Hubby Jenkins of the Carolina Chocolate Drops talks about the blues, why old-time string music is important, and how the band is working to educate young musicians of the genre's roots.
Hubby Jenkins, multi-instrumentalist for the Grammy Award-winning old-time string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is thankful. Not only is the group enjoying a quick break from their relentless touring schedule, allowing for a rare opportunity to kick back with family and friends, but Jenkins has also managed to avoid the freezing temperatures of his native NYC, opting instead to spend his short vacation in sunny Los Angeles.
It's been a wild few years since he joined the band in 2011. The success of their debut album, Genuine Negro Jig, catapulted the group onto the forefront of the Americana music scene, while their charisma has made them a major name on the festival circuit. But amidst this level of success, the group remains humble and takes every opportunity to educate young black musicians about the genre's African-American roots. It's a mission that in many ways was inspired by their personal mentor, Joe Thompson, a folk legend in the band's hometown of Durham, North Carolina. Friday night, they perform at Tipitina's. When they return to town though, it will be with a new lineup. Long-time member Dom Flemons has left to pursue his own music, as has New Orleans resident Leyla McCalla, who played cello. They've been replaced by Malcolm Parson and Rowan Corbett.
You were raised in Brooklyn and eventually made your way to North Carolina playing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. How did you first get into roots music and what about it was appealing to you?
Right after high school I got into Bob Dylan hardcore and playing in crappy bands, playing the bass and I started learning more about the blues through that. It was sort of this awakening after growing up in Bed-Stuy. A lot of people did hip-hop, a lot of people did R&B, so hearing this new kind of music was an awakening for me, like “Whoah, the blues. What is that? What is this whole other aspect of African-American culture that I never really learned about?” Then I got my first guitar, quit my job, went hitchhiking and really dug into it.
So that’s my own personal journey into the music and having lots of experiences where you would be playing for people and hearing comments like “Hey, I’ve never seen a black guy play bluegrass before!” and I’m playing a Robert Johnson tune or something. I almost felt like it was a mission, I had the weight of the music on my shoulders. I met the Chocolate Drops when Dom Flemons came to New York, around the time they started the group, and we met each other in Washington Square Park. We were both like “Whoah, black guy with a jug,” “Whoah, black guy playing blues guitar!” It was an instant friendship.
So why do you think Appalachian music or old-time string band songs still hit a nerve with people, especially young people or those totally unfamiliar with the genre?
I’m a little biased, but I think the songs are timeless and cover universal emotions that everyone can relate to, whereas so much of our pop music is recycled, not genuine, or just emotionally speaking not full of substance. I think you are seeing a lot more people buying banjos and ukuleles and getting more into this music that is really heartfelt. Blues and all this stuff wasn’t made so someone could say, “Oh, I’m making this music so I can have my own jeans company some day.” This was music that the artists felt and that meant something to the community.
We’ve seen a large-scale revival of Americana; do you think that there’s an old-time music revival happening as well?
I guess it comes and goes in waves, but I don’t think I’m 100 percent sure what Americana is as a genre. Americana is a very broad thing, and I would include what we do in that for sure. But I do think that there is more of a resurgence, more of an interest in it for sure.
What goes into your songwriting? Are the lyrics based on real stories and details from your personal lives or do you try and channel more traditional southern folklore?
One of the missions of the group is to let people know about the African-American roots of American traditional music and so we play a lot of music that way, just to give people a visceral reaction of seeing an African-American play this kind of music, playing music from the band’s mentor Joe Thompson, and playing minstrel music from the 1800’s which was sort of the first ethnomusicology into what African players were playing, so that’s one of the main focuses. We don’t do a lot of songwriting but we do a lot of cultivating music that represents that aspect and then also finding songs that resonate with us and help us to describe our emotions or tell whatever story we’re feeling. Rhiannon has written a couple of songs. Her last record was “Country Girl,” and that comes from a very personal experience of hers growing up in the country as a country girl [laughs].
How do you guys diversify your sound within this genre? Do you think that there are differences between Genuine Negro Jig and Leaving Eden? If so, what are they?
One of the things that we do, the kind of stuff that separates us from others, is that we combine traditions in a lot of songs. One of the tracks on the album is called “Riro’s House” which combines African drum beats that we played over a standard banjo tune, something that’s very simple but creates a very different landscape, a different rhythm sensibility to cadence. So those are the sorts of things that give a difference in sound. The difference between the two albums is that they were recorded very differently, which kind of adds a different tone to it. For the second album, Leaving Eden, we tended to do a lot of different tracks playing simultaneously and we recorded in Buddy Miller’s studio, which is kind of his house, and sometimes we would be out on his front porch recording. That added a very different 'being in the room vibe.' We also made that album maybe two months after Adam and I joined the group, so everything was very new for us. We were new to the road, new to the experience, but because they had this album coming up, everything was new for all of us. There was a new style and freedom that could occur within the group with different artists who have different skills. There were a lot of changes and there will be more changes coming, I’m sure.
I’m always interested in hearing how bands choose what songs they would like to cover. You have some interesting ones, especially “Hit Em’ Up Style” which is one of your more popular covers. What went into the decision to cover that song?
Rhiannon came up with that. The band was just doing a lot of school shows at the time, doing educational shows and teaching kids about different instruments and the history, and hearing that song on the radio back when it was hot, I think it was 2001 or something like that, she got the idea “Oh, maybe I can fuck around with this on the fiddle,” and the kids went wild for it. It was a pop tune, it was really hip, and it was a way for kids to really understand the connection between the two types of music and the thread that goes through American music. But it was just so popular, it became contagious and that’s why that song is such a big hit with people because it does show that sort of through line.
Are you guys planning on covering any more modern R&B songs?
There are no plans. If one comes up that grabs the ear then we definitely won’t shy away from that but it’s more of a take it as it comes sort of thing. I know for a minute we were messing around with a Spax record but you take it as it comes.
You mentioned earlier how Joe Thompson was an early mentor for the band, do you guys envision yourselves taking on a similar role in the future or do you currently reach out to younger black musicians interested in the genre or the history?
Yeah sure, it will probably be a few decades before I’m doing it on the same level as Joe but definitely. I think one of the biggest things is identifying the community of African-American artists who are out there. Back in New York I assist with music classes every once in a while and lots of people will come in and talk about the history and talk about being a black person who is into this kind of music. For me personally, a lot of this hasn’t been me teaching the music but talking about the history and being able to bond in that way of being an African-American who’s attached to a part of this history that most of us are disconnected from. As I get older and find more young people getting involved in the music, I'll probably reach out even more. I know there are programs in places like Oakland where Angela Wellman is doing stuff like giving banjos to kids. Things like that I'd be interested in getting involved with.