Kidada chats with acclaimed musician and musical scholar Rhiannon Giddens about her introduction to music, how she finds inspiration in the historical archives to create her songs and how there is more than one way to experience blackness in music.
Kidada Williams: Hi everyone, it’s Kidada. This is Seizing Freedom. The show where we dig into the archives to bring you stories about how African Americans freed themselves during the Civil War and built new lives during Reconstruction. And where we talk to the historians and artists who know the archives best.
On this episode, I speak with musician and musical scholar Rhiannon Giddens about tracing Black history through music and being a vessel for the voices of ancestors found in the archives. Rhiannon Giddens was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who won a Grammy for their album, “Genuine Negro Jig” in 2011. She has also received a MacArthur Fellowship, won the International Folk Awards Album of the Year for “Freedom Highway,” and was the 2020 Living Blues Awards Producer of the Year, in collaboration with Dirk Powell.
Rhiannon sings and plays fiddle, but she’s probably most known for playing an 1858 replica of the banjo derived from an African gourd instrument, the sound of which she connected with instantly.
So Black people are ever present throughout the soundtrack of American and global history, but that presence and their role creating and shaping music was often erased. And so I was curious, where did you first learn of the history of this presence?
Rhiannon Giddens: Mm, I really started to pick up on it in my early twenties, like throughout my childhood, I knew what everybody knew, you know, which is like we did the blues and the jazz and they did the country and the old time and then, when I started getting into the banjo, I started listening, hearing old time…kind of that older style of banjo and sort of becoming obsessed with it and then started to kind of like, realize that, you know, “oh, wait a minute. The banjo is African. Wait a minute, what?” And then it just kind of started from there and then it was an avalanche. And then I started going, “And why don’t we know these things?” and that’s the thing that has driven me ever since.
KW: Could you tell us what it was about the old style banjo that resonated with you?
RG: There’s something about, you know, cause I grew up hearing bluegrass, you know, banjo, folk banjo, like Pete Seeger and stuff. And it was fine. Like, it didn’t really speak to me, but that old style banjo, you know, it just had this rhythm to it, this…It’s the syncopation that’s inherent in that. I don’t know, there was something about that, you know, and then of course, you know, as they do the research, I’m like, “Oh, there’s probably reasons why that’s so resonant for me.”
But all I knew then was the sound and the feel. And I was exposed to it as a dancer, you know, like a folk dancer doing contras and squares. And so I engaged with that music as, you know, as a dancer and not as a player, which I think was actually a really important part of the process for me, because I appreciated that part of it first before anything else.
I don’t know, I can’t even really describe it. Like when I first started hearing it, I was like, “What is that?” It was really like marked. It wasn’t like, “Oh, that’s fine.” It was like, “No, that is very cool.” And then when I started to go to the contras and square dances in North Carolina, where I came back home to, that sound was there again and I was like, “Whoa, this is…it wasn’t an anomaly. This is really cool.”
KW: And so did that change your approach to your own music, that discovery of that presence, that appreciation for its impact on the music you were listening to?
RG: Well, it just changed my approach for sure, the knowledge of it. I mean, I don’t think anybody needs to ask permission to play this music. Like, I don’t think that, but when I started, I felt that way. I felt like, oh, I’m like, “Can I come in here?” Like, you know, I’m the only Black person for miles around at like every function, you know? Um, whether it’s a dance or an old time thing or, you know, there’s a couple, you know, and we knew each other and whatever.
But I always felt like, Oh, I have to kind of like ask to come in here and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And then I started…there was a couple of recordings that I found and started to realize that, you know, oh, wait a minute. Like there were Black people in this history and there are some amazing compilations by Marshall Wyatt of Old Hat Records, like “Violin Play the Blues For Me,” and “Folks He Sure Do Pull Some Bow,” just like images of Black people playing fiddles and banjos. And then I was made aware of the work of Cecelia Conway who wrote African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia.
And then she told me about Joe Thompson, who was, you know, at that point the last living link to the Black string band tradition, you know, of North Carolina. So yeah, it was a lot, it was a lot coming at me. It was just like, this is overwhelming. Like I’ve been told lies all my life. What’s going on? And then I’d just get really upset.
And, um, and there was just so much work to do. There’s so many books to read. There were so much, so many recordings to listen to. And so there was a big…you know, and then while that’s going on, we’re starting to go down to play with Joe Thompson, who was 86 at the time. And, and just, you know, doing that part of it, which is basically sitting and listening and playing. So it was wild. It was wild.
