Lifting the Veil of Minstrelsy: The Carolina Chocolate Drops
By Mary Annaïse Heglar
One of my favorite music groups of today, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is anything but contemporary. Instead, they are an old-time string band with roots in rural North Carolina. The four members—natives of Brooklyn, Arizona, and North Carolina—are talented on the cello, fiddle, kazoo, harmonica, bones, jug, and many different types of banjo. Some people call it folk. Some people call it country. Some people call it the blues.
The Chocolate Drops gracefully blend old-time instruments with beatboxing and modern song. They have a masterful adaptation of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up Style.” In addition to traditional American songs, they perform music from Haiti, South Africa,and Scotland as well as their own original compositions.
But it’s also the sound of minstrelsy.
The Chocolate Drops are reclaiming the shuck and the jive. Music that black people in America have been shamed out of enjoying or even claiming. It’s good music. It makes you want to slap your knee and stomp your feet. But beneath that pretty surface, there lies an ugly history full of blackened faces, mockery, Birth of a Nation, and, of course, slavery. So as enjoyable as it is, it is painful for Black Americans. It’s hard to get images like this or this or this out of your mind.
Minstrel shows were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country for more than 80 years. The Carolina Chocolate Drops not only acknowledge this history, they confront it head-on. In an April 2012 interview, The Drops’ Reynadine said, “You can pussyfoot around it for a little bit, but it’s really important to acknowledge that the stuff was horrible, but that’s not a reason to confine a whole 80-year stretch of music to the dustbin. That’s part of our history.”
They delve even further into the history to uncover traces of shared histories between blacks and whites in the South. They talk about the collision of string instruments–the origins of the banjo (in Africa) and the fiddle (in Ireland). You heard that right: They travel through the painful spectacle of minstrelsy to find a trend of racial harmony. Mind=blown.
In an interview with NPR in March 2012, they said, “That’s kind of one of the first bump-ups of black and white cultures, musically speaking. And so it’s a really important part of history, and it is in the underpinnings of our current entertainment.”
The Drops make it a point to discuss this history at their shows—no matter who is in the audience. At their New York City summerstage premiere this past Saturday, they performed a song from 1855, but quickly added, “We’re only interested in going back to 1855 musically. Not in any other way.” The mostly white audience laughed nervously, but Reynadine, one of the founding members, looked seriously out into the crowd. “It needs to be said.”