The Carolina Chocolate Drops take old time American music back to its roots. Attending one of their shows is not only a rollicking good time but a lesson in American history as well.
While most people see a banjo and think of country and bluegrass music, the instrument was in fact introduced to this country by slaves. The banjo’s ancestors are stringed instruments made of hollowed-out gourds, and back on the plantations, slaves would build these instruments and play.
“What was happening on the plantations was the first wholly American music form,” says Hubby Jenkins, who plays the banjo as well as the mandolin, guitar, bones and fiddle for the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “We play old time music, which can mean a few things. Old time blues, old time jazz, old time country. But one major thing we’re doing is teaching people the roots of the banjo as a black instrument.”
Jenkins recalls a time he was playing a tune by Robert Johnson, a Delta Blues legend.
“Someone came up to me and said ‘Wow. I never saw a black person play bluegrass before’,” he recalls. “I felt there were so many things wrong with that statement. It made me feel I had a responsibility to teach people.”
Jenkins joined the Carolina Chocolate Drops four years ago, after they already had a couple of albums and a Grammy under their belt. Rhiannon Giddens is the only founding member still in the group, but the mission of the group has remained. It’s in the education.
Although you may be getting a lesson in musical history and cultural heritage, it will feel like you’re just out for a freewheeling night on the town. And that’s what Jenkins’ experience was as he got to know the banjo. He wasn’t researching history or trying to understand sociology: he was playing from his heart.
“I wasn’t thinking about the historical significance at the time,” he says. “I had a strong connection to the banjo. I just played it obsessively. It was the music that grabbed me.”
Jenkins had been playing for a while, living with musicians and getting into old time music when he met Dom Fleming, one of the founding members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
“I was like, ‘Wow—a black person who plays old time music!’” he recalls.
Soon after, Fleming asked Jenkins if he played the fiddle. He said he couldn’t, but Fleming asked if he would join the band anyway. Since then, he’s picked up the fiddle to go along with the trove of instruments that he might pull out in a given show. Mostly, he plays the banjo, and Giddens has taken over primary fiddle-playing duty.
“Sometimes I’ll crummily strum along to a tune on the fiddle,” he says humbly.
The latest incarnation of the Carolina Chocolate Drops includes Giddens, Jenkins, cellist Malcolm Parson and multi-instrumentalist Rowan Corbett.
“We have a groove that’s been established,” says Jenkins. “A lot of the tunes we play are the same, but we’re always changing in style. We continue to approach old time music rhythmically in a way that distinguishes us.”
But things are definitely fluid for the group, as they move from instrument to instrument and share the singing. They’re also playing a lot more original songs to complement the old time favorites. Giddens is the songwriter, and has been inspired by her interest in the history of the music as a black
But when you go to a Carolina Chocolate Drops show, you will not be confusing the experience with a lecture hall or place of study.
“Everything we play is foot stomping, finger-tapping, ass-shaking music,” says Jenkins. “It has functionality. It’s music played at picnics, at holiday gatherings, after corn shucking. It’s not meant for people to sit and listen in silence. The movement is in the music.”
The Carolina Chocolate Drops will play their old time music with new tunes on Thursday, April 3, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $40, $38 or $35. Check out whbpac.org or call 631-288-1500 for more information.