The Carolina Chocolate Drops

Studio 360

This story originally aired on PRI’s Studio 360. For more, listen to the audio above.

Story by Alana Harper, PRI’s Studio 360

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have been getting a lot of attention for being young African-American musicians embracing and re-inventing old-timey Americana. The string band has just released an album called “Genuine Negro Jig.” They’ve also performed with blues legend Taj Mahal, and appeared in a Denzel Washington movie.

This spring, the Chocolate Drops joined other creators and fans of their style of music at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, in the mountains of North Carolina. The gathering, held at Appalachian State University, saw intellectuals and banjo enthusiasts celebrating the legacy of the banjo and African American culture.

The members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops — Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson — met at the first Black Banjo gathering in 2005. According to the band’s website, the three initially got together as a tribute to Joe Thompson, a black fiddler in his 80s with a short bowing style inherited from generations of family musicians. Thompson inspired Giddens’s playing style, which she calls “beating the banjo to death.”

“We started out playing for square dances, country dances … you gotta get their attention and make them want to move,” said Giddens.

The banjo, which has its roots in Africa, has long been associated with music styles dominated by whites. This began in the 1940s and 50s, when whites in blackface used the banjo in their minstrel acts. Through time, the music grew beyond the minstrel shows — due in part to to virtuosos like Earl Scruggs — and became the form commonly seen today.

The organizers of the Black Banjo Gathering want to educate both blacks and whites about where the instrument and the musical tradition originated. Groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops have reclaimed the banjo, but for them, it’s all about the music.

PRI’s Peabody Award-winning “Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen” from WNYC is public radio’s smart and surprising guide to what’s happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt Andersen introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy — so let “Studio 360” steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life.

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