What's on Tap

What's on Tap

Giddens to honor mentor during National Folk Fest performance

Posted September 1, 2015

Rhiannon Giddens has made a Grammy-winning career of bringing song traditions to modern life with her band The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

— Back in 2005, three young African-American musicians began making weekly pilgrimages to Joe Thompson’s home in Mebane, North Carolina. They had developed an interest in old-time black string-band music, and Thompson was among the last of a dying breed who still played these “negro jigs.”

He cheerfully mentored his youthful charges, teaching them the banjo and fiddle tunes he’d grown up playing with his cousin Odell and brother Nate. The nascent trio of Rhiannon Giddens, Don Flemons and Justin Robinson progressed from apprenticing with Thompson to fame and acclaim as the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

“That’s where the Carolina Chocolate Drops came from,” Giddens says. “We went and played with Joe for hours every week. It formed the basis of our sound.”

Intent on reviving African-American string-band music, they titled their second album “Genuine Negro Jig.” It won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album.

All the while they stayed in touch with Thompson, who lived to the ripe old age of 93. The Carolina Chocolate Drops performed at his funeral, and Giddens offered a spoken tribute as well.

“I talked about his place in musical history and how open and welcoming he was,” she recalls. “He could bring the community together — black, white, he didn’t care as long as you wanted to play the music. He was a very special guy.”

This turned out to be the last time the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops played together. However, Giddens will be joined by Justin Robinson at her National Folk Festival appearance in Greensboro, which will pay tribute to Joe Thompson. She remains determined that his name and music not be forgotten.

“He was our connection to a very significant piece of musical history,” she says. “The fact we were able to learn from him and put that music out there for people to hear is extremely important.”


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