With the award-winning, old-time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hubby Jenkins has helped to bring African roots of American folk to mainstream culture — a task he says he never set out to accomplish.
As a kid in Brooklyn, the soft-spoken Jenkins says he picked up guitar, later getting interested in country music (to the bewilderment of his family), which led him to the mandolin, the bones, and ultimately, the banjo. It was his banjo playing that attracted the band’s founders, the gifted Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, who had apprenticed with legendary Joe Thompson, an old-time fiddler in Durham, North Carolina. With Thompson, they learned the style and tradition of African folk songs, how those songs influenced music that grew out of the South — particularly, how the African banjo grew popularity in minstrel shows before rooting itself at the center of American music.
Eventually the Chocolate Drops took those songs — along with a diverse collection of jazz and blues, bluegrass and R&B — on the road to enlighten listeners to the lessons they’d learned with Thompson and other old-time players and historians. But Jenkins says the music is as much a catalyst for an old-fashioned jig as it is edification.
This year, Giddens and Jenkins bid farewell to founding member Flemons. Along with newcomers Malcom Parson and Rowan Corbitt, the band will play the Alys Stephens Center on Feb. 28. Birmingham will be hard pressed to find a better way to spend the last night of Black History Month than celebrating with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Jenkins spoke with Weld from the road about his role with the band.
Weld: When did you first develop an interest in old-time string music?
Hubby Jenkins: When I was 19 or so, I got really into country blues and starting playing solo shows. I quit my job, starting hitchhiking around. I met Dom around the time they started the group. It was great to see another black guy playing this music. … I started out with country blues, but the more I started learning about country music and the history in general, I got interested in banjo. I got a mandolin and a pair of bones and started learning how the story of the roots of American music is really the story of African American music in this country. It was a great opportunity for me to join this group with a mission centered around spreading that knowledge.
Weld: Do you consider yourself a historian? How important is the role of educator to the band?
H.J.: The way I first got into it was really enjoying the storytelling aspect and the idea these songs were very old but spoke to the human condition in a way that was timely. There was also the intensity of one person with a guitar. It’s powerful. … Over time as we played shows, I would get a lot of people who would ask me questions, and I wanted to be able to answer those questions for people. And then I’d have people come up and say things like, “I’ve never seen a black person play bluegrass.” I’d say, “Well, actually this is the banjo’s past…” It wasn’t what I started out to do, but I accepted the role and saw it as important.
It’s one of the main missions of the band, along with preserving and respecting the music and musicians who came before.
Weld: When you’re deciding what songs will go on a record, do you spend time researching the musicians who played those songs?
H.J.: Yes. You know, all of us have our own interests: minstrel music, country music. Before the banjo transformed into what we have now, it was thicker sounding, and then there was blackface minstrel music. For me, I’m into later banjo players, people who played from the ‘50s into the ‘70s, and I’m into how they preserve their songs and how they’re different from region to region. We talk about that, like, “Hey, Richard Casey recorded in North Carolina, and it’s a weird style…” which allows other people to start to relate to the music the way I do.
Weld: Has that historical element impacted your interactions with other musicians?
H.J.: When the band first started, it was at this public black banjo gathering. It was a few academics and musicians, artists, getting together and saying, “Maybe we should start talking about this more, these African roots of American music.” I’d say before then, and even at the early start of the band, they had to talk more about [the roots of the music]. Now, it’s becoming more common knowledge in the community. It’s nice to get together and talk about it with people. It’s been kind of wonderful watching that happen within the community.
Weld: How has that connection to storytelling and history influenced your relationship with the music?
H.J.: Every song is a story. We play music that comes from a time before television and internet, some of it even before radio. This kind of storytelling is how people entertained each other, passed down values, shared culture, endured hardships. One of the things we try to do in the band is try to respect the integrity and the essence of the song.
It’s a very interesting thing for me. I grew up in Brooklyn. My family’s from North Carolina, and my family spent a few summers don’t there, but I’m essentially a city boy. When I started learning more about the music, I understood more about myself and my upbringing and my family’s journey, learning about the African American Diaspora, learning about how post scripts of the war affected music — sharecropping, how it bolstered the music. That gave me an understanding of myself and of African Americans. When I’m playing my music, to have all of that, it’s indescribable. It gives me an area where I feel comfortable and strong in telling these stories.
Weld: How did your family respond to you taking on old-time music as your profession?
H.J.: My grandparents moved to Queens from Greensboro, North Carolina. My mom and her generation were the first born in New York. I’m part of the second. My old family were just farmers who grew up really poor. … I surprised my folks, because I went to a specialized math and science high school. When I said, “Eh, I’m not going to go college. I’m going to play country music.” My mom would ask, “Why are you playing country music? I saw Deliverance. I don’t get this.” And that was it. The older people in my family were removed from the music, too, and were also religious. About a year ago, I found out that my grandfather, who had passed away, was a blues player. He’d had to give it up for work and never talked about it. It was jut one of those things.
If you talk about African Americans as a whole, I guess you could call it the farmer Diaspora — there’s a great book about it called The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson — there were about 3 million people leaving the South and moving to California, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia. When you have that mass of people moving to urban centers, they shed a lot of their roots and associations with the South, traditional music, old time music, folk. The banjo becomes the guitar, jazz, blues — eventually. We’re kind of removed from it all, historically.