Carolina Chocolate Drops preserve traditional black string-band sound

Strings attached

Rhiannon Giddens, a co-founder of the black string-band revivalist group the Carolina Chocolate Drops, wouldn’t let the Grammy-winning band fade into recent music history.

Giddens, a singer, banjo player and fiddler, is the group’s lone founding member. It was she who kept it going after co-founder Dom Flemons’ December departure for a solo career.

Upon learning of Flemons’ solo plans, Giddens briefly thought she might do the same.

“I said, ‘Well, we could both go solo — but then what happens to the band?” Giddens asked from Miami, where the Carolina Chocolate Drops were about to join a floating folk festival called “Mountain Song at Sea Cruise.”

“What happens to the name?” she continued. “What happens to all the history?’ I got very sad at the thought of not doing it anymore.”

Giddens’ love for collaboration and traditional string-band music helped her answer the questions. She sees the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which returns to New Orleans Friday for a show at Tipitina’s, as the crux of her mission on Earth.

“When I first started reading about banjos and black string bands, I remember thinking, ‘I want to be in a black string band some day,’ ” she said. “It was so clear. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Finding new musicians who shared her affection for a nearly lost genre of African-American music — fiddle- and banjo-based dance music performed by African-American musicians as far back as before the Civil War — spurred Giddens onward.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ 2014 lineup features Giddens, cellist Malcolm Parson and multi-instrumentalists Hubby Jenkins and Rowan Corbett.

“They not only have chops, they’re interested in the history and the music,” Giddens said. “They know their stuff. So I’m excited about the band’s future, because it’s really bigger than me or Dom.”

The door for continued collaborations with former Chocolate Drops is open, for instance, to Justin Robinson, another founding member, as well as Leyla McCalla, the New Orleans-based cellist who, like Flemons, recently left the group to concentrate on a solo career.

“People have given us great ideas and then gone off and done great things,” Giddens said. “And I still work with them. It’s turned into a Chocolate Drops collective. Once you’re a Chocolate Drop, you’re always a Chocolate Drop.”

Though Giddens relishes being a Carolina Chocolate Drop, some solo opportunities arise that she can’t refuse. In September, she participated in “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ ” an all-star concert staged at New York’s Town Hall.

Grammy-winning music producer T Bone Burnett and filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen presented the event, which also featured Joan Baez, Marcus Mumford, Conor Oberst, Patti Smith, Gillian Welch, Jack White and “Inside Llewyn Davis” cast members Oscar Isaacs, John Goodman and Carey Mulligan.

“That’s a game changer for me, being a part of that,” Giddens said. “I’ve been doing some other projects with T Bone Burnett since then.”

And it so happens that the Burnett-produced soundtrack for the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Are Thou?’ helped guide Giddens to her folk musician destiny.

“I was on the track anyway, but that soundtrack gave me a big jolt of energy. There’s a whole generation of us out there who heard that and went, ‘Oh, wow. That’s really cool.’

“And I had several different moments like that. Meeting Joe Thompson (the late, beloved practitioner of the black string-band tradition) was another. So was going to the Black Banjo Gathering (in 2005 in Boone, N.C.) and listening to Dolly Parton’s ‘Little Sparrow’ album. During those kind of moments, I just went, ‘Ah, this is good stuff.’ ”