Southern music is often categorized as predominantly “white,” due to the prevalence of famous white country stars and white bluegrass groups throughout history. And while the history of Southern music, and bluegrass in particular, would be incomplete without legends such as Bill Monroe or JD Sumner, the contributions of musicians of other races and ethnicities should not and cannot be brushed over. The art of Black String Bands goes back to the 19th century, predating the Blues, Bluegrass, and Country by several decades. A paper by Sean K McCollough explores the background of bluegrass as it relates to race (article found here). McCollough points out that fiddle playing in the America’s grew in the south, with many African slaves being trained to play the fiddle and accompanying dances or parties that their master’s threw. This tradition of fiddle playing was then passed down through the generations as a new part of the distinctly African-American culture that was arising (which I differentiate from Black American culture, as not all Black Americans can trace their lineage back to Africa and the slaves taken from their). This tradition then grew in the late 19th century to become the Black String Bands.
An early band of this style was the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, but they’re not who this blog post is about. Instead I’ll be looking at a group that may have taken inspiration in both their name and makeup, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. This group is much more recent, having been founded in 2005, and bases its style on the string bands of the early 20th century. In the groups “About” page, which can be found here, they describe their founding as having been something of a happy accident. The three founding musicians (Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemens, and Justin Robinson) would travel together to the home of fiddler Joe Thompson to hear stories and “jam,” as they put it. Thompson himself inherited much of his fiddle technique from generations of family musicians, potentially stretching back to the slave musicians described by McCollough. Now Thompson was passing down his skills to a new generation, and when he passed away the three students chose to form a group to honor his legacy and continue the musical tradition. The group has since changed membership slightly, losing their fiddle player and gaining a cellist, and has gone on to win several Grammies.
McCollough, Sean K. “Hear John Henry’s Hammer Ring: Moving Beyond Black and White Images of Appalachian Music.” Kaleidoscope of Cultures: A Celebration of Multicultural Research and Practice: Proceedings of the MENC/University of Tennessee National Symposium on Multicultural Music. R&L Education, 2010.