start by asking you to perform a song that's also featured on the
new CD. Can you do "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" for us?

Unidentified Man #1: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of song, "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine")

THE CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS (Music Group): (Singing) Everybody talking
about the swinging(ph) old days. I got the one with the sweetest ways.
Your baby may roll it just fine. Nobody's baby can roll it like mine.
Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly role all the time. And
when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do. Yes,
she does.

She even call me honey. She even let me save my money. Never has my baby
put me out of dough. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to
brag, just want to put you in mind, your baby ain't sweet like mine, no,
no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. Oh, play that horn.

Oh, play that music now, (unintelligible).

Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly role all the time. And
when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do, yes,
sir. She even call me honey. She even let me save the money. Never has
my baby put me out of dough. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't
want to brag, just want to put you in line, your baby ain't sweet like
mine, no, no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine, yeah, yeah. Your baby
ain't sweet like mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Fantastic. That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the song –
they're performing for us. That's a song they also do on their new CD,
"Genuine Negro Jig." And who chose that song and why?

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, that was a song that I chose. That was a piece
that was originally recorded by a fellow named Papa Charlie Jackson, who
was a six-string banjo player out of New Orleans. And I just really like
the number, and a lot of his numbers aren't performed anymore. So that
was one that I've kept in my repertoire for quite a while.

GROSS: Now, Rhiannon, you're a great fiddler. You play banjo. But you
were featured very prominently on kazoo on that. Was it hard for you at
first to take the kazoo seriously as a genuine instrument?

Ms. RHIANNON GIDDENS (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Well, I
didn't really think of it as a serious instruments until, like, Dom
brought it in, and he was playing it on some tunes that he was doing.
And then there's a whole tradition of jug-band music where people are
playing the kazoo as a serious horn.

I mean, it's - you know, playing it really, really well. And so he
suggested that I start to play it. And I was, like, well, let me give it
a shot, and then I realized how - well, not easy, but it's just, it's
easy in terms of if you have some vocal ideas of what you want to do,
it's just like the jug. You have to have in your mind what you're going
to do and have to be able to produce that with your voice before you
even have the kazoo.

GROSS: String bands are usually considered a white Southern tradition,
and you're a band of African-American musicians, and you've found a
black string band tradition that you feel part of. But did you fall in
love with this music before you knew that there was a black string band
tradition?

Ms. GIDDENS: Yup.

Unidentified Man #3: Absolutely.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah.

GROSS: What did you fall in love with about it?

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, I fell in love with the rhythm. I was a contra-dancer
and square-dancer, and I just was seduced by the banjo, the rhythm of
the claw-hammer banjo. That just really pulled me in. And then I found
out about the history, and then I went, ooh. This is really deep. And
then it just – I was done. I was done for then, you know, it was - that
was it.

GROSS: So discovering this music and falling in love with it without
knowing there was an African-American tradition, did you feel like maybe
you weren't supposed to like it? You know, maybe you would never fit in
with it. Maybe there wouldn't be a place for you, or people would think
you were odd to gravitate to the music.

Mr. DOM FLEMONS (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Well, definitely
the odd thing - that's a definite, just because there – any black person
who's involved in the folk-music scene anywhere knows that there it's
either - they've been just the one of them or maybe someone else, and I
think that's how I was in Phoenix. I was the only black person, but I
was also the only person that was under, like, 40 in the scene in
Phoenix that I was in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. Uh-huh.

Mr. FLEMONS: But I just kind of plowed on myself, and I know Justin had
a really similar story.

Mr. JUSTIN ROBINSON (Musician, Carolina Chocolate Drops): Yeah, I – oh,
Lord. I just forgot the question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Weird, being a weird black person.

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, oh yeah, yeah, definitely. I'm - being a weird black
person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: We're all really familiar with being a weird black person.
I mean...

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, I mean, I guess for me, it was sort of - I didn't
have the same thing with the age thing because there were certainly lots
of people when I started playing in Chapel Hill. There were certainly
lots of people around my age doing it, but I certainly was the only
black person at the time doing it.