KW: I think that’s fascinating because as a historian who was interested in Black people in the past, I often found myself early on looking for permission to ask questions–questions that satisfied my interests. And being told, at least when I was in high school and in some parts of college that, no, this isn’t important. These people aren’t here, it’s not relevant. And then you encounter that presence and it just kind of, won’t let you go.
And then you start doing your own research and what I’ve found for myself and what I…I feel like I see in your work, is a point where you move from asking permission and wondering whether or not you have a place there to acknowledging it and owning it and claiming it and sort of making space for others. And I try to do that with my students too, so that they know that the stories they’ve been told in K-12 are essentially a lie, and that they can claim and own this history.
RG: Yeah. I think there’s a really important realization that everybody has to go through. We have to think for ourselves, we have to search out for ourselves and the school system is not geared to help us do that. It’s just not. And it’s usually what we get outside of school, you know, unless we’re lucky and we get a really good teacher or we hit a school that is, you know, that really does force us to ask those questions.
But I’d say for like the majority of people, not only are they getting textbooks that are terrible, they’re in a system now that’s prioritizing tests, you know, so we each individually have to reach that point of “Wait a minute. I think this is important. And that’s all I need.”
You know, the banjo is an excellent example. The idea of the banjo being an African derived instrument, like as obvious as it seems now, like with all the research that’s been done, just when you look at you’re like, whoa, yea, that’s really super obvious. It wasn’t obvious 40 years ago, 30 years ago.
And you know, you take someone like Dena Epstein. She wrote Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. She was a librarian. She wasn’t even a musicologist. She was a librarian and she started finding these references, you know, to these instruments and these musicians, and she just worked for years and years and years and years because she saw that, you know, everybody else would have been like, what are you doing? Like we know the history of the banjo and she’s like, mm, I don’t think you do, you know, I’m just going to keep going here. And then she writes the book that now is like the number one, you know, book on any bibliography of anybody doing anything about the banjo. So she’s an excellent example of just that.
KW: Right, and I think that I see your work and work like hers as part of this history and tradition of Black historians dating back to the 1700s, of Black people knowing the importance of knowing that history.
Do you think there’s something at stake in people, specifically Black people knowing about the history of their musical creation, their musical musical productivity over time for the present day?
RG: I think that one of the frustrations of my life is the disregard that the mainstream Black culture has for my work, the frustration with people who grapple with this in every other genre are welcomed. But me talking about the banjo is me doing white music and that’s frustrating to me because it’s our own history that we are disregarding and, for me, it feeds into the absolute right we have as Americans to say that we are also the American story and that we are an indelible part of the American story.
And the reason why this music is segregated in this way is to fuel the myth that we are not. And of course, you know, blackness is not monolithic. Like, you know, everybody’s experience is different, but I feel like it is sometimes held up as if it is even within our own community. Like Beyonce is not the only way to experience blackness, you know?
And I get frustrated with the way that we’ve, we’ve bought the story. And are not challenging it, you know, it’s like, even when people are talking about Black people on country music, they were approaching it like, well, of course Black people should be able to be in country music because, you know, it was like, well, there’s that, but there’s also the fact that we co-created country music, so I think without this big piece–it’s such a huge piece–we can’t come to grips with where we stand in the creation of the American character. I just don’t think we can.
Everybody is happy to talk about Tulsa, you know, but don’t nobody want to talk about the banjo and I’m like, it’s two sides of the same coin. You know, the thing that allows them to rip down Tulsa, you know, is the same thing that makes them pretend that the banjo is white. It’s the same. And I don’t know what else I can do; I’m not gonna go find a hip hop artist and beg them to do a song with me to make, you know, to make the banjo hip again in the Black community. I mean, that’s not my job, but. I am frustrated with that.
KW: What I’ll say is that I understand that frustration because I encounter what I call these sort of Kindergarten understandings of the history of blackness and Black people. And so what I forced my students to do is to kind of level up. You know, we’re going to have the grown folks conversation about this history, about this erasure, and what it means today.
And for a lot of my students, it takes a while for them to kind of get comfortable with it, especially because it’s so new. And it goes against everything else they’ve previously been taught. So it may not be automatic, but it gets there. And so what I hope is that, with the wide body of work that you’ve produced, that the rest of the people who are kind of stuck–and let’s just be honest, I think they’re stuck–will eventually get there.
