Aspen Times Weekly: Carolina Chocolate Drops revive black string music
Hubby jenkins, of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, speaks of his path to membership in the band as “my own educational journey.” Jenkins, 27, is fairly new to the group; Carolina Chocolate Drops formed in 2005 around singers/multi-instrumentalists Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons, while Jenkins joined up early in 2011. But he has also covered much ground in his learning.
Since he joined the band, the Chocolate Drops have opened for Bob Dylan; landed the song “Daughter’s Lament” on the best-selling soundtrack to “The Hunger Games” movie, alongside tracks by Taylor Swift and Arcade Fire; and released the album “Leaving Eden,” produced by Buddy Miller, whose other recent projects include albums by Richard Thompson and Shawn Colvin. Carolina Chocolate Drops’ current tour includes mainstage appearances at a handful of major folk festivals: the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Rockygrass in Lyons. There will also be a hop across the ocean, for festival sets in Denmark and Finland. (Squeezed in is a relatively intimate show at Carbondale’s PAC3 on Thursday, July 25.)
Despite all the experience, Jenkins still has a ways to go in his educational mission, though most of that has to do with teaching the audience. The music tradition that Carolina Chocolate Drops are exploring requires some explanation. Tell someone that your band plays music rooted in the American South of the first half of the 20th century, and that the instrumentation features banjos, fiddles and acoustic guitars, and almost any knowledgeable listener would assume you play bluegrass.
“I tell people all the time, ‘Hey, we don’t play bluegrass. We play an older form of American music,” Jenkins said. Another tidbit he finds himself repeating — that the banjo, that emblem of rural white culture, is of West African origin.
The style the Chocolate Drops play has similar roots to bluegrass; both trace back to Appalachian string bands. But where bluegrass was the white man’s take on the string band, the Chocolate Drops follow from a different lineage, the African-American version of the string band. And where the story of bluegrass is fairly well known, dating back to pioneers Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, the black string band is relatively hidden. Even hardcore jazz and blues aficionados are probably unaware of some of the facts.
“Charlie Patton played with a fiddle player. Muddy Waters was in a string band,” Jenkins said of two noted blues guitarists. “For them, it’s a first-hand experience. They were around string band music.”
The history of black string bands was largely lost in the migration of black Southerners who moved north in the early part of the 20th century — a massive relocation of a population, as Jenkins notes, involving 3 million people. The move wasn’t only from south to north, but also from rural to urban. In big cities like Chicago, the music became electrified, and Muddy Waters dropped the string band to plug in and play Chicago style.
“In the diaspora of blacks moving from the South to northern cities, they consciously or unconsciously lost their Southern roots for a more modern thing, a more urban thing. Which at the time meant electric blues, Chicago blues,” Jenkins said on a day off from the beach in Truro, on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. Jenkins added that the rise of bands like the Rolling Stones, who were becoming enormously popular by playing a white, young, electric, British interpretation of American blues, made it that much easier to look ahead and forget about where the music had come from. Also, according to Jenkins, the record industry created distinct stylistic categories — race records on one side, string band music on the other — and the race records, by singers like Ray Charles, were on the right side of history. The idea of the black string band, playing a style that had much in common with bluegrass, but with more of a feel of blues, Southern gospel and even ties to Africa, got swept away.
Jenkins grew up in Brooklyn, and even though he had relatives in Carolina who he spent time with and was interested in music early on, this was a story he knew nothing about. As a kid, he played alto saxophone before switching to cello. As a teenager he settled on bass guitar, playing in “crappy bands that played a lot of Dylan-influenced music.”
Right after high school, Jenkins began digging further back in time. Discovering Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson, who played blues with a country influence, he realized there were whole hidden realms of music history.
“Growing up in Bed-Stuy” — the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, which has produced an inordinate number of rap artists — “you hear a lot of hip-hop,” Jenkins said. “For me, that whole education trip was big: ‘Wow, black people don’t just rap.’ Learning about black roots, black history in America that’s not really known, not really told, that was a big exploration.”
Jenkins wasn’t alone in this cultural excavation. Rhiannon Giddens, who had studied opera singing at Oberlin Conservatory, and Dom Flemons, an Arizona-born poet, were looking for new means of expression. Giddens took up fiddle, while Flemons began learning clawhammer banjo. In 2005, the two attended the Black Banjo Gathering in North Carolina and met Joe Thompson, an aged, old-time fiddler who would become their mentor. Giddens and Flemons formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops in the mid-’00s. In 2010, they released “Genuine Negro Jig,” a collection of old songs including “Kissin’ and Cussin’” and “Peace Behind the Bridge.” The album, their debut on the Nonesuch label, earned a Grammy in the best traditional folk category.
A few years ago, Jenkins, who had been busking in New York City, met the Chocolate Drops through mutual friends. Jenkins’ specific skills were less important than his overall musical interests. “They said, ‘Oh, black guy who plays string instruments — great. Can you play the fiddle?’” Jenkins recalled. “I told them no. But they said, ‘OK, you want to join the band anyway?’”
As Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose touring ensemble is rounded out by cellist Leyla McCalla, have traveled the world, Jenkins has noticed that the group that has the greatest interest in old black string-band music is young, white music lovers, the kind that might also gravitate toward bluegrass. The band has played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Jenkins likens it to the Delta blues revival of the 1960s. “That music survived because it was discovered by white college students,” he said. But he isn’t too dismayed; at least the music is being heard and discovered.
“There are so many old songs out there that are so universal,” he said. “We want to make sure we keep those songs alive for people.”
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