In the summer and fall of 2005, three young black musicians, Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson, 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. Joe was in his 80’s, a black fiddler with a short bowing style that he inherited from generations of family musicians. 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, they didn’t have big plans. It was mostly a tribute to Joe, a chance to bring his music back out of the house again and into dance halls and public places. They called themselves The Chocolate Drops as a tip of the hat to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, three black brothers Howard, Martin and Bogan Armstrong, who lit up the music scene in the 1930’s. Honing and experimenting with Joe’s repertoire, the band often coaxed their teacher out of the house to join them on stage. Joe’s charisma and charm regularly stole the show.
Being young and living in the 21st century, the Chocolate Drops first hooked up through a yahoo group, Black Banjo: Then and Now (BBT&N) hosted by Tom Thomas and Sule Greg Wilson. Dom was still living in Arizona, but in April 2005, when the web-chat spawned the Black Banjo Gathering in Asheville, N.C., he flew east and ended moving to the Piedmont where he could get at the music first hand. Joe Thompson’s house was the proof in the pudding.
The Grammy–award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops have added two new musicians to the band: Leyla McCalla (cello vox) and multi-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins. The two join the group as founding member Justin Robinson departs to take up new challenges.
In the end, it’s all about serious fun and traditional innovation.