But that was not going to stop me. I mean, I think it's characteristic
of all of us that we were sort of misfits, you might say, in our own
rights when we grew up. So doing something just because it wasn't cool
or because you weren't supposed to, we were certainly not any stranger
to that.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, I was sort of used to it because I was – after I
graduated from college, I really got into, like, Scottish music. So I
was always getting, you know, so, you know, how come you're playing this
kind of music, you know? And so I was just kind of used to that. So it
didn't really – I just kind of just kept on going, just like Justin was
saying.

GROSS: How come you were playing that kind of music?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, I just liked it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, I mean, there's really nothing more to it than that.

GROSS: Well, you were already used to not being cool, too, because, I
mean, you sang opera before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's a pretty quick way to not be cool.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, that's true, that's true.

GROSS: So did your parents have associations with this music?

Ms. GIDDENS: Not this kind. Not specifically this music, but see, this
music is very closely related to other kind of music that, like, I know
Justin and I would've grown up with, which is bluegrass and old country
music and even, you know, the other side, which would be the blues and
the jazz side.

I mean, you know, I heard all of that stuff growing up. We watched "Hee
Haw" every Saturday night. You know, you don't change the channel.
Grandma would be very upset with you. So I mean, we just – that's just –
those musics, there's like one step away from this kind of string-band
music. So it wasn't too much of a leap. It's not like we grew up in, you
know, Russia or something. I mean, it was really fairly close to what we
were already used to. So it just kind of like that extra step, you know,
back to this kind of music for us.

Mr. FLEMONS: And even me, I didn't really get into the black string-band
music until I went to the Black Banjo Gathering, which we all went to
and kind of had just a life-changing experience. But, you know, I knew
about blues and jazz and jug-band music. But I didn't associate any of
that with the white fiddle tunes, per se, even though I could guess that
they may be related.

GROSS: Yeah, so you all met at this Black Banjo Gathering, a gathering
of black banjo players. And so was that a revelation to you, that there
was this big community - spread out maybe, but there was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, first to correct...

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, we'll have to fix that, because it wasn't necessarily
a gathering solely of black banjo players. It was a gathering of
everybody who was interested in either the African roots of the banjo or
even just string-band music or who was, you know, an African-American
player of the music or even an African player of - you know, ancestors
of the music.

There were scholars, musicians, just people who were just there just to
learn. And, you know, the black population of the gathering was still
small, but you know, there was enough to - you know, we all met there,
and we were all, like, huh! I'm not the only one. Oh, my God.

You know, so for us, it was fantastic, and for everybody else, it was
great just, you know, because a lot of the scholars had been sort of
laboring, you know, by themselves or had just been talking to other
people, and they got to all meet up and sort of, you know, have this
momentous occasion.

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig." They'll be back after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
They play string band and jug-band music of the '20s and '30s and see
themselves as part of the black string-band tradition. Their new CD is
called "Genuine Negro Jig."

I'd like to ask you to perform another song that's also featured on the
new CD, and the song is "Trouble in Your Mind." So before you play it
for us, tell us why you chose it and what you love about the song.

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, this is one that Justin was playing, that I reminded
him one day at a jam that he played it. And it's from an album called
"Music From the Lost Provinces" put out by Old Hat Records. And it's
just a nice breakdown, and we just started doing it.

GROSS: Okay. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Trouble in Your Mind")

THE CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) I wished I had a nickel. I
wished I had a dime. I wish I had me a pretty girl. You know I'd call
her mine. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in
your mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in
your mind.

If you see that gal of mine, you tell her if you can, when she goes to
make my bread to wash her nasty hands. Don't get in trouble in your
mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind. Don't get in trouble in your
mind. Don't get in trouble in your mind.

GROSS: That's great. That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops, performing a
song that's also featured on their new CD, and the new CD is called
"Genuine Negro Jig." So when we left off, we were talking about how you
discovered, like, the African-American tradition in string bands, and
you met an African-American fiddler who's in his 90s now named Joe
Thompson. And did he teach you certain things on fiddle that you didn't
know or hadn't heard before?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, Lord yeah. Joe Thompson, the guy that you're
mentioning, he's 91. He's been playing since he was six or seven years
old, and he learned from his father, and his father had learned from his
father. So it's a long tradition among his family.