RG: I mean, all I’ve kind of come to peace with it. It really used to frustrate me because I was like, What y’all want, what I gotta do? You know what I mean? But it’s okay, as long as I’m contributing in a positive way to the conversation, then I just keep going. Because we have a responsibility to do this work, as we become our own historians, cause we have to, and all we can do is just keep putting it out there and then, and it lands where it needs to land and you know, that’s it.
KW: Yeah, the body of work is there and the people will find it.
RG: I hope so.
KW: I think so.
RG: I’d just like somebody to just come remix it and just do a really cool thing with it. You know what I mean? It’s just, I’ve been saying for years that my minstrel banjo is an 1850s replica. That sound, I mean is the sound of Black banjo, like, you know, and the gourd banjo.
But I use that one because it’s more steady, you know, when I travel with it and I’m like, there are so many frickin’ hooks and beats and all sorts of stuff in there. And I’m just like, somebody’s going to figure this out one of these days. I was just like, just, I don’t even care if it’s my banjo, just somebody do it, you know, please.
KW: One of the things that we really love about your music is the emphasis on everyday ,on the everyday, and the joy that’s found in these small moments. Were you finding a lot of that in the archive, or did you have to do some work to draw it out?
RG: I just did a lot of reading and just had stuff leap out. I thought because I, I never planned on any of this, you know, I have no degrees. I have like a music bachelor’s in voice, of Western dead dead white men art music. That’s what I have a degree in. So everything else has been just like, I’d be in the van for hours, going from gig to gig and I’d be reading these books, you know? Cause I started with the music, but then when I started asking the why, I was like, I got to know more, you know, about the history surrounding it. So I stopped reading…I never was really into musicology books. I was like, I can sing the song. I can look at the music, you know, give me the historical context.
I think the most important thing for me is just to go where I’m interested. Like I just got a book; they took all the runaway ads from the center of the 1700s to the middle of 1800s in upstate New York…these runaway slave ads. And this is the kind of stuff that fascinates me, you know,I’m well beyond like, this is ridiculous. There was slavery. They were running–Yes. I know all that.
But what the ads tell you…Like, so many of them, “speaks Dutch, speaks German, speaks Dutch, speaks German…has this fiddle, has this banjo, blah, blah, blah.” And I’m just like, this is the stuff that fascinates me, because I’m like, “What kind of music did a Dutch-speaking, enslaved fiddler make?”
That’s the stuff that excites me. And then I go to my friends at Holland Brook, and then I was like, I got this book. Well, you know, in the 1700s, what were Dutch people playing? And she’s like, Oh, you know, I just realized that all of the Baroque sheet music we have from that period of, you know, Dutch music, is in American archives. And I was like, “ain’t that something!” Cause they brought it over and then it ended up in, you know, in universities in the States.
And I’m like, this is the fascinating stuff to me. We, we have the idea, of an enslaved person as this like dude or a woman and like a patchy…patchy outfit and barefoot and a kerchief on the head and a hoe, you know, “an’ ‘ey all talk like dis.” You know what I mean? We have this idea of who an enslaved person was; it’s completely wrong. You know, cause not only did people have, when they first came here, they had a whole history, right? But then as soon as people are having to do XYZ and, they’re all living different lives, you know?
And there are all these really interesting interactions with the people who owned them, but that they’re synthesizing. And that’s the stuff that I could just go on for days. Cause that’s… those are the blocks that our culture is built out of, is that stuff.
KW: So with your work, you don’t just recover and preserve knowledge by singing older songs. You also recover it by producing new ones. So, what knowledge and perspective do you hope might be recovered through your music?
RG: Well, I’m always just…I always just want to think about people’s stories. You know, it’s like a man kills one person, he’s put in jail; he kills a million, he’s put in house arrest, right? And it’s like, we have an inability when we have big numbers to feel empathy for that. It’s just too big. It overwhelms our senses. So when you think about something like slavery, it’s like, people are like, “yeah, yeah, slavery was bad.” And I’m like, “Mm…that’s not enough.” You know, there are like millions of different individual stories and how people were affected is as individual as they were, you know?
