Before rock ’n’ roll, before rhythm and blues, there were banjos.
It is widely acknowledged that much of American popular music can be traced directly to the syncopated rhythms Southern slaves brought from Africa.
But what many do not realize is that African slaves also had a tremendous influence on America’s folk tradition.
Since 2005, members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops have helped uncover that lost chapter of American music history, reviving 19th century African string band music for 21st century audiences.
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(The group will bring that music Wednesday to audiences at the Gallo Center for the Arts. The show is a benefit for City Ministry Network, a nonprofit organization that helps Modesto Christian nonprofits and church ministries connect with each other.)
Guitarist, mandolinist and banjo player Hubby Jenkins joined the Drops in 2011. He’s steeped in old-time music now, but it hasn’t always been that way.
“I had to learn the banjo was a black instrument,” he said
Jenkins came to old-time music through country blues.
He started his music career playing acoustic guitar in the style of Mississippi Delta pickers like Robert Johnson and Lightin’ Hopkins, trying to learn more about the music and the traditions behind it.
Then he took a trip to the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., an annual festival of black folk musicians who gather to celebrate the nearly forgotten tradition of black string band music.
After the Civil War, black musicians and their banjos began touring the country with minstrel shows, playing the music of the South for white audiences who had never heard anything like it before.
“It’s the first time Americans are exposed to syncopation and it goes crazy. It’s as big or bigger than rock ’n’ roll,” Jenkins said.
Companies began mass-producing banjos and music tutors began popping up around the country, teaching people how to play the exotic instrument.
Jenkins said that meanwhile, traditional music began falling out of favor in black communities as people migrated from the South to larger urban areas where jazz, rhythm and blues and rock music would eventually be born.
“They kind of shed that sort of music that was connected to all the negative parts of living in the South,” he said.
A friend gave Jenkins a banjo and he began learning how to play it in the traditional claw hammer style, playing along with songs from the Smithsonian’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
“I really kind of connected to it quickly,” he said.
Jenkins became involved with the Music Maker Foundation, an organization that helps older Southern musicians get gigs, housing and health care.
He spent time with artists and performed at the foundation’s shows, which is where he met Chocolate Drops co-founder Dom Flemons the year after he, Justin Robinson and Rhiannon Giddens started the group.
“I was like ‘Oh, another black person that plays old-time music.’ ”
The band asked Jenkins to join after Robinson, the group’s fiddler, quit in 2011. “I think they asked me if I played fiddle.”
Jenkins admitted that he could not play that instrument.
“Then they asked me if I wanted to join the band anyway.”
Jenkins is now touring the world with the Drops, performing their traditional string band music to all different kinds of crowds.
“Tons of people come out to festivals every summer and hear this music,” he said. “It’s still there. I don’t think it ever died and went away.”