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Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops put a modern twist on tradition


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Beyonce's new country album, "Cowboy Carter," was released today. A single from the album, "Texas Hold 'Em," went straight to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, making her the first Black woman to hold that spot. The excitement over this album is bringing new attention to the under-recognized importance of Black performers in the history of country music. One of the performers on Beyonce's new album is Rhiannon Giddens, a singer, songwriter, violinist and banjo player. Giddens has won two Grammys, a Pulitzer Prize and was a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient. In 2022, she became the artistic director of the Silk Road Ensemble, which was founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Early in her career, she was a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which played string-band and jug-band music of the 1920s and '30s, music most people associate with a white Southern tradition. But the members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops were Black. They saw themselves as part of a little-known Black string-band tradition, forerunners of modern country music and bluegrass. We're going to listen to Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops in an interview and performance on our show from 2010. First, though, here's Giddens on Beyonce's "Texas Hold 'Em" playing viola and banjo. Her banjo opens the track.


BEYONCE: (Singing) This ain't Texas. Woo (ph). Ain't no hold 'em. Hey. So lay your cards down, down, down, down. So park your Lexus. Woo. And throw your keys up. Hey. Stick around, 'round, 'round, 'round, round. Stick around. And I'll be damned if I can't slow dance with you. Come pour some sugar on me, honey, too. It's a real-life boogie and a real-life hoedown. Don't be a - hey. Come take it to the floor now. Woo.

BIANCULLI: That's "Texas Hold 'Em" from Beyonce's new country album, featuring Rhiannon Giddens on banjo and viola. Now let's go back to 2010, when Giddens was with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, playing music inspired by the early Black string-band tradition of the 1920s and '30s. They had just released their album "Genuine Negro Jig," featuring traditional songs, songs by Tom Waits, a cover of an R&B hit and an original. In the band, Rhiannon Giddens played five-string banjo, fiddle and kazoo. Dom Flemons played guitar, four-string banjo, harmonica, jug, snare drum and bones. Justin Robinson played fiddle, autoharp and did the vocal beatbox. At the time, they were all living in North Carolina, as the band's title suggests. They brought some of their instruments to the WUNC studio in Durham for an interview and performance.



Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, Dom Flemons, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start by asking you to perform a song that's also featured on the new CD. Can you do "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" for us?

DOM FLEMONS: Absolutely.

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Everybody talking about their sweetie nowadays. I got the one with the sweetest ways. Your baby may roll a jelly fine. Nobody's baby can roll it like mine. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And when I'm feelin' lonesome and blue, my baby knows just what to do. Yes, sir. She even call me honey. She even let me spend her money. Never has my baby put me outdoors. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to brag - just want to put you in line. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. No, no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine.

Oh, play that horn. Oh, play it like you just don't (ph) like it. Yeah, (inaudible). (Singing) Your baby ain't sweet like mine. She bake a jelly roll all the time. And when I'm feeling lonesome and blue, my baby know just what to do. Yes, sir. She even call me honey. She even let me spend her money. Never has my baby put me outdoors. She even buys me all my clothes. I don't want to brag - just want to put you in line. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. No, no. Your baby ain't sweet like mine. Yeah, yeah. Your baby ain't sweet like mine.

GROSS: Fantastic. That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a song that they're performing for us. But that's a song they also do on their new CD, "Genuine Negro Jig." And who chose that song and why?

FLEMONS: Oh, that was a song that I chose. That was a piece that was originally recorded by a fellow named Papa Charlie Jackson, who was a six-string banjo player out of New Orleans. And I just really liked the number, and a lot of his numbers aren't performed anymore. So that was one that I've kept in my repertoire for quite a while.

GROSS: Now, Rhiannon, you're a great fiddler. You play banjo. But you were featured very prominently on kazoo on that. Was it hard for you at first to take the kazoo seriously as a genuine instrument?

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Well, I didn't really think of it as a serious instrument until, like, Dom brought it in, and he was playing it on some tunes that he was doing. And then there's a whole tradition of jug-band music where people are playing the kazoo as a serious horn. I mean, it's - you know, playing it really, really well. And so he suggested that I start to play it, and I was like, well, let me give it a shot. And then I realized how - well, not easy, but it's just - it's easy in terms of if you have some vocal ideas of what you want to do, it's just like the jug. You have to have in your mind what you're going to do and have to be able to produce that with your voice before you even have the kazoo.

GROSS: String bands are usually considered a white Southern tradition, and you're a band of African American musicians. And you've found a Black string band tradition that you feel part of. But did you fall in love with this music before you knew that there was a Black string band tradition?