And so I always am driven by the stories from that time, because they’re incomprehensible to us in some ways. And I think that’s important, too, it’s important to know that something that was so incomprehensible was so common and was so accepted. And so that’s where I find for me the, those kinds of moments of disconnect, of like, you know, like the ad in the paper for a person, like, you know, can we just like think about that for a second? Like an ad for a person or human being. You know, it’s like trying to put a face to these things in a way that can connect emotionally to someone. And so it’s not just, “Oh, slavery.” It’s “I see this person going through this thing.” There were profound psychological implications for this that people don’t think about. And that’s the stuff that we live with today.
So before I got into the banjo, um, I was doing kind…was into Celtic music, you know, and the whole narrative tradition in the British Isles. And when I started getting into, you know, Black history and American history, I started thinking, you know, where are our narrative ballads that tell these stories?
And I know that it’s not…it’s a different…the way that stories are told in a lot of like West African cultures and stuff is not…it doesn’t necessarily go narrative like that. You know? So I, I get that, but I was also just thinking, people couldn’t even write that stuff. They couldn’t write those songs because they would have been killed.
So I started thinking, you know, in a “what if?” Kind of like, I mean, sci-fi basically, but like historical sci-fi, you know, recreations of non-existent Black narrative ballads about Black life.
KW: Could you give us a specific example of that with a song that does that kind of work?
RG: Yeah, for sure. Like, so I was mentioning like the whole idea of an ad, you know, for a human being. And so, I’ve often been inspired by oral histories, but in this case I was inspired by, you know, a piece of the culture that goes around with slavery because we forget slavery was the capitalist system, right? So it’s a financial thing. It’s advertising, it’s sales, it’s all those horrible things. They’re bad enough with inanimate objects, but then you add that with people and it’s just horrendous.
And it was an ad for a young woman who was for sale. And I’d seen a few of these, but this one in particular said she has with her a nine month old baby who’s at the purchaser’s option…
(Musical excerpt from “At The Purchaser’s Option”)
…And that just blew me away. I mean, it’s like, you can read about it all day long and then it’s, sometimes it’s just one line that just kind of goes all over you, you know?
And that’s what happened. I was just like, Oh God, you know, when the reality of what that line meant–You have no control over your own life, your own body, your bodily autonomy, right? Which we know what that means as women, Black women particularly. And then she has no control over her children.
Like, these are fundamental human rights, you know, that she has none of. And for me it’s always been about not just the horror of whatever it is, but it’s always about the…the survival and the thriving outside of that, you know, because that’s our story.
Our story is not that this stuff was put upon us. Our story is that we did amazing things in spite of these obstacles that were put in our way. And I think that how we get shortchanged because that’s not how it’s taught, You know, every song that I write, like this one, the chorus is, “you can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood, but not my soul.”
I mean, ultimately that’s what she has, you know, and whether you’d look at it in a Judeo-Christian context or you look at it in a spiritual, you know, animistic context or any other kind of religious, you know, whatever, that’s the truth of it. How do you find the strength of will to survive that? So in every story, it’s not just what’s happening, but it’s also like, how do we move through that? You know?
KW: So that song is “At the Purchaser’s Option” and I assign that in the first part of the African-American History Survey at the very beginning, when we’re talking about the process of enslavement and how enslaved people try to resist it and how they experience it. And when students listen to it, they always pick up on those lines about, there are things that she can’t control, but she can control her soul.
And that matters within this larger system of bondage. And so students, they get that and it resonates with them so much so that they bring it up later in the semester. And so they get your music at two points in the semester–at the very beginning, and at the very end. And so they get it again with the song “Julie,” and that’s from your 2017 album, “Freedom Highway.” And I have students listen to it when we get to the Civil War, and we discuss how it illustrates how the war and the arrival of union forces changes the nature of that dance of domination and resistance between enslavers and the people they hold in bondage.
And so I’m wondering, can you tell us a little bit about the story behind “Julie,” where you found it and what you want listeners to think and feel and know about the story?
RG: Yeah, that was, that’s an important one for me, ‘cause that’s the first one that I wrote. I was still in the middle of doing stuff with the Chocolate Drops and I was starting to write these songs and kind of just hold them to me, ‘cause there just wasn’t a space for them at the, at the moment, when I wrote them and I was just kind of a bit protective of them, you know?
