Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Carrying the Tradition Forward

Joe Thompson passed away last month. He was one of the last traditional practitioners of African-American String Band Music. This is music that has more in common with that of fellow North Carolinians Fred Cockerham and Kyle Creed than it does with Robert Johnson or Blind Willie McTell. This is music that dates back to before the record companies discovered that "rural" music would sell and then put everything into categories based on black and white. All white rural musicians were "country" while all African-American musicians played "blues" or worse yet, "race music." The reality, especially in the Piedmont, was more complicated and more interesting than that. Much like his white counterparts, Joe played for square dances and other community functions through out his life and was awarded both a North Carolina Heritage Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship. You might have even seen him perform in Lowell during the three years the National Folk Festival took place there. Joe was also a mentor to three younger players, the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

This North Carolina String Band style is just one of the elements that fuse to form the music of the Chocolate Drops. Their music joyfully blurs not just genera but racial lines, incorporating Jug Band and Hokum music, African American Fife & Drum music, and yes, even blues. As you might expect they are not strict traditionalist and have applied their talents to everything from "Hit'em Up Style" to Dylan's "Political World" and they make an appearance on The Chieftains latest album.

If pressed to describe their music they tell you that more than being a part of any genera, it has more to do with other musics from the Piedmont Region, namely North Carolina. And in fact, the two remaining founder members of the band, Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens are both from there. They are joined in the band by the New York based mulch-instrumentalist Hubby Jenkins and, on the current tour, New Orleans based cellist Leyla McCall.
Yes, I said cellist, and you can bet I'm going to be asking them about that. I also expect we'll be remembering the gentle man who taught them so much, Joe Thompson, when the Carolina Chocolate Drops join me in the studio Live at Noon this Friday. I hope you will too.

-Dave Palmater

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