Interview: Carolina Chocolate Drops 

Arizona stands for many things, but its traditions don't really include string music.

For that, Dom Flemons, a Phoenix native, had to find kindred spirits elsewhere. He discovered old blues and jazz while a teenager, then gravitated toward folk. From there it was a matter of working backwards chronologically: Bob Dylan leading back to Dylan's hero Woody Guthrie and so on.

"As it progressed I'd hear one thing and then I'd hear about something else," says Flemons, who plays guitar and banjo in the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an African-American string band. "One by one I started finding different things - rare recordings or something that influenced them in the first place. I've always been a collector in that way. It gives you more of the whole picture instead of just one impression."

But it was antebellum music featuring rudimentary instrumentation, specifically fiddle and banjo, that ultimately hooked Flemons.

"Some of it was the history; some of it the social commentary; some the poetry," he says. "I really like how the music flows out of people. It just has a different sound that I really got into."

It was enough to lure Flemons to the North Carolina Piedmont, an area as rich in string music heritage as Appalachia. It was there that, in 2005, he met future Chocolate Drops singer Rhiannon Giddens at the Black Banjo Gathering. Fiddler Justin Robinson, the third Carolina Chocolate Drop, was also there. He soon started learning the history and music from old-timer Joe Thompson, who played square dances as a boy before the Second World War and was recorded in the 1970s by a folklorist.

Soon all three were studying the form under Thompson's tutelage. They still do, though less frequently now because of touring duties and other constraints (Flemons has since moved to New York).

The trio released its first album Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind in 2007. Four songs of theirs can be heard on The Great Debaters soundtrack.

At least for Flemons, his work is meant to be as educational as it is enjoyable.

"First and foremost, we enjoy playing it," he says. "Then to have that mantle, and have people say, 'You're helping to carry this tradition on,' that makes it even better. I'm enjoying myself while at the same time doing the greater good. It's a win-win no matter how you do it."

It's not unusual for the Drops to get lots of questions about string music culture after shows. Flemons doesn't mind.

"I'm always one to spread the knowledge if you've got it," he says.

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