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Carolina Chocolate Drops Jam On

Frontman Dom Flemons on the band's new lineup, being black in Arizona, and musicians he'd bring back from the dead.

| Mon Apr. 9, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

MJ: You're from Arizona, a state with very few black people. Is that something you thought about while growing up?

DF: Didn't think much about it. There's a black community in Arizona, it's just not out in the open. But if you're in it, you know where everybody is. I was taught to be proud of who I was but, you know, don't let your blackness be what people see first. Let people see you as a person. So I never really thought about any of this stuff when I was first playing music. Then, when the black banjo gathering happened, I began thinking about the racial implications to the music I was playing. And when I saw that there was a chance to elevate this unique part of our folk music traditions in America, that gave me a very strong goal to work with. So when we started the group it wasn't like a militant stance. It was just to say, "Look at how much broader things are than we've all been taught." 

MJ: Did your black friends respect your retro tastes or kind of tease you about it?

DF: I wouldn't say it was teasing. It was just "that weird thing that Dom likes." Rhiannon and Justin will tell you the same thing. People in general in America just don't know a whole lot about folk and bluegrass—black culture's so far removed from it, it's not even in most people's consciousness. Every once in a while someone has a family connection, like Joe Thompson, for example. But the string music is old music for his generation. You know, his generation really leaned towards blues, like Blind Boy Fuller and that sort of style. 

In the Arizona folk community, beyond black and white, "I was the only person who was under 40."

MJ: So the string-band stuff would be what his parents would listen to?

DF: Exactly.

MJ: I mean, way back when, it's what all of America listened to. That was the pop music. And then comes jazz, rock n roll, reggae, hip-hop. Nowadays it seems like the audience for old-time music is overwhelmingly white folks over 40. What are you seeing at your shows?

DF: Well, it's starting to change. In the folk community in Arizona, I first started playing when I was 16. I was the only person who was under 40. And even beyond black and white, I was the only young person doing anything with folk music. With Johnny Cash's American Recordings, Tom Waits from Mule Variations on, O Brother Where Art Thou, Allison Krauss, Gillian Welch, even Old Crow Medicine Show—with all these sort of acts coming around and making it cool, grittier, and relevant to listen to old-time music or more-acoustic music, that's been changing the musical landscape. There's a younger generation going through that. And then there are the older people who love the music in general, they're getting older and older but they've still got the love for the music as well. So it's sort of smashing together. And we've been very fortunate that we've had a very broad demographic join us in our shows.

MJ: Are you coming across more black old-time musicians in your travels?

"We're obsessed with the white guys who sound black, but rarely do we ever think about the black guys who sound white."

DF: Oh yeah, here and there. But that's one of the best non-secrets in American culture: There are black old-time musicians and blues musicians and folk musicians everywhere. It's just, you know, people don't think about it. So people like Guy Davis or Jesse Taylor—Taj Mahal's been around for ages—Hubby Jenkins! Blind Boy Paxton. Even black country singers like Charley Pride, or hell, even Darius Rucker. It's just in the back of the American subconscious. We're obsessed with the white guys who sound black, but rarely do we ever think about the black guys who sound white.

MJ: You don't have to sound white to play this music.

DF: When you open up the book on what this stuff is, it baffles the mind, the social and political and psychology around what the music means and what it means to different people, you know?

MJ: If you could bring somebody from the past back for a front-porch jam session, who would it be?

DF: I'd either pick Henry Thomas or Papa Charlie Jackson. Just to kind of pick their brain and kind of see how they played, because you can listen to how they play and it takes a lot of work to figure out what they're doing. And a lot of times with the old music, the actual playing of it isn't as hard as it sounds. It's one of those things where if you see it you can figure it out. But just hearing it—it's meant to trick you aurally, because as performers you try to play music so that it sounds very impressive while you're doing less work as a performer.

MJ: So does the band have any plans to go in new directions or are you just going to keep on keeping on?

DF: We're gonna keep on keeping on. But this is the thing, too. Leaving Eden was our first chance to work with Hubby on stuff. But the newest configuration with Leyla, we really haven't had a chance to delve into really new ground yet. We've had little touches here and there, but the group is going to continue to evolve and expand naturally. It'll be interesting to see what we come up with.

Here's the Chocolate Drops' new lineup doing "Pretty Little Girl With the Blue Dress On," and a solo clip of Flemons playing the old Leadbelly tune, "I'm Sorry, Mama."

Click here for more music coverage from Mother Jones.

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