But Joe's fiddle style is really particular, not only to him, but to his
- but to the region. I had the opportunity just to listen to other
fiddlers who would've been a little bit older than Joe. There are field
recordings and stuff, and they all sound pretty similar.

What has happened is is that – and they are white and black. But what
has happened is, you know, most of this particular region's fiddle
style, the music has not been well-documented. So it sounded really
different to, you know, listening to - for folk music - folk enthusiasts
at large to hear somebody like Joe playing, it would sound really
foreign and really, you know, different. And it does, and it's, you
know, it's beautiful.

GROSS: Rhiannon, would you give us an example of what was really
different from what he taught – about what he taught you compared to
what you had known before?

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, the kind of amazing thing is that one of the reasons
why I think our sound is the way it is is that we were all sort of
learning when we started going down to play with Joe. So we didn't get
much chance to play other sort of more, I don't know, square – I don't
know, different ways.

But one of the things that I think I've taken away a lot as a banjo
player is – I'll get the banjo here – is that the...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GIDDENS: Is that real heavy down – the down stroke, you know, and
it's almost an anticipatory kind of down, you know, if that makes sense.
I don't know. It's kind of hard to talk about music, but...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, a lot of times, you tend to hear that with hillbilly
performers more in like the style of, like, Grandpa Jones or Uncle Dave
Macon, generally. But even that Tennessee style, that's taken to an
extreme, while in North Carolina, it's a little bit more – it's a little
bit more compact within it. But the downbeat is still there.

GROSS: Justin, is there anything you could talk about that you learned
from Joe Thompson on fiddle?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. Well, first of all, Joe's bowing is really,
really interesting. He has - which is something that’s common among
fiddle players, at least around here, something they call the double
shuffle, or some people call it hen's egg. I've heard fiddlers call it
sewing cloth. It's all this sort of forward and back motion that is
going forward all at the same time, making these really great rhythmic
kind of things that you have really work very hard to get.

And also, Joe plays notes that are not in the Western scale, which is
actually kind of great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Can you play us an sample of what you're talking about?

Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, I'll play you the double shuffle.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: What makes that the double shuffle? Is it the speed or the
harmony?

Mr. FLEMONS: Play it without the double shuffle, and then show us here.

Mr. ROBINSON: So this is without it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROBINSON: So it's a little of both, with - because of the way that
the fiddle is tuned, when you're playing the double shuffle, you get to
get these really either sympathetic ringing strings or where your
fingers are not sympathetic. So you get some really interesting
harmonies that I've never really heard anywhere else in any other kind
of music.

GROSS: Now, part of the tricky aspect of string-band music is that part
of its roots are in minstrel shows, part of its roots are in blackface.
And so it gets really kind of complicated when you go back to the early
history of that music. So I wonder how – what it's been like for you to
negotiate that aspect of the music and to deal with separating the music
itself from some of the stereotypes that were foisted on the musicians
who played it.

Mr. FLEMONS: I think something that we have as a new generation of
player in the old-time music is that we are educated, and we're
approaching the music at an emotional distance that just has not been
there in earlier generations.

Before, you'd look back at those aspects of history, and people just
would say don't touch that. That's the worst stuff in the world, and
that's what's ruining the world. And now, in this generation, we're able
to actually start piecing those things apart just because, you know, we
want to take the benefits and also try to make what's right or see what
actually happened or what was misappropriated or what was good. Because
the thing about a lot of the black string-band music is not much of the
music was put down on recording, and that's a very essential part of
understanding black music is hearing it. And, you know, just delving
into it, you find some things that are off-putting, but at the same
time, you've got to think in the context of the past instead of thinking
in the context of the present.

Ms. GIDDENS: And that's been – I think that's been something in the
African-American community that's been – it's not something that we've
done very much of, is looking back. You know, it's really been a forward
push, for lots of different reasons.

And as Dom was saying, I think we are one of the first generations who –
I mean, there's still a lot of stuff that's, you know, needs to be
fixed, and there's a lot of people who are still, you know, in bad
situations. But I think as a whole, we are one of the first generations
in the African-American community that has been able to look back
without personally being as touched by it.

