Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens, founding members of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, met in April 2005 at the annual Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.
Kindred spirits, they formed a group called Thankful For Strings a few months later. More importantly, by September they were both going to genuine old-time fiddler Joe Thompson’s house every week for his Thursday night jam sessions.
Thompson, who died in February at 93, represented the last generation of black musicians who performed for square dances prior to World War II. He learned to play fiddle from his father, a musician whose repertoire of dance tunes dated to slavery times and the African-American string bands that existed before the emergence of blues.
In 1973, Kip Lornell, a grad student in ethnomusicology, rediscovered Thompson. Lornell encouraged the fiddler and his banjo- and guitar-playing cousin, Odell Thompson, to perform at folk festivals.
The Thompsons heeded Lornell’s advice. They performed nationally and internationally and appeared in folklorist Alan Lomax’s American Patchwork documentaries.
By the time Flemons and Giddens started their apprenticeship with Joe Thompson, he’d long been a pillar of North Carolina’s traditional music community. He’d also played Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Thompson received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007.
“Joe was always open for anybody coming to his house,” Flemons said recently. “You just had to call him up and say, ‘Joe, I’d like to come play with you.’ And then you’d go on Thursday night and jam on the tunes that he grew up playing as a kid. Joe touched a lot of people’s hearts and souls with the notion that you could go talk to him and play his songs.”
But there was a difference between Flemons and Giddens’ passion for Thompson’s music and the more casual participants in those weekly jam sessions.
“We went down consistently for about two-and-a-half years,” Flemons said. “Our group’s sound is based around us doing that so consistently for so long. By the time we started playing out, we were a well-oiled string band machine because we had learned how to back Joe up.”
By November 2005, the Thankful For Strings band had begun evolving into the Carolina Chocolate Drops. By January 2006, the group was playing its first real gigs. The band’s album debut, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, appeared later that year. The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Nonesuch Records debut, Genuine Negro Jig, won a Grammy award last year for best tradition folk album.
The music of the 1960s folk revival, including Bob Dylan, and traditional New Orleans jazz by the likes of Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Petit led Arizona native Flemons to the black string-band tradition of North Carolina’s Piedmont region.
“When I first met Joe Thompson, I saw a connection between John Jackson (a Piedmont blues man from Virginia), Etta Baker, Elizabeth Cotton and Blind Boy Fuller. A lot of old country blues is dance-oriented, but you don’t find that as much when you hear modern interpreters of country blues. It sounds nice but you don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna dance to this.’ But Mississippi John Hurt, you do want to tap your foot and dance when you hear him.”
Building on the tradition they explored so thoroughly with Thompson, the Carolina Chocolate Drops drew instant acclaim from audiences and critics.
“I knew that we’d be able to take it somewhere,” Flemons said. “What I didn’t know was how fast and how much. None of us could anticipate that. It’s been a constantly humbling and wonderful journey to be purveyors of this aspect of black musical culture.”
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