Um, so I’d written that some years before I recorded it on “Freedom Highway,” but it was, it’s from a book, uh, called The Slaves’ War by Andrew Ward. And it was, you know, a conversation that was really, it was several layers, you know, of, of telephone here. But there’s so much about it, that rings so true.
There’s a conversation overheard between an enslaver and the woman that she thought she owned about, you know, hiding of this silver plate. And so often people who owned these plantations would try to hide the valuables in the slave cabins thinking that the Union army wouldn’t bother them. And for a while it worked and then they figured it out and whatever.
But she’s asking this woman, you know, if we give you this plate, will you claim that it’s yours? And she says, you know, well it actually is because you sold like three of my children to buy this plate.
(Musical excerpt from “Julie”)
And that line, it was…I’m still getting chills, thinking about. It went all over me. And I was like, I can’t even, I don’t even, I don’t even know how we made it through that time. I mean, it’s just, it’s so heavy. And that notion really stuck with me, and the notion of that woman being…just saying that and just being…it’s dark. You know and then the white woman not understanding why this woman has an issue, you know, and like those two things. And, you know, I just started thinking about how the system is terrible for everyone. Obviously it’s worse for some, but it’s a crappy system.
To dehumanize somebody, you have to dehumanize yourself first. And they don’t even realize that. I mean, this is all like thinking about it afterwards. I just wrote the song, you know what I mean? But I think it was important to show it as–there were two things that I remember from that time–it’s important to show it as a conversation, to show both sides, not to hold them up as equal, but to show that people bring where they’re coming from and it doesn’t make it right, but it’s just to show that. And then also to show, you know, that idea of what is this worth, you know, and those three children were everything to this woman, but they were worth, you know, some silver plate to this other woman. And that’s, that’s all the difference that we need.
And then the other thing was that I wanted Julie to have a name. And I didn’t want the other woman to have a name, because so often it’s the other way around. So that was the one concrete thing that I also remember from writing “Julie.”
And Julie has come up again. It’s so funny, Julie has been with me. She actually planted herself in this opera that I’m writing about Omar ibn Said. It’s so funny ‘cause like, there’s no character in his life that I know of like this. Um, but we don’t know…there’s so much we don’t know about his life, and all of a sudden I was like “Julie said,” and I was like, “What? Where’d Julie come from?” I was like, “All right, I guess you can come in here, too.” And she’s an awesome character. So I’m like, Julie seems to be, you know, riding with me and that’s cool.
KW: I like the idea of letting figures from the past guide me because I think that they know better than I do. And so I find that in my work on survivors of racist violence after, um, after slavery that they plant themselves in my mind and I just say, “okay, you’ve got this, you know, exactly where to take me.“ So I, so I get that.
RG: Ah, so interesting. I was thinking about this the other day. I almost kind of like hate hearing applause sometimes because, for something like “Julie” or “…Purchaser’s Option,” you know, sometimes I’m really in that space where I am feeling like it is coming through me.
And then at the end, I’m just like, I just want to like, don’t, you know? Like, can we just like move on to the next thing? You know, it almost feels like a sacred thing and not like a…here, pay me to do this performance, you know?
I do feel that, and it’s, it is something that, uh, I feel very grateful for because it keeps me… that is something that keeps me grounded even though it’s difficult and it does weary me, um, because of the psychic energy that it takes, but it grounds me, I think, in an industry that’s very ungrounded.
The musical industry is just not a healthy one, I think. Um, and to be doing what I do really is a mission to try to be ferrying..I’m ferrying things, or I do sometimes feel like I open my mouth and that is something else coming out, you know?
And it feels that way when I write those songs. And it’s a little scary sometimes. Um, but I mean, at this point I feel like it’s a…it’s a complete honor to, to be a vehicle for these stories. Like that voice wanted to be heard. Okay, you know?
KW: Going into the archive like you do for stories or for songs like “Julie” and “At the Purchaser’s Option,” it means encountering these, these really hard truths about the past. Are there things you do to anchor yourself?