You know, like, our parents, they went through the civil rights
movement. You know, they went through all of these things, and they're
really personally wrapped up into a lot of this stuff, whereas we're of
a generation where we can – we're getting it filtered through our
parents and our grandparents and that we can step back and go, okay. So
what can we glean from this, and what can we take from some of this
really painful stuff that, you know, that we might want to just kick
under the rug? What can we take from it that is the good stuff?

You know, a lot of early African-American history, you know, there's a
lot of bad stuff in there, but, you know, there's a lot of good stuff,
too. I mean, the minstrel shows and the stereotyping - and that's all
clearly very bad. But there's a lot of great music and dance, and there
was a lot of black musicians and dancers who persevered through the
stereotype and who were able to, you know, show their skill and their
entertaining, and they were able to do that.

And so what – we can take the good stuff from that now, I think, along
with knowing that there was bad stuff.

GROSS: The Carolina Chocolate Drops will be back in the second half of
the show. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with three members of
the Carolina Chocolate Drops: Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom
Flemons. They see themselves as part of the black string-band tradition
of the 1920s and '30s. The Carolina Chocolate Drops' new CD is called
the "Genuine Negro Jig."

Well, you know, we were talking about rescuing music from the past, but
you’re also playing music from the present, as well as original songs,
and I think we should get to that a little bit - although you’re doing
this contemporary music in the spirit of the string-band style. So,
Rhiannon, on to a song that you do on the new CD, and this is a song
that I want you to talk about. I want you to talk about the original
version and how you heard it and why you do it. And it's "Hit 'Em Up
Style."

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah, "Hit 'Em Up Style" is - well, it was just - it was
really popular, and I happened to be listening to pop radio at the time.
I don’t really much now anymore. But - and it was just all over the
radio, and every time it came on, I would just, like, jam in my car to
it. It just was very catchy and had a great chorus and, you know, the
beats and all that stuff. And it's just one of those songs that kind of
never went away in my brain. And then I heard it again on the radio like
years later and just something kind of occurred to me. I was like, why
don't we - I wonder if we could try to play that?

And so, I tried to play it on the fiddle, and it actually worked really
well on the fiddle. And then, the three of us sort of came together and
said okay, like, how could we do this? And then, you know, Dom came up
with a great rhythm on the banjo that worked really well. And then we
found out that Justin beat-boxed, and we're like, you know, and it just
clicked. And we kind of messed around with the original version of the
song. We just tossed out what didn’t work and just kind of went with
what did.

GROSS: And who did the original?

Ms. GIDDENS: Blu Cantrell...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. GIDDENS: ...was the original singer. Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. So let's hear this from the CD. This is from the Carolina
Chocolate Drops new CD "Genuine Negro Jig," and this Rhiannon Giddens
singing lead.

(Soundbite of song, "Hit 'Em Up Style")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) While he was scheming, I was beaming
in his beemer, just beaming. Can't believe that I caught my man
cheating. So I found another way to make him pay for it all. So I went
to Neiman-Marcus on a shopping spree, and on the way I grabbed Soleil
and Mia. And as the cash box rang, I threw everything away.

Hey ladies, when your man wanna get buck wild, just go back and hit 'em
up style. Get your hands on his cash and spend it to the last dime for
all the hard times. When you go, then everything goes, from the crib to
the ride and the clothes. So you better let him know that if he mess up
you gotta hit 'em up.

GROSS: That's Rhiannon Giddens singing from the new Carolina Chocolate
Drops CD "Genuine Negro Jig."

Nicely done. I really like that a lot. And Rhiannon, what you’re playing
on fiddle, it’s this, like, drone style that I think is really
interesting. And...

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. It's just kind of old-timey - you know, old-timey put
to hip-hop, I suppose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that drone really old-timey, or is that a more contemporary
kind of thing?

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, no, that's very old-timey. The double stopping, you
know, that kind of rhythmic bowing, it’s all old-timey. What makes it
contemporary is the minor key.

GROSS: Oh.

Ms. GIDDENS: You know, because there's not a lot of minor stuff in those
tunes and - well, I mean, there are some, but the ones that we think of
as old, you know, like that are in the public sort of ear are not in
minor key. And I think that's one of the things that makes it sound so
contemporary and so kind of, you know, people say it's Middle Eastern-y.
It's just, you know, it’s in a minor key.

GROSS: So how did you learn that drone style? Maybe you could just play
a little bit of that drone and talk about it a little bit.

