Another in a series of top-notch concerts is coming to the Common Fence Point Arts Center in Portsmouth Saturday, December 4th, when acclaimed Roots musician Hubby Jenkins is scheduled to perform.
I spoke to Jenkins last week by phone from his home in New York and was reminded it’s not his first time playing the Newport area. “I’ve done the Folk Festival with the Chocolate Drops and I did the Jazz Festival with Rhiannon Giddens,” he noted.
That said, it’s been a rough couple of years for touring musicians. Jenkins shared a little about what he’s been up to.
“Like all other musicians coming back from COVID, the train is slowly picking up speed,” he explained. “I’ve been spending a lot of time with my musical obsessions, gospel and spirituals, and artists like (Bahamian guitarist) Joseph Spence. Also, listening to a whole lot of (Nigerian social activist/musician) Fela Kuti. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that yet, as an old-time musician. How does an old-time musician translate Afrobeat?” joked Jenkins, “but I’ll figure it out, give me time.”
Jenkins did some streaming shows during the pandemic, but like so many other musicians, he’s really missed playing in front of live audiences.
“I’ve been a touring musician for a decade at this point and I miss being on the road. I forgot how much I really enjoyed stepping into other people’s communities and being a part of them for a night… and people cheering me for playing the song, instead of just staring at my face on a Zoom camera,” he added.
As a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jenkins has had an enormous impact on the increasing popularity of Americana/Roots music. Progress has been slow, but things seem to be improving for African American musicians in the hard-to-categorize genre. The 2022 Grammy nominations in roots categories included several persons of color, including Allison Russell, Jon Batiste and Yola.
Jenkins recalled an incident when he first started playing on street corners in NYC. “I remember when I first started playing old-time music, my first passion was Country Blues. I grew up in New York and I remember I was in Union Square in New York City one day and I was playing a Robert Johnson song.” Someone came up to me and said ‘boy, I ain’t never seen no Black boy playing bluegrass before.’ I thought, there’s so much wrong with that sentence.”
Beyond the utter racism in the remark, the comment gave Jenkins pause. “I had the feeling that I’m Black and playing old-time music and I’m feeling isolated, so joining the band for me was a big thing. It was like, we’re a whole band of black people doing this, it’s us now. When we were playing, our mission was, hey, the banjo is a black instrument.”
Although the banjo was developed and first played by African American slaves, it’s not always widely acknowledged. “A lot of it is being a Black player, an old-time player, and going into white spaces a lot,” Jenkins continued. “It can be pretty intense, I’ve had people call me the N-word or say no to my concepts, or send me ridiculous emails, that kinda stuff.”
“Now, there are a lot more people of color in the scene. I was at the International Bluegrass Association in North Carolina recently and it was really nice. Jake Blount was there, and others who I could talk to. That was something I didn’t necessarily have back when I started. I feel like the Chocolate Drops definitely had something to do with that.”
He’s also part of an innovative program to further the mission. “We have the Black Banjo Reclamation Project on the West Coast. We’re putting banjos in Black kid’s hands. I feel like we’re able to have that space together.”
What to expect at the Common Fence Music show?
“I’ve been doing a lot of work around the creation of black Christianity and doing it through music. I’ll be playing a lot of spirituals and gospel songs. I’m looking forward to it, I love being in Rhode Island,” said Jenkins.
You can hear more at Common Fence Music Saturday night at 8PM. Tickets are $20 and available here.