GIDDENS: Yep. Yeah.

FLEMONS: Absolutely.


GROSS: What did you fall in love with about it?

GIDDENS: Well, I fell in love with the rhythm. I was a contra dancer and square dancer, and I just was seduced by the banjo, the rhythm of the clawhammer banjo. That just really pulled me in. And then I found out about the history, and then I went, oh, this is really deep. And then it just kind of - I was done. I was done for then, you know? That was it.

GROSS: So discovering this music and falling in love with it without knowing there was an African American tradition, did you feel like maybe you weren't supposed to like it, you know, maybe you would never fit in with it, maybe there wouldn't be a place for you or people would think you were odd to gravitate toward the music?

FLEMONS: Well, definitely the odd thing. That's a definite just because they're - any Black person who's involved in a folk music scene anywhere knows that they're - it's either they've been just the one of them or maybe someone else. And I think that's how I was in Phoenix. I was the only Black person, but I was also the only person that was under, like, 40 in the scene in Phoenix...

GROSS: Right.

FLEMONS: ...That I was in. But I just kind of plowed on myself. And I know Justin had a really similar story.

JUSTIN ROBINSON: Yeah. I - oh, Lord, I just forgot the question.

FLEMONS: Weird, being a weird Black person.

ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. That's it - being a weird Black person.

GIDDENS: We're all really familiar with being a weird Black person.

ROBINSON: Yeah. I mean, I guess for me, it was sort of - I didn't have the same thing with the age thing 'cause there were certainly lots of people - when I started playing in Chapel Hill, there were certainly lots of people around my age doing it. But I certainly was the only Black person at the time doing it. But that was not going to stop me. I mean, I think it's characteristic of all of us - is that we were sort of misfits, you might say, in our own rights when we grew up. So doing something just because it wasn't cool or because you weren't supposed to - we're certainly not any stranger to that.

GIDDENS: Yeah, I was sort of used to it 'cause I was - after I graduated from college, I really got into, like, Scottish music. So I was always getting, you know, so, you know, how come you're playing this kind of music, you know? And so I was just kind of used to that, so it didn't really - I just kind of just kept on going, just like Justin was saying.

GROSS: How come you were playing that kind of music?

GIDDENS: Oh, I just liked it. Yeah, I mean, there's really nothing more to it than that.

GROSS: Well, you were already used to not being cool, too, 'cause, I mean, you sang opera before doing this.



GROSS: Pretty quick way to not be cool.

ROBINSON: Terry got you.

GROSS: Yeah.

GIDDENS: Yeah, that's true. That's true.

GROSS: So...


GROSS: Did your parents have associations with this music?

GIDDENS: Not this kind of - not specifically this music. But see; this music is very closely related to other kind of music that, like, I know Justin and I would have grown up with, which is bluegrass and old country music and even, you know, the other side, which would be the blues and the jazz side. I mean, you know, I heard all of that stuff growing up. We watched "Hee Haw" every Saturday night. You know, you don't change the channel. Grandma would be very upset with you. And so, I mean, we just - that's just - those musics are, like, one step away from this kind of string band music. So it wasn't too much of a leap. It's not like we grew up in, you know, Russia or something. I mean, it was really fairly close to what we were already used to. So it was just kind of, like, that extra step, you know, back to this kind of music for us.

FLEMONS: And even me - I didn't really get into the Black string band music until I went to the Black Banjo Gathering, which we all went to and kind of had just, you know, a life-changing experience. But, you know, I knew about blues and jazz and jug band music, but I didn't associate any of that with the white fiddle tunes per se, even though I could that they may be related.

GROSS: Yeah. So you all met at this Black Banjo Gathering, a gathering of Black banjo players. And so was that a revelation to you - that there was this big community? Spread out, maybe, but there was...


GROSS: Yeah.

FLEMONS: Well, first...

GIDDENS: Yeah. We'll have to fix that because it wasn't necessarily a gathering solely of Black banjo players. It was a gathering of everybody who is - was interested in either the African roots of the banjo or even just string band music or who was, you know, an African American player of the music or even an African player of, you know, ancestors of the music. There were scholars, musicians, just people who were just there just to learn. And, you know, the Black population of the gathering was still small, but, you know, there was enough to - you know, we all met there. And we're all like, I'm not the only one. Oh, my God. You know? So it was - for us, it was fantastic. And for everybody else, it was great just, you know, because a lot of the scholars had been sort of laboring, you know, by themselves or had just been talking to other people. And they got to all meet up and sort of, you know, have this momentous occasion.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's 2010 interview with the group the Carolina Chocolate Drops - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They played string band and jug band music of the 1920s and '30s, carrying on the tradition of the Black string band.


