Director’s Cut season finale: John Whitehead

June 3, 2019 Wisconsin Public Television Leave a Comment

We wrap up Season 12 of Director’s Cut with an excellent music documentary. Director John Whitehead rolls into town to discuss his film Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind: The Carolina Chocolate Drops Story.

A documentary portrait of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a string band from Raleigh, North Carolina, and their mentor, fiddler Joe Thompson (1919 -2012). The film captures how three musicians from the hip-hop generation embraced a 19th-century genre and took it to new heights, winning a Grammy in 2010. The story of the band’s rise, from busking on the street to playing major festivals, is informed by the history of the banjo’s origins in Africa, and the untold story of the black string band tradition.

Read on to learn how this film owes its existence to great timing – and see a special bonus video from right here at WPT!

The banjo, originally thought to have been an early American instrument, was actually created in Africa from a gourd. Slaves brought it over, where its sound became the centerpiece of multiple styles of music. In April 2005, Appalachian State University hosted the Black Banjo Then and Now Gathering, a conference featuring everything from scholarly lectures to jams and workshops with the elders of banjo. (Listen to this WNYC story about the event.)

Band members Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson had played together in Sankofa Strings, a group dedicated to sharing the full spectrum of African-American music: jazz, folk, classic blues, spoken word and more. After the Gathering, they decided to form the Carolina Chocolate Drops as we know them.

Less than five years later, the ensemble won a Grammy: Best Traditional Folk Album, for their 2010 album Genuine Negro Jig.

Carolina Chocolate Drops at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville

This film is a great blend of interviews, concert footage and a musical history lesson. It takes viewers through the history of both a talented, unique band and the African-American culture of the banjo.

Read this 2018 Washington Post article: “Dom Flemons unpacks the racial baggage of the banjo.”

In Don’t Get Trouble, we learn that  Flemons, Giddens and Robinson were all accomplished musicians when they met old-time string music legend Joe Thompson, a fiddler and North Carolina farmer who carries on a family tradition stretching back 300 years. Thompson mentored the band and hosted jam sessions in his living room one night a week. These gatherings helped them perfect their craft and prepared them for what was a meteoric rise in the music industry.

John Whitehead smiles at the cameraAn avid music fan, John Whitehead happened to attend the Banjo Gathering where the Chocolate Drops met. It ended up being a big stroke of luck and timing, as he was the first to tell their story.

Whitehead, who is based in the Twin Cities, is also a Midwest Emmy Award winner for two previous films, Transplant: A Gift for Life and First Speakers: Restoring the Ojibwe Language. His work has also earned him an HBO Films Producer Award and a Corporation for Public Broadcasting Award.

My favorite thing about John’s film is his “cast.” In addition to being fantastic musicians, the three band mates have really interesting personalities and different backgrounds. Rhiannon is the calm, level-headed leader whose family used to travel with the band. Dom is a classic showman who loves to work the crowd and talk about each piece. He is happy playing in a big venue or on the street. In one scene, he talks about how fortunate he is to make money doing what he loves.

Justin, on the other hand, talks about what a grind working the road is. Justin juxtaposes improving as a performer from a technical standpoint from playing almost every night with the idea that doing so stifles his creativity from an artistic standpoint. In a stark contrast with Dom, Justin will not hesitate to walk away from fame and fortune if not inspired.

I’ve been in showbiz my entire adult life and can’t imagine doing anything else, so this outlook really fascinates me. No spoilers, but the band looks different today.

These three unique individuals are interesting enough, but throw in the really outstanding, catchy music they’ve made together, and this is a can’t-miss film!

In putting together this post, we also wanted to add a treat from our archives. The 30-Minute Music Hour was lucky enough to host the band in 2011, after their Grammy win. Check it out!

So stretch out and make sure not to pull a hammy tapping your toes to Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind. And if you do pull a hamstring – or any muscle, for that matter – while watching a movie, let’s be honest: you’re either doing it wrong, or you probably need more exercise.

Please join me this Friday, June 7 for my interview with John Whitehead on Director’s Cut at 10 p.m. Stick around after our interview, when we’ll air the full-length Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind: The Carolina Chocolate Drops Story for you to enjoy.

Thanks for a great season – and, as always, thanks for joining us on Wisconsin Public Television: your home for independent film!

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