time-honored fashion among old-time musicians, they explain how they came to learn each song. It’s pretty folky stuff, with banjo, fiddle, maybe an Autoharp. But now, on December 3, they’re appearing at 3,600-seat Hill Auditorium, under the auspices of the prestigious University Musical Society. You almost have to ask, what’s going on here?
Basically, the Drops have touched the third rail of American music—race—and found a way to lessen the shock. The sound of the stringbands, black and white, was rooted in the pervasive racist institution of nineteenth-century American music and culture, the blackface minstrel show. It can also, with clacking bones and other snappy syncopated percussion, be a hell of a lot of fun, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops offer a way to enjoy it. They say that they want to reclaim the African American contribution to the music, which started when banjo-like instruments were brought from Africa.
“It’s complicated,” multi-instrumentalist Dom Flemons told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Back in the day, there were black minstrels being imitated by white minstrels masquerading in blackface. And all making fun of every ethnic group. While the minstrel show became an international phenomenon, it gets looked at in a very negative way—which, to a large degree, it should be. There was a lot of shucking and jiving. But at the same time, there’s a solid musical and cultural piece of the puzzle that’s been left behind, because we put all of it in a box during the civil-rights era, tried to hide it, and said, ‘We can’t do this thing.’ ”