The Carolina Chocolate Drops are soul messengers from before the beginnings of the republic, shucking it down to the cob so that even the blind may see whence cometh all this music we hear. In April, knocked out by their Watson Stage set at Merlefest, I asked Dom Flemons of the Drops how he could possibly describe the unexpected power of what they play. '93It'92s early American music,'94 he replied, and there indeed is the key.
Indigenous American music begins in a hotel room in New York in 1842, where some off-duty circus musicians jamming on banjo, fiddle, tambourine and bones (knocked together for a sharp rhythm) concocted an ensemble that came to be known as the minstrel show. Free white musicians played songs of enslaved Africans appropriated from their Southern homesteads and performed them for wildly enthusiastic audiences while wearing blackface makeup and wearing outlandish '93coon'94 costumes. You could run a whole pop culture off the energy created by such contradictions, and America has done so for more than 160 years.
History teaches us to be outraged by the minstrel stereotype but neglects to explain how powerful this music must have been to be played and enjoyed in every stratum of society before the Civil War. The Drops are happy to drop the knowledge on you as they reclaim these old, old songs on behalf of Southerners black and white, mindful of poet Lalenja Harrington'92s observation that '93we play/we pluck/we sing/we embrace/what has always been ours to begin with.'94
At the same time, they do not inhabit that other age. '93I think the distance between us and the past is always there,'94 Rhiannon Giddens told No Depression recently. '93These people are dead and their traditions are gone... we have the freedom to put it together how it fits us.'94
With fiddler Justin Robinson, Flemons and Giddens forego the sociology in favor of impassioned performance on their old-time instruments, on improvised set lists as likely to revive '93Johnny Too Bad'94 as '93Po'92 Lazarus'94. I had always considered the kazoo a novelty instrument, but at Merlefest, when I heard Giddens practically blow her brains out with one during the trio'92s hair-raising opener, '93Memphis Breakdown,'94 I felt the primordial power of early American music and so did about 10,000 other people.
The real damn thing does not often pass our way. Miss the Carolina Chocolate Drops at your peril.