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American Routes Shortcuts: Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens

The Carolina Chocolate Drops began as a seminal African American group that revived the old-time string band tradition of the Piedmont where Black performers were formative from the 19th century onward.  The Chocolate Drops started out as the Sankofa Strings after meeting at the Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC in 2005. They evolved over the next decade.  Rhiannon Giddens, trained formally in opera, played banjo and fiddle and sang with her bandmates to growing audiences.

Rhiannon Giddens: I grew up not only just in Greensboro but also in some of the small, rural places around Greensboro, like McLeansville and Julian, and that’s where all my family is from. I spent a lot of time, you know, the first part of my life out in the country with my grandparents, and so I always consider myself kind of a hybrid. You know, it wasn’t like I studied roots music with the masters around here or anything like that, I just kind of lived a normal like, went to school, and you know, just lived here. I mean, I have memories of my grandmother, you know, she had a collection of jazz and blues records and singing along with the radio, and you know, always kind of on that side of things. You know, but then we watched Hee Haw every Saturday night, you know. You have this urbane African American woman who I think was born in West Virginia, and then is now living still in the country but has all of these furniture from Europe and all these records of jazz and blues greats and then still gotta watch Hee Haw every week. The reality of the Southern experience is that it’s far more complicated, and it’s far more mixed in terms of what people listen to and what people played.

Nick Spitzer: Well when you talk about the mix, I mean we think of the Piedmont as a place where there’s always been African American farmers and town folk and a mingling, so it seems to me this exchange is amazing.

RG: Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s like, it’s not a utopia; there’s definitely racial tension like all over the place and places where whites and Blacks wouldn’t mingle and all that kind of stuff, but there were places where they would. And also being a mixed person myself even enhances that more because I really spent as much time with each family, you know, with my Black family and my white family, so I don’t really feel like one or the other really, you know, I really feel Southern, and I really feel Piedmontese and North Carolinian. Those are what I think of to describe myself, rather than Black or white or colored or mixed or whatever, because really it’s the culture, and the culture goes across those lines.


NS: When do you get aware of the Piedmont soundscape in terms of the stuff that the Sankofa Strings and then Chocolate Drops start doing?

RG: I learned like folk revival stuff with my parents, like Peter, Paul and Mary–

NS: They were into that stuff?

RG: They were hippies; they were super hippies. After Oberlin, there was a couple of things that happened, you know, I started contra dancing. I heard a lot of old-time bands going to those dances, and you know, really started falling in love with the banjo.

NS: So you end up at this gathering for African American banjo in–where’s that–in Boone?

RG: It was in Boone, called the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. I joined the Black Banjo Players Then and Now listserv, which served as a place to go without getting harassed so you could talk about the Black origins of the banjo, because when you went to the regular banjo listserv, it was very difficult to talk about African American roots of the banjo without getting flamed. I joined up and I said, “Whatever I can do.” So I became the graphic designer, and I did all the program, the website, everything for the Black Banjo Gathering and just sort of helped it come into being. When I went there, of course that’s where I met Dom Flemons, and that’s where I met Justin Robinson.

NS: The original Chocolate Drops.

RG: The original Chocolate Drops, yeah.

NS: You mentioned that there’s resistance to African American origins, ideas and histories. On the other side of the ledger, you know in African American intellectual circles for many years, the banjo was not too cool.

RG: Ah man, tell me about it! I mean, our very first TV appearance was on the Tavis Smiley show, and his producer was really excited about us being there, but he clearly didn’t know anything really about what we did. And so we got on the stage, and he was like, “So, you play fiddle and banjo music, you’re kind of like the Ebony Hillbillies.” I was so annoyed at that, and then that’s the only Black coverage we ever got. But like, here’s our own music, our own history, and nobody’s giving us the time of day. It was just–that’s been really frustrating, because I feel like we’re doing it in a way that’s ethical and that’s true, and it’s kind of like, what do we got to do to get some Black love? I don’t know.


To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.