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, gosh. I mean, just from playing...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GIDDENS: And that's just like one of the first old-time tunes I
knew. And so it wasn’t much of a leap to take that to - that tune to the
"Hit 'Em Up Style" tune. It just fit really well.

GROSS: And compare that to what you did on "Hit 'Em Up Style." Do a
little of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Hit 'Em Up Style")

GROSS: Nice. Now were you classical trained on fiddle - on violin?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, good lord no. No, no, no. Just voice.

GROSS: Just voice.

Ms. GIDDENS: Not violin.

GROSS: Yeah. So we heard you sing on "Hit 'Em Up Style." Now, you
started out singing opera.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah.

GROSS: So can we hear a little bit of your opera voice?

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. I'd have warmed up if I known you were going to ask
this. Let me seeing what can...

(Soundbite of song, "Susannah: The Trees on the Mountains")

Ms. GIDDENS: (Singing) The trees on the mountains are cold and bare. The
summer just vanished and left them there. Like a false-hearted lover
just like my own, who made me love him, then left me alone.

GROSS: Very nice. What was that?

Ms. GIDDENS: That's in honor of the music we play. That's from an opera
called "Susannah," which is set in Tennessee. And that was the
composer's sort of mountain ballad - but, you know, classically, of
course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right. So did you have to find a different voice after leaving
opera for folk music?

Ms. GIDDENS: I did. I mean, I was lucky in that I didn’t start off when
I was a kid singing opera. I'd sing like, kind of, contemporary folk
music with my dad and my sister and my mom. But I had to find my
classical voice. And so when I left school and I needed to find first a
Celtic voice and then this old-time voice, it was a little easier
because I already had sort of - thought about before. You know, and it
wasn’t just I was singing classical for, like, 25 years and then had to
make a switch. That would've been hard. But, yeah, it's just like I
switched into a different brain. It’s bizarre. But I found that
classical training has come in really handy for unexpected things like
kazoo playing. And, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Wait. How does that come handy for kazoo playing?

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, breath control, man. Breath control. Like, I can just -
we do this one this one called "Memphis Shakedown," where I'm playing
the kazoo, literally, like the entire time and I have, like, little
catch breaths that I have to make. And all that breath training, you
know, came in really, really handy. And I can just do the whole thing.
And I'm about to pass out at the end, but I can make it, you know. So
it’s, you know, I'm really happy with the way the musical life is
turning out. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is it easier to sing in a folk style than an opera style? Does it
just take less effort?

Ms. GIDDENS: Mm. I'd say it takes a different effort. And actually, when
I'm tired, it’s easier to sing classical because - it’s - classical is
really, it's like - you get the most voice for the least amount of
effort. That's what you really learn. And you’re learning how to sing
without a microphone. Whereas I actually have a hard time sometimes when
I'm tired singing sort of straight tones and like soft, high sort of
folkie type things. So it’s really kind of - it evens out, you know, in
a lot of ways. I mean, I don’t have to warm up for an hour to do a
Chocolate Drops show, which I appreciate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: I probably should. And I seriously hope my voice teacher
didn’t hear that little excerpt that I sang because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: I'm a little out of practice. But, you know, you got to
give up something.

GROSS: My guests are three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
They're new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."

They'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
They play string-band and jug-band music of the 20s and 30s and see
themselves as part of the black string-band tradition. Their new CD is
called "Genuine Negro Jig." When we left off, Rhiannon Giddens was
talking about her background in opera.

Now Dom, among the instruments you play are four-string banjo, bones and
jug.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

GROSS: Not things that are prominent in the classical world. So I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Most definitely not.

GROSS: I won't be asking you about the difference between classical
bones and old-timey bones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Maybe you should.

Ms. GIDDENS: Oh, come on. He's learned that bones (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But speaking of the bones, do you actually use like animal bones,
or are they just...

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. In one hand, I do have cow bones, and in my other
hand I carry wood bones. But that's just a - that's a sound thing.

GROSS: Get out the cow bones for us.

Mr. FLEMONS: All right. Cow bones are set.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Are cows like - do cows have the best bones for percussion?

