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Hubby Jenkins, drinking from the giant stream

Feb 5, 2020
Originally published on February 5, 2020 1:48 pm

What Hubby Jenkins was hearing on a cable TV news show had reached an obscene level of sanctimonious nonsense. At a rally in Virginia, attended by 22,000 well-armed Americans, on the January day set aside to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a speaker was appropriating the memory of the slain civil rights leader on behalf of their pro-gun cause.

"The icon of nonviolent protest, assassinated by a gun in our country, would be pro-gun," Jenkins says, slowly, evenly, incredulously.

"It's important to know your roots, and to know your history, and to be empowered to boldly go forward."

Know your roots. And know your history. That is the essence of February as Black History Month. It's a sentiment that dovetails nicely with Jenkins' Saturday, Feb. 15, show at The Little Theatre.

Jenkins was a member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, the acclaimed trio that created fresh interpretations of old time string-band music, the Southern music of the 1920s and '30s, primarily played by black musicians. Jenkins plays guitar and banjo and the bones, a chattering sound that is "the world's oldest instrument," Jenkins says. Originally made from shinbones or ribs.

Whose bones? Human?

"I think that might be illegal…," Jenkins says.

He doesn't sound too sure. But they're more commonly made from wood these days, so let's all just relax.

Jenkins has continued to play with the Chocolate Drops' lead singer, Rhiannon Giddens. But for the most part, the group members have drifted off to their own works. "The band transitioned from being the Chocolate Drops to being the Rhiannon Giddens band, and I did that for a couple of years," Jenkins says. "So now I'm on this solo journey, I guess. Philosophically it's like still a continuation of what we were doing in the band, talking about the black roots of American music and expanding on that and showing the connections and joy and wonderful music that there is in that tradition."

Indeed, Jenkins and Giddens, as well as Chocolate Drops founding member Dom Flemons, continue to spread the word of African-American roots music.

How does a kid growing up in Brooklyn come to this?

In 2004, Jenkins was 18 years old. The country was at war in Iraq, but no one was writing songs about it yet. He was playing sax and bass and was already nosing around in the past, listening to Dylan, Hendrix and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. He started going to old-time music shows. 

And there it was, "people were singing about war," Jenkins says. Not the Iraq war, but the words fit. And when Jenkins heard recordings of the old bluesman Skip James, "It blew my mind."

"It was around then that I learned that the banjo was a black instrument. That opened up another door, and just feeling the weight and the power that one person with a guitar or a banjo could have was very illuminating to me."

So the pieces were in place. Jenkins took them to the streets, busking on the sidewalks of New York City, then streets and coffee shops and bars throughout the country. By 2010, he'd hooked up with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose "Genuine Negro Jig" had won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. 

For the most part, this is about the archaeology of long-forgotten songs. Where does the 34-year-old musician find this music that is decades older than he is?

"I think part of it is the fact that I'm alive now," Jenkins says with a laugh. "And I live now and have access to the internet and I listen to NPR all day and listen about the impeachment. And those sort of, just the fact of living today, influences how I will approach songs, or preamble songs."

In his rummaging about the internet, and the catalogs of small record labels that persist in releasing this music, Jenkins recalls uncovering a woman named Geeshie Wiley, who recorded just a handful of songs in 1930. And then The New York Times did a story on her, and suddenly she's no longer lost to time, but is a part of the pantheon of country blues. Giddens recorded a Wiley song, "Last Kind Word Blues," for one of her solo albums.

What does Jenkins' ear find in these songs?

"Just an earnesty, in bringing out the emotions that are in the songs, which are timeless, they're not era-specific. You know, so a love song from 100 years ago will still be relevant to you, how we experience love today. I think it's also a testament to how powerful or how good these songs are."

Yet Jenkins is not entirely an anachronism. The Chocolate Drops recorded songs by Tom Waits, Blu Cantrell and Run/DMC.

"I'm a big fan of hip-hop and rap in general," he says. "I also look at hip-hop as being kind of like the last folk form of music in the country, from nonprofessional, nontrained artists and musicians who become this international thing. It kind of has a narrative that is similar to the blues, also being this music about a struggle, this music about oppression, this music about your native situation, mostly in the black and Latino communities. So it kind of has this symmetry to blues in a lot of ways."

And what's the relevance?

"It's in the music, it's all there. If you want to know what the black experience is, and has been in this country, you will find it in blues, in jazz, in a lot of old-time music, in soul, in funk, in hip-hop, and some rock. That's the narrative, it's there."

It's everywhere. "That music," Jenkins says, "it's a giant stream that flows and flows."

Bob Dylan drinks from it. The Chocolate Drops opened for him. "He came over and shook everyone's hand," Jenkins says of the notoriously reclusive icon. And then, "He said something else that no one understood."

Tickets ($20 advance, $25 at the door) for Jenkins' show at The Little, 280 East Ave., are available at thelittle.org.

In our Universe…

The Golden Link Folk Singing Society and the JCC CenterStage Theater, 1200 Edgewood Ave., Brighton, have teamed up for a 7 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 9, show with Livingston Taylor. A fascinating guy, Taylor has nudged his way onto the Billboard charts over the years with songs such as "I'll Come Running" in 1979 and, most recently in 2006 with his ex-sister-in-law Carly Simon, "Best of Friends." That's right, he's James Taylor's younger brother. A chatty stage performer, Livingston is a faculty member at Berklee College of Music, he's a small-plane pilot, and he likes to repair lawn mowers. Opening is a Berklee student from Rochester, Rozlyn Menachof. Tickets ($35 and $50), are available at jccrochester.org

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. So of course we get "Sight and Sound," a show featuring art by creative souls who are both musicians and artists. The opening party is from 6 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 7 -- that's the citywide open gallery night of First Friday -- at Suite 402 in Anderson Alley, 250 N. Goodman St. The local artists and musicians are Rita Coulter, Connie Deming, Paul Dodd, Peggi Fornier, Jon Gary, Sarah Long Hendershot, Charles Jaffe, Peter Monicelli, Dave Paprocki, Steve Piper, Scott Regan, Richard Storms and Robin Whiteman. The show runs through Feb. 29, an excellent use of leap year… It'll be happy 82nd birthday to the Rochester blues legend Joe Beard, 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, at Smokin' Joe's Bar & Grill, 425 Lyell Ave.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.