African-American string band plays old tunes with modern sound at Weinberg -- Gazette.Net


Record producers discovered a market for blues and jazz in the 1920s and 1930s, but they overlooked the African-American string bands that were also popular in black communities at the time.

“When the recording industry [started to grow], people were still playing string band music and still living that music,” says Rhiannon Giddens, one of the founders of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

The four-member band will perform a mix of traditional and new music with banjo, fiddle and cello Thursday at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick.

Antecedents to predominantly white country and bluegrass music, African-American string bands used the banjo developed by slaves from Africa and the fiddle brought by European settlers.

“The banjo was a black instrument for the first 100 years of its existence,” Giddens says. “It’s at the heart of black music and American music.”

The band, however, has no intention of presenting a lesson in music history at the Weinberg.

“We’re not trying to sound like a creaky old record,” says Giddens, who lives in Greensboro, N.C. “We give people a context, but we give them our own version.”

Giddens will perform with band co-founder Dom Flemons and Hubby Jenkins from New York and the band’s newest member, Leyla McCalla, from New Orleans.

Also performing part-time with the band is beat boxer Adam Matta, who is included in several songs on the band’s latest album, “Leaving Eden.”

Giddens, Matta and a guiitarist performed the song “Daughter’s Lament” in the movie “The Hunger Games,” with the words written and sung by Giddens.

Giddens says the music for the song was based on a traditional Appalachian tune called “Young Hunting” about a girl who kills her lover, whom she thought was unfaithful.

A bird in a tree calls her on it, and the girl threatens to kill the bird, Giddens says.

Giddens first met Flemons at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C., in 2005. The encounter led to visits with mentor Joe Thompson, who lived in Mebane, N.C.

Thompson, who was 86 at the time, had been playing the fiddle since age 5, carrying on a string band tradition that had been in his family for generations.

“We would go to his home and learn the tunes, and he’d tell us about the old days,” Giddens says.

“He was a very powerful connection,” she says about Thompson, who joined them on an album and who died this past February at age 93.

After the Black Banjo Gathering, Giddens, Flemons and former member Justin Robinson soon formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops, paying homage to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, a trio of brothers who performed in the 1930s.

Developed in Africa, the banjo was brought by slaves from plantations in the Caribbean to the American South, where some Africans also learned to play the violin and fiddle, performing and calling dances at white gatherings.

Further west on the Piedmont plateau between the coast and the Appalachian Mountains, where segregation was not as extreme, blacks and whites developed a similar-sounding music, but the banjo tended to predominate in black bands, while fiddle took the lead in white bands.

Piedmont string bands played at dances, where clogging and flatfoot, which predated tap dancing, evolved from a mix of African-American rhythms and Scots-Irish and Indian dance steps.

“There was a constant circle between black and white cultures, North and South, rich and poor,” Giddens says.

Overlooked by the recording industry in the early 1900s, black string band music never reached a wider African-American audience as blues and jazz did in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result, many African-Americans don’t know about the black string band tradition, she says.

After World War II, returning black veterans, along with the rest of the country, also began turning to the new medium of television for entertainment.

“These all contributed to the demise of black banjo,” she says. “A lot of family bands didn’t survive.”

But then in the 1960s and 1970s, white musicologists from the North wanting to preserve traditional American folk music sparked a revival of interest in black string bands.

Late in his career, Thompson played at folk festivals and at Carnegie Hall and also received a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship in 2007.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops also found a market for their music, playing at festivals and becoming the first black string band to play at the historically white Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2008.

In 2011, the band won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for “Genuine Negro Jig.”

In Frederick, the band will perform a mix of traditional and new songs from its latest album, “Leaving Eden,” which includes a song co-written by Giddens inspired by her rural youth called “Country Girl.”

“It’s nice to pull in the elements that work,” says Giddens about the band’s mix of traditional and modern.

“There’s no music that’s born in a vacuum,” she says. “All have tendrils that reach back to the beginning.”