Mr. FLEMONS: Well, they have big bones, and that makes for the best like
- you know, you can't use the little ribs that you see in, you know,
your - you know, the smaller pork ribs in the barbecue shack or
anything. You have to have the big Texas longhorn, like, bones. And I
haven't made any myself. I've been fortunate that people have given me
different bones. And it’s a pretty intense process. But I've heard
different ways to do it. One fellow told me that you can put it next to
an ant hill and then throw it on the roof for a week. I've been told...

GROSS: Oh, gosh. The ant hill, so to eat off the meat?

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah, because that's what - I mean, you got to remember,
when you got these, you got these gigantic bones that have all the meat
and the fat on it, and you got to get all that off. And the two ways
I've found is that, put it next to an ant hill, and the other one is
boil it in water for a couple of days. And I heard that that's an awful
thing to have in the house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: And once you get the meat and stuff off it, then you have
to you either bake them in an oven, and like I said before, throw them
on the roof or, you know, just dry them out. And once they're dry, you
cut the bone down, because at first they're gigantic. You cut those
bones down and you sand them, and then you can put a lacquer on it or,
you know, a lacquer or, you know, whatever you want to do after that to
make them look nice.

GROSS: And Dom, you want to take out your jug for us?

Mr. FLEMONS: All right. Okay. Here we have the jug.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. FLEMONS: That's a big ceramic one. Something with - in all of this,
a lot of it came from just kind of - again, just kind of having an odd
creative streak where I would just try to figure out how to do things,
because I was in Arizona. No one was really telling me not to do
anything, and no one could tell me how to do any of these things. So I
started just figuring out how to do this.

So I'd heard a lot of jug band music, you know, Jim Kweskin and Lovin'
Spoonful and stuff like that and the Even Dozen Jug Band, and also the
Memphis Jug Band - all the older ones, too. And I just - and you see it
on TV. You see people blow the jug, and you’re like, oh, that's kind of
neat, you know. But it's just kind of joke stuff. And I just thought to
myself one day, oh, how do they do that? How do they blow into the jug?

So I started out with little Martinelli's bottles, and I was trying to
figure out how to blow into it and make different tones. And then just
over time, after maybe a year or so of working on it, I had evolved into
a one gallon apple juice jug, and I would just take it to jams. And it'd
be blue grass jams or something. Whenever there wasn’t a bass player, I
would just play the bass part on a tune, and I just would make that up.
And I was doing that for about four years by the time the Black Banjo
Gathering happened. And then when I was sitting with Joe, a lot of those
tunes are one chord.

And as a guitar player, I had a lot of trouble trying to figure out what
to do where it just wouldn’t sound ridiculous for me to be strumming on
this one chord and messing up the fiddle and banjo's rhythm. So I
thought the jug might be a good thing, and that was how I started doing
that.

GROSS: What’s the range of notes that you can get on the jug that you
use?

Mr. FLEMONS: As many as - just like the kazoo, as many notes as your
voice can make. Like, for example, Justin and I, with male voices, we
can get G and A best on the jug. Rhiannon, with a female voice, whenever
she's played jug - which is, she doesn’t play it too much, but she can
get D really well.

GROSS: So, you want to give us a demonstration of good jug technique?

Mr. FLEMONS: All right. Let's see.

(Soundbite of spitting sound)

Mr. FLEMONS: All right.

(Soundbite of spitting sound)

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's pretty good. So, Dom, you grew up in Arizona, moved to
North Carolina when you discovered - well, I guess when you discovered
Rhiannon and Justin and decided to be in a band together. So, do you
feel uprooted? I mean, the desert culture and I guess retirement culture
of Arizona, it’s...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: You calling me out here, Terry Gross. Everybody in
Flagstaff's going to hear about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But, I mean, it’s actually that the culture of Arizona is really
different from the culture in North Carolina.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. But that wasn’t something I was thinking
about at the time. I had been living in Arizona for - at that point,
what was I...

Ms. GIDDENS: Your whole life?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. I mean, my whole life. I was trying to thinking of
what age I was. I was like 23, I think. But my whole life I'd been
there, and I'd been playing and busking and stuff like that. And when I
went to the Black Banjo Gathering, I found it, you know, it was like
"Alice in Wonderland." I saw the little rabbit go by, and I was like,
okay, I got to follow this. And I had just finished college. You know, I
finished college May of '05. The Gathering was in April of '05, so I
really had nothing holding me back. And so my family was like, oh, you
finished college, you know, go ahead. You know, and everybody, you know,
said, you know, give 'em hell, and that's what I've done so far. And
I've been really pleased with how it’s turned out.

