Music: Reviving the Black Banjo Tradition

Up on stage at New York's annual River to River summer music festival, a four-piece string band is tearing through the song "Sourwood Mountain." The fiddle wails, the banjo frails and a few members of the audience actually stand up to do impromptu clog-style jigs. The tune, a traditional Southern mountain ditty, is a fitting crescendo to the band's contagiously energetic set of old-timey songs—even the coolest of customers can't resist the call-and-response: "hi-ho fiddle-um day!" If the music is exactly what you'd expect from a traditional string band specializing in obscure barnburning antebellum music, the band members themselves might not be: the Carolina Chocolate Drops are black, not one of its three core members is older than 30.

"People ask us, 'Are y'all from the mountains?'," says fiddler Justin Robinson, a North Carolina native. "What they're really asking is, 'Why the hell are you playing this?'" His answer: "It's a reclamation." Robinson, fellow Carolinian Rhiannon Giddens and Arizona-born multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons met two years ago at the annual Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, N.C. Under the tutelage of fiddler Joe Thompson, one of the last surviving practitioners of the black fiddle style that once provided the soundtrack to North Carolina's hilly Piedmont region, the Carolina Chocolate Drops learned their roots and honed their chops. Last month they released their first album, an infectious hoedown of a record called "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind." Now they're one of the hottest tickets on the old-time and folk- music festival circuit. "In the black community most of the time they're shocked we're doing this," says Flemons. "A lot of black people like country music and old-time music, but they can't relate because the people playing it don't look like them."

This wasn't always true. Before the exodus of blacks up north in the early 20th century, the Southern folk-music tradition was as much a black one as it was white. The banjo, after all, is an African instrument that was brought to the U.S. during the slave trade; the African fiddle is a one-stringed instrument that's more percussive than its European cousin. "There's no way you can confuse American fiddling for Irish fiddling—the difference is the African fiddle influence," says Elijah Wald, a musician and author of "Escaping the Delta," a myth-debunking history of the blues. The nascent recording industry never got around to capturing many black fiddlers and pickers on wax before the great migration. Urban blacks would go on to record newer sounds, like blues and ultimately rhythm and blues, leaving the older sounds behind. Black string bands continued to thrive in the South, although the record companies trained their microphones on whites, mistaking the black performers as unmarketable or simply anomalous. The result: "We've grown up in a world, not just us but our parents and our grandparents, where we've thought banjoes and fiddles were white instruments," says Wald.

If the Chocolate Drops are reclaiming their roots, they've started with the group's name, a nod to the black string band the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. A typical CCD set is as much history lesson as it is a house party. Flemons, the group's most flamboyant showman who even dresses the part in cords and suspenders, will introduce a tune—explaining that it's an example of the fife-and-drum folk style from the Deep South, or that he learned it from a Sydney Bechet record—before launching into it. In that regard they seem poised to inherit the mantle of blues polymath Taj Mahal, whom they've frequently opened for. "Every night they get a standing ovation," he tells NEWSWEEK. "People just love it—they fiddle, they clog, they play banjo, kazoos, harmonicas, jugs, a little snare drum action, spoons! I'm looking for good things to happen with them and for them."

Traditionalists though they are, the Chocolate Drops are hardly stuffy about it. At the New York show, Giddens, the band den mother, explains that she had become so infatuated with the 2001 Blu Cantrell R&B hit "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!)" that she had to work out an old-timey arrangement for it. "We just play what speaks to us," she tells the crowd. It's amazing how well banjo and fiddle sound under lyrics like "hey ladies, when your man wanna get buckwild/ Just go back and hit 'em up style." One riverside jogger stops his run to take in the genre-bending scene, which must have seemed surreal to him. He cracks a smile, bobs his head and, when it's done, resumes his jog. Hi-ho fiddle-um day.