You decide to go to a music festival in downtown Appleton. There are a lot of different artists, but you’ve only heard of a few of them. As you approach College Avenue you hear the sounds of many voices, guitars, basses, and drums all mingle together in a communal cacophony, but one sound cuts through the rest: the twang of a single banjo. Do you follow the sound or continue on your way?
You follow the sounds to a busy cafe. A hush falls over the crowd as a man at the front of the room launches into another impossibly fast folk tune. You take a seat and try to follow his hands as they fly about the instrument. As the set progresses, you can’t help but wonder who this man is, and how you never realized how much you love the banjo before.
The man at the front of the room is Hubby Jenkins, Brooklyn native and member of the Grammy award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. Between the amazing banjo and guitar pieces, Hubby engages the inner child of the audience by reading aloud from a choose-your-own-adventure book and making each decision based on audience votes. He also gives a crash-course on the history of African American folk music (aka American folk music) throughout each set. The freedom and levity of his children’s books contrasted the limitations and difficulties of African American musicians throughout American history. As the audience members progressed through the adventure of the book, they also followed the adventure of African musicians as they traveled across an ocean, through slavery and oppression, discrimination and appropriation, to the present day. The banjo, as I learned, was a slave instrument adapted from traditional African instruments. By the time white musicians began playing the banjo, slave musicians had been cultivating that music for centuries. Still most people associate the instrument with white Appalachian music, and fail to realize the role black musicians played in that movement, a trend all too common in American music.
While the audience at Lou’s Brew last Friday night managed to emerge unscathed from the Haunted House on Chimney Street, we also gained a new understanding and appreciation for those original folk musicians who managed to maintain their culture while in bondage, and the modern artists who bring that culture to new audiences.
The man begins to tell you a story, do you choose to listen?