I often joke with my friends that I come from Black hillbillies. It’s kinda true. My mother’s family is from Tennessee (not Memphis) and Kentucky. It helps to explain why you can sometimes hear Dolly Parton’s bluegrass records getting bump in my house or my car (I also like Emmylou Harris, the Cry Cry Cry project, and much of Tracy Chapman’s work is outright country, like “Smoke & Ashes“).
I grew up on country music as much as I did Parliament/Funkadelic. As a result, my tastes are equally as sporadic. I don’t like contemporary country so much, but much prefer the bluegrass tunes with mandolins, dulcimers, and banjo–with a strong voice lilting over the harmonies. When you really, I mean really, get past your initial shock or displeasure, bluegrass is comepletely soul music. It is usually explained by musicologists and historians as having roots in Irish or Scottish folk music.
That is undeniable. But it also sounds very similar in some ways to some traditional African styles–in terms of the melodies, harmonies, and the string playing. The banjo is afterall originally an African instrument–its no wonder why country music is actually very popular in Africa. So why are so many Black people so adverse to bluegrass music (although Black people over the age of 35 in the south will outright admit to liking certain country music. A friend of mine often says, “Black moms love Dolly!”), and think of it as a white thing?
Well, the Carolina Chocolate Drops may change this. I was going thru my Emusic.com account, and decided I needed some more bluegrass, so I am searching the section of the site when the name Carolina Chocolate Drops pops up. I think it cannot be possible! A Black bluegrass band? And I was right! Who are they?
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a group of young African-American stringband musicians that have come to together to play the rich tradition of fiddle and banjo music in Carolinas’ piedmont. Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson both hail from the green hills of the North Carolina Piedmont while Dom Flemons is native to sunny Arizona.
Although we have diverse musical backgrounds, we draw our musical heritage from the foothills of the North and South Carolina. We have been under the tutelage of Joe Thompson, said to be the last black traditional string band player, of Mebane, NC and we strive to carry on the long standing traditional music of the black and white communities.
Joe’s musical heritage runs as deeply and fluidly as the many rivers and streams that traverse our landscape. We are proud to carry on the tradition of black musicians like Odell and Nate Thompson, Dink Roberts, John Snipes, Libba Cotten, Emp White, and countless others who have passed beyond memory and recognition.
A Little on Piedmont Stringband Music
When most of people think of fiddle and banjo music, they think of the southern Appalachian Mountains as the source of this music. While the mountains of Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina are great strongholds of traditional music today, they are certainly not the source.
The nuances of piedmont stringband music stem from the demographics of the piedmont and thereby its focus on the banjo as the lead instrument. Among black ensembles, the banjo often set the pace and if a fiddle was present and it often was not, it served as accompaniment and not as the lead instrument as is more common in the Appalachian tradition. A guitar or mandolin would have been rare, but unheard of, in these bands but the foundation of this tradition lies rooted in the antebellum combination of fiddle and banjo.
Want to know more about the African-American old-time tradition? Visit blackbanjo.com for more links to more information.
Soif there are other black hillbillies out there, or if you’re interested in exploring something you never thought you’d like, check em out.