Carolina Chocolate Drops at Mass MoCA

Performing on May 29

By: - Apr 16, 2010

Chocolate Drops

The UK's Guardian says that the Carolina Chocolate Drops play "antique jug band tunes with swaggering hip-hop attitude." Fiddler Justin Robinson explains, "Tradition is a guide, not a jailer. We play in an older tradition, but we are modern musicians." This trio, comprising Robinson plus banjo-player Rhiannon Giddens and multi-tasker Dom Flemons, bring their toe-tapping versions of traditional tunes to North Adams for a memorable Memorial Day weekend concert on Saturday, May 29, at 8 PM with opener The Duke & The King. NPR's Weekend Edition calls the Carolina Chocolate Drops "the hottest thing to hit the old-time music community in decades."

While Carolina Chocolate Drops employ a range of traditional string-band instruments --several banjos, a fiddle, a ceramic jug, bones and a kazoo, to name a few -- the band members were not always focused on folk music. Giddens and Robinson are both classically trained musicians. Giddens studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory, while Robinson played classical violin before taking up the fiddle. Flemons' background is in slam poetry and guitar.

Not surprisingly, the Chocolate Drops first hooked up through a yahoo group, Black Banjo: Then and Now, in 2005. Flemons was living in Arizona, but when the web-chat spawned the Black Banjo Gathering in Asheville, N.C., he flew east and ended up moving to the Piedmont where he could get at the music first-hand. These three young musicians made the commitment to travel to Mebane, N.C., every Thursday night to sit in the home of old-time fiddler Joe Thompson for a musical jam session. Thompson, a black fiddler with a short bowing style that he inherited from generations of family musicians, was in his 80's. He had learned to play a wide-ranging set of tunes sitting on the back porch with other players after a day of field work. Now he was passing those same lessons on to a new generation.

When the three students decided to form a band, it was mostly as a tribute to Thompson, a chance to bring his music back out of the house again and into dance halls and public places. Their name is a tip of the hat to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, three black brothers who lit up the music scene in the 1930s. Honing and experimenting with Thompson's repertoire, the band often coaxed their teacher out of the house to join them on stage where his charisma and charm regularly stole the show.

Much of what the Chocolate Drops play traces back to the minstrel acts of the 1920s - controversial music performed by white musicians in blackface. Giddens acknowledges the songs' history. "What we're striving to put out there is the joyous side of this music - the good side of this time period," she says. "There's a lot of bad stuff, and we're not going to deny that. But you can't throw everything out."

Their fourth record, Genuine Negro Jig, just released in February 2010, features string band interpretations of tunes by Blu Cantrell and Tom Waits as well as original compositions, alongside such traditional tracks as Cornbread and Butterbeans and Trouble in Your Mind. Spin gives the album 4 stars, saying they bring "a modern sizzle to the legacy of classic African American string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, with fiddles, banjos, and even kazoos sparking an electrifying ruckus."

May 29, 2010, also marks the opening of a major exhibition of work by Petah Coyne in MASS MoCA's first floor galleries. The exhibition opening will take place from 5:30 - 7:30 and is free for members. Not yet members may purchase tickets to the opening for $6. 

Tickets to Carolina Chocolate Drops are $18 in advance, $22 the day of the show, and $10 for students. Tickets are general admission, and the show is standing room only.  MASS MoCA members receive a 10% discount. Tickets are available through the MASS MoCA Box Office located on Marshall Street in North Adams from 11 AM until 5 PM daily. Tickets can also be charged by phone by calling 413.662.2111 during Box Office hours or online at at any time of day.