History, Hymns and Humility: Jenkins’ Picking Shines at The Cock n Bull

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Hubby Jenkins can play the banjo. This feels like a gross understatement, but we have to start there. He is quite possibly one of the most impressive pickers in our generation of musicians.

The talented multi-instrumentalist, best known for his Carolina Chocolate Drops days, is a fascinating advocate for the truth. Weaving old-time American roots music with history lessons about the role of slavery in our country’s history, Jenkins held the intimate crowd’s full attention at The Cock ‘n Bull on Thursday, June 10th.

His chatter with the crowd expressed mild anxiety about dusting off the rust of COVID isolation as he took the stage. His effortless picking on the banjo as he launched a medley “to make me feel comfy” struck the crowd with immediate talent; when his voice curled into the music, smoky as the fire behind us, we were mesmerized.

The songs he sung were hard to hear. Songs about ongoing oppression, truths about slavery and how white culture stole black music to legitimize slavery, were at once honest and uncomfortable. The banjo is a black instrument. Enslaved Africans played it first, and when white Americans used it to justify slavery in songs like “Little Log Cabin Down the Lane” it was gut wrenchingly horrible. 

Jenkins moved through this history lesson factually though, not emotionally. Because until the truth is stated and acknowledged, it can’t be addressed. 

Shifting between love songs and gospel, Jenkins watched his own fingers on the guitar and banjo with amazement, almost like all was muscle memory. He would repeat the phrase “Don’t fight it” over the night, often as if he were coaching himself to let the music move through him rather than control it.

And move it did. “Mosquito, I’m busy” Jenkins shooed away the bugs who seemed to wake up on this cool night just for the event.  Jenkins played Gospel not because he was religious, but to touch on the history of Christianity and its importance to enslaved Africans in their history in this country. “My true God is the banjo and television” he mused. But he also spent some time processing with listeners how Christianity was shifted and molded to legitimize slavery, a very un-Christian act.

A crowd favorite was “Adam in the Garden.” Jenkins played bones and encouraged a singalong. This writer’s favorite was a version of “John Henry,” although “Parchman Farm” was particularly beautiful.

Jenkins followed the story of the enslaved Africans leaving the south by train in “The Great Migration,” leaving violence for points north and west.  Juxtaposed with this deeply moving story of pain and suffering was Jenkin’s ability to generate a gorgeous sound from the guitar and banjo strings. He even smiled as he played Ursula, his guitar, which was falling out of tune.

Jenkins lets go and lets the instrument decide, it seemed, what song will come next. “Brown Skin Gal” produced some beautiful sounds, as did his “Lucy Mae Blues.”

Jenkins ended the night with “Daniel” on the bones again after allowing the crowd to choose the instrument for the final piece. He pulled his students along with him through some rocky American history, telling the truths that most wish would be forgotten.

But the truth will eventually set us all free, especially if we listen to it with Hubby Jenkins’ soulful sound along side it. 

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