Interview: Picking away at the hard questions with the Carolina Chocolate Drops
Dom Flemons and his band have an uphill battle as long as one of our culture's prevailing images of a black man in a cowboy hat is Sheriff Bart from Mel Brooks' satirical western Blazing Saddles. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are an all-black string band that plays traditional old-time music– hardly familiar territory for black performers or audiences.
But they just won a Grammy for their efforts, and instead of shying away from the tough racial issues implicit in a lot of folk and country music, the Chocolate Drops tackle them head-on. Their most recent album is called Genuine Negro Jig, and as Flemons puts it, black people can finally be president, so surely they can also play the banjo.
The Hook: So, you have a new beatboxer in the band.
Dom Flemons: We've had to change the arrangements a little bit, but it's not going to sound like we've completely jumped ship and gone somewhere else. He also does horn, and he can also do a bass drum sound– things that are a little bit broader than boom-chik-boom.
The Hook: But there's a segment of the audience for this music that are die-hard traditional purists.
Dom Flemons: We've done a lot of traditional things, but the intention of the group was never to be a museum piece. Percussion, that's part of the tradition, too. Beatboxing is a folk art form, even though it is associated in certain ways with more urban hip hop music.
The Hook: You know, the argument could be made for early hip hop in general as a kind of urban folk art.
Dom Flemons: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of that music was made out of the necessity that the people needed to create and express their music. It's the same way that two or three generations before the earliest hip hop, you had people that were doing doo-wop and doing vocal harmonies, and these were just kids on the street that didn't have instruments, and they just started singing. That's something that you find over and over again: people make music however they can, no matter what they do or do not have.
The Hook: Here we're talking about the emergence of a new kind of folk music, and that's sort of a strange concept, because in a way the idea of folk music is very closely tied to tradition– already having been there.
Dom Flemons: Folk music can also be, like, classic rock songs and Beatles songs or what have you too, because nowadays people know the stuff so well. Folk music is very broad for me.
The Hook: Folk music– using it here in the conventional sense, bluegrass and old-time and singer-songwriter– is overwhelmingly white. Why do you think that is?
Dom Flemons: There's two types of ways that folk music works. There's folk people, regular people playing folk music, and then there's popular folk music, which is academic folk music and commercial folk music. The commercial level, that has been a white establishment. Black string band music has just made slow, very small steps forward over the years, and our group happens to be one that's done very well.
The Hook: The novelty element that strikes when people encounter your band for the first time in some ways seems to parallel the country album released in 2008 by former Hootie And The Blowfish singer Darius Rucker.
Dom Flemons: Seeing a black person doing country music opens people up to the idea. That opens the discussion, and you open up a history book, and all of a sudden you find that there's tons of information on blacks playing the banjo, and that it's associated with slavery, and it's a very, very important piece of American culture from right after the Civil War. There's not imagery of black people in country music, and if they are, it's usually minstrel images or it's hillbillies. And that's how it's been for over fifty years. With Darius Rucker, in America for years we focused on the white guy who can sound black, but we've rarely focused on the black guy who can sound white.
The Hook: Big picture– do you feel like this is taking hold?
Dom Flemons: It's growing, little by little, bit by bit. We come from a post civil rights world, and now in a post-Obama world. Everybody can be involved with the music. It's not really so much about black people and white people. It's more just saying, "Look, here's a fuller picture. Take a look at this."
The Carolina Chocolate Drops perform at the Jefferson Theater on Friday 2/25. Acme Swing Mfg Co opens. Tickets cost $18 or $16 in advance, and the show starts at 8:30pm.