Acoustic Music, Bluegrass Music, Saturday Soundtrack
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Saturday Soundtrack: Rhiannon Giddens

Black History Month is the perfect time to use the five Saturdays in February 2020 to highlight five different musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music.

I was so excited about this project that, naturally, I jumped the gun with this special themed edition of  Saturday Music posts. Providing readers with a taste of what was to come, I celebrated the music of Amythyst Kiah—the self-described “Southern Gothic” singer of “alt-country blues”—at the beginning of the year. So let’s officially begin this project with the founder of the band Our Native Daughters, one of Kiah’s collaborators, and the woman who has one of the most visible roles in leading, in Rolling Stone’s words, the “movement of 21st-century singers, artists, songwriters and instrumentalists of color who have been reclaiming the racially heterogeneous lineages of folk, country and American roots music.”

Rhiannon Giddens Freedom Highway

That musician, Rhiannon Giddens, is a force of nature, and one of the best things to happen, not just to African American roots music, but music in general in a very long time. After studying opera at Oberlin Conservatory, she came onto the scene in 2005 with the traditional African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Giddens has one Grammy win (for the album Genuine Negro Jig) and has been nominated six times, including in this year’s Best American Roots Performance category. She was the 2016 winner of the Steve Martin prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, while in 2017 she won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the “genius” award.) And, of course, the album Songs of Our Native Daughters has sparked conversations, beginning with the four banjo-playing black women who came together to make this groundbreaking Smithsonian Folkways album. Or, as Giddens described them, “People who are talking now about what happened then, and what it means for tomorrow.”

Merlefest 042609 023
Rhiannon Giddens with The Carolina Chocolate Drops at Merlefest 2009

I first heard Giddens live at Merlefest in 2009, but The Chocolate Drops got their start four years earlier with original members Giddens, Don Flemons, and fiddle player Justin Robinson. They had met at the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, a conference dedicated to exploring the roots of banjo music. Living in Durham, North Carolina, the three would travel every Thursday night to the home of old-time fiddler and songster Joe Thompson to “learn tunes, listen to stories and, most importantly, to jam.” A black fiddler in his 80s, Joe inherited his music and playing style from generations of family musicians. With these Thursday evening sessions, he was passing those lessons on to a new generation. “When the three students decided to form a band, they didn’t have big plans,” notes the Chocolate Drops website. “It was mostly a tribute to Joe, a chance to bring his music back out of the house again and into dancehalls and public places.”

Songs of our Native Daughters

To begin a sampling of Giddens music, I’ll share Hit ’em Up Style from The Chocolate Drops Genuine Negro Jig, a version of the Blu Cantrell song which, in the words of the BBC reviewer, “totally countrifies an urban classic to create a tune that would be just as at home in hoedown as any blinging city nightclub.”

Country Girl is from the album Leaving Eden. Enjoy this live version from the Americana Awards.

Moon Meets the Sun from Songs of our Native Daughters is a Giddens tune that is beautiful and optimistic.

I’m On My Way is from her most recent album, There Is No Other, and well worth a listen. Finally, At the Purchaser’s Option, from the album Freedom Highway, is a heartbreaking, achingly sad, and ultimately powerful song. It was written by Giddens after she read an ad for a young slave woman which added, as an afterthought, that the young woman had a 9-month old baby “available at the purchaser’s option.”

“I’ve got a babe but shall I keep him
‘Twill come the day when I’ll be weepin’
But how can I love him any less
This little babe upon my breast

You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul
You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul

I’ve got a body dark and strong
I was young but not for long
You took me to bed a little girl
Left me in a woman’s world

You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul…

Day by day I work the line
Every minute overtime
Fingers nimble, fingers quick
My fingers bleed to make you rich

You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul…

I’ve got a babe but shall I keep him”

There is so much to take in with the music of Rhiannon Giddens. And there’s so much to know about all the other work she is doing to tell forgotten and “disappeared” stories. To that end, I strongly recommend her interview in The Guardian from 2018 titled “‘White people are so fragile, bless ’em’…meet Rhiannon Giddens, banjo warrior.”

The award citation from Steve Martin has this brief synopsis of her importance:

“In an interview in the February 2016 issue of Banjo Newsletter, Giddens said “I was attracted to the banjo before I knew the history of it. I just loved it. In the beginning I felt like I was kind of an interloper, and then I realized actually it’s everybody’s music. When you look at the history of it, it’s everybody’s music. It doesn’t belong to anybody. And then getting into the African roots of it I was just flabbergasted. . . . It’s a huge history that nobody talks about. And that really drew me.” Giddens’s work recognizes how big and versatile and multicultural the banjo can be, and how deep its roots go. Her electrifying performances have made the banjo exciting to new audiences, while simultaneously reaching back to the instrument’s earliest origins.”

As she told the International Bluegrass Music Association, “The question isn’t ‘How do we get diversity into bluegrass?’ The question is, ‘How do we get diversity back into bluegrass?'”

Exactly!

More to come…

DJB

(Photo of Rhiannon Giddens from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation via Creative Commons)

7 Comments

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