GROSS: I'd like to ask you to perform another song that's also featured on the new CD, and the song is "Trouble In Your Mind." So before you play it for us, tell us why you chose it and what you love about the song.

FLEMONS: Well, this is one that Justin was playing that I reminded him one day at a jam that he played it. And it's a piece from an album called "Music From the Lost Provinces" put out by Old Hat Records. And it's just a nice breakdown, and we just started doing it.

GROSS: OK, let's hear it.

ROBINSON: (Singing) I wished I had a nickel. I wished I had a dime. I wish I had me a pretty girl. You know I'd call her mine. Don't get trouble in your mind. Don't get trouble in your mind. Don't get trouble in mind. Don't get trouble in your mind. If you see that gal of mine, you tell her, if you can. Tell her what? 'Fore she goes to make my bread, to wash them nasty hands. Don't get trouble in your mind. Don't get trouble in your mind. Don't get trouble in your mind. Don't get trouble in your mind.

GROSS: That's great. That's the Carolina Chocolate Drops performing a song that's also featured on their new CD. And the new CD is called "Genuine Negro Jig." So when we left off, we were talking about how you discovered, like, the African American tradition in string bands, and you met an African American fiddler who's in his 90s now named Joe Thompson.


GROSS: And did he teach you certain things on fiddle that you didn't know or hadn't heard before?

ROBINSON: Oh, Lord, yeah. Joe Thompson is the guy that you were mentioning. He's 91. He's been playing since he was 6 or 7 years old. And he learned from his father, and his father learned from his father. So it's a long tradition among his family. But Joe's fiddle style is really particular not only to him but to the region. I've had the opportunity to listen to other fiddlers who would have been a little bit older than Joe through field recordings and stuff, and they all sound pretty similar. What has happened is that - and they are white and Black. But what has happened is, you know, most of this particular region's fiddle style, the music has not been well-documented. So it sounded really different to, you know, listening to for folk music - folk enthusiasts at large, to hear somebody like Joe playing, it would sound really foreign and really, you know, different. And it does. And, you know, it's beautiful.

GROSS: Rhiannon, would you give us an example of what was really different from what he taught - about what he taught you compared to what you had known before?

GIDDENS: Well, the kind of amazing thing is that - one of the reasons why I think our sound is the way it is, is that we were all sort of learning when we started going down to play with Joe, so we didn't get much chance to play other sort of more - I don't know - square? I don't know, different ways. But one of the things that I think I've taken away a lot as a banjo player is - I'll get the banjo here - is that the...


GIDDENS: Is that real heavy down - the downstroke, you know? The - and it's almost an anticipatory kind of down, you know, if that makes sense. I don't know, it's kind of hard to talk about music, but...


FLEMONS: Well, a lot of times you tend to hear that with hillbilly performers more in, like, the style of, like, Grandpa Jones or Uncle Dave Macon generally. But even that Tennessee style, that's taken to an extreme. While North Carolina, it's a little bit more compact within it. But the downbeat is still there.

GROSS: Justin, is there anything you could talk about that you learned from Joe Thompson on fiddle?

ROBINSON: Oh, yeah. Well, first of all, Joe's bowing is really, really interesting. He has, which is something that's common among fiddle players, at least around here, something they call the double shuffle. Or some people call it hen's egg, or I've heard fiddlers call it sewing cloth. It's all this - this sort of forward and back motion that is going forward while at the same time making these really great rhythmic kind of things that you have to really work very hard to get. And also, Joe plays notes that are not in the Western scale, which is actually kind of great.

GIDDENS: There's a lot of slang.

GROSS: Can you play us an example of what you're talking about?

ROBINSON: Oh, I'll play you the double shuffle.


GROSS: What makes that the double shuffle? Is it the speed or the harmony?

FLEMONS: Play without the double shuffle and then she'll hear it.

ROBINSON: So this is without it.


ROBINSON: So it's a little of both. With - because of the way that the fiddle is tuned, when you're playing the double shuffle, you get to get these really either sympathetic ringing strings or, depending on where your fingers are, not sympathetic. And so you get some really interesting harmonies that I've never really heard anywhere else in any other kind of music.

BIANCULLI: The Carolina Chocolate Drops recorded in 2010. We'll hear more after a short break. Also, we'll have two TV reviews. Critic-at-large John Powers reviews the new Paramount+ drama series "A Gentleman In Moscow." And I'll review the new Apple TV+ documentary about Steve Martin. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.


CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table. Eating them beans and making love as long as I am able. Hoeing corn and cotton, too. And when the day is over, ride the mule and cut the fool and love again all over. Goodbye. Don't you cry, I'm going to Louisiana to buy a coon dog and a big fat hog and marry Susie Anna. Sing-song, ding-dong, I'll take a trip to China, cornbread and butterbeans then back to North Carolina. Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table. Eating them beans and making love as long as I am able. Hoeing corn and cotton, too. And when the day is over, ride the mule and cut the fool and love again all over. Wearing shoes and drinking booze, it goes against the Bible. A necktie will make you die and cause you lots of trouble. Streetcars and whiskey bars and kissing pretty women. Women, yeah, that's the end of a terrible beginning. Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table. Eating them beans and making love as long as I am able. Hoeing corn and cotton, too. And when the day is over...


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group who saw itself as part of the little known Black string band tradition. Terry talked with Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons. Rhiannon Giddens can be heard on Beyonce's new album.


GROSS: Part of the tricky aspect of string band music is that part of its roots are in minstrel shows, part of its roots are in blackface. And so it gets really kind of complicated when you go back to the early history of that music. So I wonder how - what was - what it's been like for you to negotiate that aspect of the music and to deal with separating the music itself from some of the stereotypes that were foisted on the musicians who played it.

FLEMONS: I think something that we have as a new generation of player in the old time music is that we are educated, and we're approaching the music at a emotional distance that just has not been there in earlier generations. Before, you'd look back at those aspects of history and people just would say, don't touch that. And now in this generation, we're able to see what actually happened or what was misappropriate or what was good, 'cause the thing about a lot of the Black string band music is not much of the music was put down on recording. And that's a very essential part of understanding Black music is hearing it and, you know, delving into it, you find some things that are off-putting, but at the same time, you got to think in the context of the past instead of thinking in the context of the present.

GIDDENS: And that's been - I think that's been something in the African American community that's been - it's not something that we've done very much of, is looking back, you know? It's really been a forward push for lots of different reasons. And as Dom was saying, I think we are one of the first generations who - I mean, there's still a lot of stuff that's, you know, needs to be fixed. And there's a lot of people that are still, you know, in bad situations. But I think as a whole, we're one of the first generations in the African American community that has been able to look back without personally being as touched by it.

You know, like, our parents, they went through the Civil Rights Movement. They - you know, they went through all of these things and they're really personally wrapped up into a lot of this stuff, whereas we're of a generation where we can step back and go, OK, so what can we take from it that is the good stuff? I mean, the minstrel shows and the stereotyping, and that's all clearly very bad. But there's a lot of great music and dance, and there's a lot of Black musicians and dancers who persevered through the stereotype and who were able to, you know, show their skill and their entertaining, and they were able to do that. And so what - we can take the good stuff from that now, I think, along with knowing that there was bad stuff.

GROSS: Well, you know, we're talking about rescuing music from the past, but you're also playing music from the present as well as original songs. And I think we should get to that a little bit. Although you're doing this contemporary music in the spirit of the string band style. So, Rhiannon, onto a song that you do on the new CD, and this is a song that I want you to talk about. I want you to talk about the original version and how you heard it and why you do it. And it's "Hit ’Em Up Style."

GIDDENS: Yeah. "Hit ’Em Up Style" is - well, it was just all over the radio, and every time it came on, I would just, like, jam in my car to it. It just was very catchy and had a great chorus and, you know, beats and all that stuff. And it's just one of those songs that kind of never went away in my brain. And then I heard it again on the radio, like, years later, and just something kind of occurred to me. I was like, why don't we - I wonder if we could try to play that? And so I tried to play it on the fiddle, and it actually worked really well on the fiddle. And then the three of us sort of came together and said, OK, like, how could we do this? And then, you know, Dom came up with a great rhythm on the banjo that worked really well. And then we found out that Justin beatboxed, and we're like, you know, and then it just clicked. And we kind of messed around with the original version of the song, and we just tossed out what didn't work and just kind of went with what did.

GROSS: And who did the original?

GIDDENS: Blu Cantrell...

GROSS: Yeah.

GIDDENS: ...Was the original singer. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear this from the CD. This is from the Carolina Chocolate Drops' new CD, "Genuine Negro Jig." And this is Rhiannon Giddens singing lead.


CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) While he was scheming, I was beaming in his beamer just beaming. Can't believe that I caught my man cheating. So I found another way to make him pay for it all. So I went to Neiman-Marcus on a shopping spree. And on the way, I grabbed Soley and Mia. And as the cash box rang, I threw everything away. Hey, ladies, when your man want to get buck wild, just go back and hit 'em up style. Get your hands on his cash and spend it to the last dime for all the hard times. When you go, then everything goes, from the crib to the ride and the clothes. So you better let him know that if he messed up, you got to hit 'em up.

GROSS: So that's Rhiannon Giddens singing from the new Carolina Chocolate Drops CD, "Genuine Negro Jig." Nicely done. I really like that a lot. And Rhiannon, what you're playing on fiddle, it's this, like, drone style that I think is really interesting. And...

GIDDENS: Yeah. It's just sort of kind of old timey - you know, old timey hip-hop, I suppose.


GROSS: But is that drone really old timey or is that a more contemporary kind of thing?

GIDDENS: Oh, no, that's very old timey, the double stopping, you know, that kind of rhythmic bowing, it's all old timey. What makes it contemporary is the minor key...


GIDDENS: ...You know, because there's not a lot of minor stuff in those tunes. And - well, I mean, there are some, the ones that we think of as old, you know, like, that are in the public sort of ear, are not in minor key. And I think that's one of the main things that makes it sound so contemporary and so kind of - you know, people say it's Middle Easterny. It's just, you know - it's in a minor key.

GROSS: So how did you learn that drone style? Maybe you could just play a little bit of that drone and talk about it a little bit.

GIDDENS: Oh, gosh. I mean, just from playing. (Playing fiddle). And that's just, like, one of the first old-time tunes I knew. And so it wasn't much of a leap to take that tune to the "Hit 'Em Up Style" tune. It just fit really well.

GROSS: Yeah, compare that to what you did on "Hit 'Em Up Style." Do a little of that.


GROSS: Nice. Now, were you classically trained on fiddle, on violin?

GIDDENS: Oh, good lord, no. No, no, no, just voice.

GROSS: Just voice. Yeah, so we heard you sing on "Hit 'Em Up Style." Now, you started out singing opera.


GROSS: So can we hear a little bit of your opera voice?

GIDDENS: Yeah. I'd have warmed up if I'd known you were going to ask this. But let me see what I can - (Singing) the trees on the mountains are cold and bare. The summer just vanished and left them there like a false-hearted lover, just like my own, who made me love him then left me alone.

GROSS: Very nice. What was that?

GIDDENS: That's in honor of the music that we play. That's from the opera called "Susannah," which is set in Tennessee. And that was the composer's sort of mountain ballad but, you know, classically, I would say, of course.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right. So did you have to find a different voice after leaving opera for folk music?

GIDDENS: I did. I mean, I was lucky in that I didn't start off when I was a kid singing opera. I sang, like, you know, contemporary folk music with my dad and my sister and my mom. But I had to find my classical voice. And so when I left school and I needed to find, first, a Celtic voice and then this old-time voice, it was a little easier because I already had sort of thought about it before, you know? It wasn't just I was singing classical for, like, 25 years and then had to make a switch. That would have been hard. But, yeah, it's just like I switched into a different brain.

GROSS: Is it easier to sing in a folk style than an opera style? Does it just take less effort?

GIDDENS: I'd say it takes a different effort. And actually, when I'm tired, it's easier to sing classical because classical is really, it's like for the most - you get the most voice for the least amount of effort. That's what you really learn. And you're learning how to sing without a microphone. Whereas I actually have a hard time sometimes when I'm tired singing sort of straight tones and, like, soft, high sort of folky-type things. So it's really kind of - it evens out, you know, in a lot of ways. I mean, I don't have to warm up for an hour to do a Chocolate Drop show, which I appreciate.


GIDDENS: I probably should. And I seriously hope my voice teacher didn't hear that little excerpt that I sang because...


GIDDENS: ...I'm a little out of practice. But, you know, you got to give up something.

GROSS: So I want to thank you all for talking with us. It's really been great. Thank you so much.

GIDDENS: Thank you.

ROBINSON: Thanks. Thank you for having us.

FLEMONS: Thanks, Terry.

GIDDENS: Yeah, this has been an absolute pleasure.

BIANCULLI: The Carolina Chocolate Drops - Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons - recorded in 2010. The group has disbanded, but each member has gone on to other projects. Rhiannon Giddens can be heard on Beyonce's new country album "Cowboy Carter," which was released today. After a break, John Powers reviews "A Gentleman In Moscow," a new Paramount+ drama starring Ewan McGregor. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "I'M AN OLD COWHAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.