RG: It’s been really hard. Um, you know, when I was doing, I was doing a lot of gigs and every night I’m talking about minstrelsy, coon songs, slavery, you know, like in a way that is educational and shocking sometimes, but not too much. And you know, it’s that dance you have to walk. And I ultimately am an entertainer and all this kind of stuff and mostly white audiences–what does that mean? And, and it was really exhausting. I was finding myself, you know, singing “…Purchaser’s Option” every night…and what I found, other than that I needed a break, which COVID, um, handed me on a silver platter, I suppose…
But what I found was so many strong, amazing women, you know, like for me, a moment that kind of rejuvenated me was singing “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” but like Ethel Waters’ version, you know, and talking about Ethel and being Ethel for that three and a half minutes and like sassing basically, the audience, and just like taking all that emotion and kind of putting it in there as her character. I found that that was really interesting. And in the lockdown I’ve been focusing on music, you know, like Alberta Hunter and, you know, Bessie and just trying to take in the triumphs, the wins, cause there’s so many losses. There’s so many losses, you know?
And trying to learn more and more about, like I just learned about, um, Mary Seacole. I was like, how did I not know about this woman and Elizabeth Keckley? And, you know, just really deepening my own understanding outside of music, you know, of our history, that puts me in a better place. Um, cause when it’s going out, it can really deplete, you know, cause it’s, it’s pretty heavy stuff.
KW: Your songs are beautiful. They sound beautiful on their own, but there’s even more to them, I think, if you know what you’re listening for. And so do you have specific ideas about what people should be listening for in your work?
RG: No. I think my favorite thing is just people coming to it. You know? I mean, contextualizing is never a bad thing, you know, and I think when I do it in the shows, I’m happy to sometimes…just a few sentences ahead of time can really enhance your listening experience, but it shouldn’t have to have that. A good song shouldn’t have to have any of that.
So I’m always interested in what people think when they don’t know anything about it. And I’m interested in how people talk about it and what, you know, they ascribe my motives as all sorts of things sometimes, you know, um, to the song that aren’t always right, but that’s okay because that’s, you know, that’s what happens. You put a song out and it gets consumed as it gets consumed, but I just…all I would love is for people to just kind of make them want to know more and maybe do some digging.
But, um…I’m happiest when it inspires people to maybe, you know, pick up a book or dig a little deeper, or just think about the whole thing in a different way. You know, that’s what that’s all I’m trying to do is just put some, some faces and some emotion to some of this stuff.
(Musical excerpt from “Better Git Yer Learnin’”)
KW: The history in a song like “Better Git Yer Learnin’” is so specific. You sing about people being punished for teaching enslaved people to read and the importance of literacy in the fight to be free. So could you tell us about the process behind creating a song like that?
RG: Yeah, that was really interesting. Um, that was again my kind of thought of, okay, there are these minstrel songs and they’re purporting to be about Black life. Obviously, they’re not, you know, it’s white folks dressed up in black skins. And even though the music itself is in part coming from Black culture, you know, that’s an important piece that often gets lost when people talk about minstrelsy. And so I’ve been trying to push back the tide on that, but in terms of the writing, it’s pretty horrific stuff.
The words and the verses and all that stuff. And I was like, well, what if, you know, what if somebody actually wrote this about the actual Black experience? So that was kind of my thought experiment. And I threw out all the words and kind of, you know, cast it as an older guy, sort of talking to the, you know, the wee ones.
Cause you know, when you read about right after emancipation, the overwhelming thing you get is that newly freed people wanted education and everybody was aware of lifting the race and doing things for the, you know, the good of the race. And we’ve got to, you know, and then there was arguments about how to do that. It should be more like the Europeans. No, we should accept blah, blah, blah. You know, but the overwhelming thing and people were going for teachers, they’re going through unbearable racism and hearing. They’re trying to get training so they can come back home and teach people and all this kind of stuff.
And thinking about the schools that were, one of them was like bombed was, you know, pretty much firebombed, you know, and the teachers like who were given nothing, dying of disease and, you know, putting, being put up in these shacks with no heat. I mean, every step of the way was like, You need a hundred percent to, to even get to this next level. Here’s 20, you know?
And it just really made me think about how we have allowed that to not be our focus anymore, you know, and what that’s done to our understanding of our own history. And so I just, I thought about like, what was going on at that time that we don’t ever talk about. You know, and then of course the end, I mean, I never expected to really put it out on anything, you know, it was literally like this maybe will help a teacher somewhere.
That’s literally what I was thinking when I wrote it. And then when the Native Daughters record came, I was like, well, maybe this is a good fit for this, you know, but it’s the last first, that’s the most important, you know, if we can’t read, the white folks, they’ll write the show and if we can’t read, we’ll never know.