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig."

They'll be back after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are the three members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
They play string-band and jug-band music. They see themselves as part of
the black string-band tradition. Their new CD is called "Genuine Negro
Jig."

Now, we’ve been talking about your music. I should as you about the
title of the album, which is called "Genuine Negro Jig." And, you know,
Negro being a word that was in the headlines lately because Harry Reid
used the word Negro.

Ms. GIDDENS: Indeed.

GROSS: So what does the word Negro mean in the context of this title?

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, we named the album after a tune which was in itself
written down by a man in the 1800s. So that's pretty much it. You know,
there's lots of things that you could put on top of that, but that's
where it sort of begins and ends for us, you know, is...

Mr. FLEMONS: It's also a play on words a little bit, just because, you
know, we're a black band and, you know, with that title for that tune,
we thought it was, you know, it just it seemed to fit there.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. But, it started, though, with the tune, you know. And
then...

Mr. FLEMONS: Oh, yeah. With the tune it just felt it felt right.

Ms. GIDDENS: Then it just felt really right.

Mr. FLEMONS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GIDDENS: And that's how, like, so many of the things that we do - I
mean, the name of our band. It's the same way.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. Exactly.

Ms. GIDDENS: You know, named ourselves after the Tennessee Chocolate
Drops, and then it - like, it later, you know, all of these sort of
other kind of ideas sort of come about. And that's just kind of the way
it’s run with our band in general.

GROSS: But by choosing- even though it's a name of a song that you
play, by choosing "Genuine Negro Jig" as the words to highlight on the
album cover...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...it's like...

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. I mean...

GROSS: ...you're saying something.

Mr. ROBINSON: We knew that it was going to be provocative.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. That's true.

Mr. ROBINSON: And we - that was probably - that was done intentionally.
But what we're not trying to do by naming it that is to say anything in
particular. I mean, if it starts a dialogue either about our music or
about, you know, other things about, you know, what it means - you know,
what is genuine? What is, you know, what it means, you know, in 2010 - I
mean, great. But us as a band, as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, did not
have a specific agenda as what we wanted people to take away from that
title.

We knew it was going to be provocative, yes, but not - you know, we
weren't saying anything with it.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. And I just remember we said let's call it "Genuine
Negro Jig" and let's see if the album - the record company actually goes
for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: And they did, so it's been great. You know?

Mr. FLEMONS: And also, the tune is - I think is it’s definitely the most
progressive in terms of telling our story. Like I think that and "Hit
'Em Up Style" are the two tunes on the album that really are - show the
way that the past and the present show a little bit of the future
through how our journey's gone in terms of the music.

Ms. GIDDENS: As another Arizonian musician who's originally from D.C.
and a musician that we play with and have played a lot with in the past,
he introduced the concept of Sankofa to us.

Mr. FLEMONS: That's right.

Ms. GIDDENS: His name's Sule Greg Wilson. He lives in Tempe. And Sankofa
is a West African proverb. It means go back and fetch it and bring it
forward.

Mr. FLEMONS: That's right.

Ms. GIDDENS: And that's something that we firmly believe in. And
"Genuine Negro Jig" really embodies that.

GROSS: Now the great thing - wasn’t "Genuine Negro Jig" originally
performed - originally identified with, anyways - with a white man, Dan
Emmett?

Ms. GIDDENS: Yes.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ROBINSON: He was the one who wrote down the transcription of the
tune. And if you notice on the CD, it has an alternate title, "Snowden's
Jig." He lived down the street or, I guess about a quarter of a mile
away from a black string-band family by with the surname Snowdens. And
it is most likely due to the scholarship that's been done about Dan
Emmett and about that region that he would've gotten that particular
tune, "Genuine Negro Jig," from that family from the patriarch of the
family, who was a whistler.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

GROSS: Ah, great. So anyway, so this white man, Dan Emmett, performed
it. And he was not only white. He's the person considered to have the
first white band that all performed in black face.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah.

