On September 20, 2007, the Carolina Chocolate Drops will take the stage at the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship award ceremony with the band’s mentor and fellowship recipient Joe Thompson. The NEA Heritage Fellowship is the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts. Thompson is receiving the award for his life’s work as an African-American string-band musician. The Chocolate Drops have been playing under the tutelage of Thompson, said to be the last black traditional string-band player, since the band was formed and is proud to share in Thompson’s honor. The NEA Heritage Fellowship, which is given to 12 recipients annually and includes a one-time $20,000 award, recognizes artistic excellence, cultural authenticity and a high level of contribution to an artistic field.
Thompson, who will turn 90 next year, plays in the North Carolina Piedmont tradition of black artists such as Odell and Nate Thompson, Dink Roberts and Emp White—a tradition that would be extinct without the efforts of Thompson and his protégés, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In an NPR interview, Rhiannon Giddens said of old-time string music, “It seems that two things get left out of the history books. One, that there was string band music in the Piedmont period. And then also…that, you know, black folk was such a huge part of string tradition.” In their work with Joe Thompson, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have sought to keep this old-time African-American string music tradition alive.
Comprised of Rhiannon Giddens (fiddle, banjo), Justin Robinson (fiddle) and Dom Flemons (guitar, jug, harmonica, percussion, banjo), the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been on tour throughout the summer with stops at many regional music festivals, a guest appearance on A Prairie Home Companion and a featured digital broadcast on Newsweek.com. Thompson has shared the stage with the band at many of these venues and was the guiding force behind their debut album, Dona Got A Rambin’ Mind, which Rolling Stone called “dazzling in its velocity and virtuosity.” The album was released in support of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization dedicated to fulfilling the financial needs of impoverished roots musicians and keeping alive the rich traditions of artists like Thompson. Established in the early 1990’s by Tim and Denise Duffy, Music Maker’s programs include grants for basic life need (Musician Sustenance), for artist professional development (Music Development), for the preservation of American musical traditions (Cultural Access) and for musicians affected by Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans Musician’s Fund).