And I’m like people, this is it. You know? Um, notwithstanding all the excellent white scholars who’ve done great work in this area and who I love and have their books, but, we all know what I’m saying with that with that verse. So.
KW: We do. So in both “You Are Not Alone” and “Music and Joy” from Our Native Daughters, both of these songs, center connection with history, specifically the ancestors. What do you think we gain from calling down the ones who came before with “Music and Joy”?
RG: Oh, it’s just like, we have to. I just, like, I feel ridden, but in a positive way. Like, there’s so many voices and they’re all clamoring, you know, and they’re all just like, it’s like, uh, I mean, every song that you’ve mentioned, every song that I’ve written in that way, you know, I’ve written songs in other ways, but those ones have all come through, not from, you know? And I think it is always imperative to call upon the ancestors in all that we do really, but especially in this work, because we are telling their stories.
And it’s not to say that our stories don’t count, they do, but there’s such a great wrong that has to be addressed and we’re still so far down that I don’t think I matter, except as a vessel to tell these stories. And I think that’s okay, you know? I think it’s okay. And yeah, I mean, it’s definitely a connection I had with the other native daughters, that we all do that and we all feel that in our music. And so I think that was why it was a powerful coming together.
(Musical excerpt from “Music & Joy”)
KW: Rhiannon Giddens is a musician and musical scholar. She’s currently writing an Opera we can’t wait to hear. We put together a playlist of the songs we discussed today. Just go to seizingfreedom.com/episodes and select this interview.
Next week on Seizing Freedom: part two of our series on Making a Living. We’ll continue the story of what work looked like after emancipation, how labor organization took shape during Reconstruction, and what people got up to in their spare time:
Leola B. Pettigrew: I had already cut a peephole in the wall so I could watch the dancers in the back room. I remember the Slow Drag, of course, that was very popular. Then, they did the Fanny Bump, Buzzard Lope, Fish Tail, Eagle Rock, Itch, Shimmy, Squat, Grind, Moche, Funky Butt, and a million others.
About The Guest
The acclaimed musician Rhiannon Giddens uses her art to excavate the past and reveal bold truths about our present. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Giddens co-founded the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, and she has been nominated for six additional Grammys for her work as a soloist and collaborator.
She was most recently nominated for her collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, there is no Other (2019). Giddens’ forthcoming album, They’re Calling Me Home, is a twelve-track album, recorded with Turrisi in Ireland during the recent lockdown; it speaks of the longing for the comfort of home as well as the metaphorical “call home” of death, which has been a tragic reality for so many during the COVID-19 crisis.
Giddens’s lifelong mission is to lift up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been erased, and to work toward a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins. Pitchfork has said of her work, “few artists are so fearless and so ravenous in their exploration,” and Smithsonian Magazine calls her “an electrifying artist who brings alive the memories of forgotten predecessors, white and black.”
Among her many diverse career highlights, Giddens has performed for the Obamas at the White House, served as a Carnegie Hall Perspectives curator, and received an inaugural Legacy of Americana Award from Nashville’s National Museum of African American History in partnership with the Americana Music Association. Her critical acclaim includes in-depth profiles by CBS Sunday Morning, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and NPR’s Fresh Air, among many others.
Giddens is featured in Ken Burns’s Country Music series, which aired on PBS in 2019, where she speaks about the African American origins of country music. She is also a member of the band Our Native Daughters with three other black female banjo players, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah, and co-produced their debut album Songs of Our Native Daughters (2019), which tells stories of historic black womanhood and survival.
Named Artistic Director of Silkroad Ensemble in 2020, Giddens is developing a number of new programs for that ensemble, including one inspired by the history of the American transcontinental railroad and the cultures and music of its builders. She recently wrote the music for an original ballet, Lucy Negro Redux, for Nashville Ballet (premiered in 2019), and the libretto and music for an original opera, Omar, based on the autobiography of the enslaved man Omar Ibn Said for the Spoleto USA Festival (premieres in 2022).
The following playlist includes full versions of the songs excerpted in this episode:
- Andrew Ward – The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves
- Cecelia Conway – African Banjo Echoes In Appalachia: Study Folk Traditions
- Dena J. Epstein – Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War
- Old Hat Records – Folks, He Sure Do Pull Some Bow! Vintage Fiddle Music, 1927-1935
- Old Hat Records – Violin, Sing The Blues For Me: African-American Fiddlers, 1926-1949