Mr. FLEMONS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So the kind of layers of historical complication here - it's
amazing.

Ms. GIDDENS: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. Yeah. But that's what you discover when you get into
this music. It's just layer after layer after layer.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah. It get's so deep.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah.

Mr. FLEMONS: It just - it like baffles the mind.

GROSS: Now I'm guessing that sense most of the folk music audience is
white, that even though you’re kind of rescuing and reinterpreting and
adding to an African-American music tradition, and even though the three
of you are African-American, I'm guessing most of your audience is
white. Is that true? And if it is true, is that just a little bit
frustrating? Not frustrating that white people enjoy the music, but
frustrating that more black people don’t enjoy it, too?

Mr. FLEMONS: I wouldn’t say it's frustrating. It's only - just because,
I mean, that it's...

Ms. GIDDENS: Well, it's not frustrating because we see the numbers
growing.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

Ms. GIDDENS: I think - in terms of me, anyway. Like when we first
started out, there was a small, tiny number of black folk who would come
to show in general. But we’ve seen that number grow as they’ve told
their friends, and we’ve gotten more profile in the back community. I
mean, EbonyJet.com actually did something on us, and we got to do the
movie with Denzel Washington, you know, that we were in for four
seconds. But, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIDDENS: ...we had black people come up to us at shows and say I saw
you in the movie, and I came to the show because of that. So...

Mr. FLEMONS: Yeah.

Ms. GIDDENS: ...you know, all of those things, we’ve definitely seen the
numbers grow.

Mr. FLEMONS: Because there's not a built-in black folk music audience.
It's, you know, up till this point, folk music has been like a thing
that white people have enjoyed, and there's just not a set black folk
audience. So it’s just - you know, this has been over five years we’ve
seen more and more people come out. But this is something we’ve had to
build from the ground up.

Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Now Justin, you have an original song that's on the CD called
"Kissin' and Cussin." And I'd like you to introduce this song for us and
talk about writing it and how you see it fitting into the tradition that
you’re playing in.

Mr. ROBINSON: I wrote this song with a lot of different inspirations
from various musical, I guess, heroes of mine, one of them being a very
obscure bluesman called Rabbit Brown, and a little bit of Loretta Lynn
and a little bit of Ike and Tina Turner.

GROSS: Hmm. Ike and Tina Turner, because the relationship in this song
is not very good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: No. And...

GROSS: There's a lot of lovemaking and cussing in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah. But there's also a song - part of the song's title
"Kissin' and Cussin" is sort of a riff off of an Ike and Tina tune
called "Kissin' and a Cryin' and a Carryin' On," which song I had never
heard of. I just heard the title before I wrote the song.

GROSS: Okay. Good. Well, I like the song, and I like the way you do it.
So I want to thank you all for talking with us. It's really been great.
I wish you good luck. I love the new CD. Thank you so much.

Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you.

Mr. FLEMONS: Thank you for having us. Thanks, Terry.

Ms. GIDDENS: Yeah. This is an absolute pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Kissin' and Cussin")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Well, tell me pretty baby, do you
think you can sleep tonight? Well, tell me pretty baby, do you think you
can sleep tonight? 'Cause we kiss and we cuss and we carry on. We kiss
and we cuss and we carry on until the break of dawn.

GROSS: The Carolina Chocolate Drops' new CD is called "Genuine Negro
Jig."

Our thanks to engineer Robin Copley at WUNC in Durham where the Carolina
Chocolate Drops performed and spoke to us from.

You can hear three tracks from their new CD on our Web site:
freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: For the past few months back in the FRESH AIR office, we’ve been
enjoying our producer Jonathan Menjivar describe what it’s been like for
him as he prepared to be a first-time father. The good news arrived
Friday, and now we want to hear his stories of parenthood. Jonathan and
his wife Hillary Frank are now the parents of Sasha Eliana Menjivar.

People often say that writing a book is as hard as giving birth. Since
Hillary has a new book coming out this spring, she'll be able to tell us
if that's true. Okay, I'm going to give that book a little plug. It's
called "The View From the Top."

Congratulations Hillary and Jonathan. We can't wait to see Sasha Eliana.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
123968480

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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