Skip to main navigation Skip to content

Description

Singer, instrumentalist, and folk historian Rhiannon Giddens is on a musical mission, to remind us of what we all share. Regardless of who we are or where we’re from.

Transcript

There’s a worldly southerner who ditched opera to make music that is influenced by a wide range of folk traditions from around the globe. Rhiannon Giddens is an accomplished singer, banjo player, and violinist who’s won everything from Grammys to the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass, and the so-called MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Born in North Carolina to a guitar-playing white father and an African-American mother, a risky marriage in the 1970s, Rhiannon Giddens sang songs in her crib, she joined youth choirs, and later she trained at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. But that, it turned out, was just a detour. 

Rhiannon Giddens: I kinda felt like, “God, there’s a million sopranos who can sing as well or better than I can, and who can do these things, and that’s all they wanna do all day long. I kinda wanna do other things.” So where am I gonna make an impact at something that I’m bringing something unique to?

After college, Giddens became more interested in the diverse roots of Appalachian music. At a festival in the early 2000s, she met an 86-year-old fiddler who would reroute her life. Joe Thompson’s rediscovered repertoire shaped the sound of the old-time string band Giddens helped form in 2005: The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

(Performance of “Trouble in Your Mind”)

Don’t get trouble in your mind

Don’t get trouble in your mind

Don’t get trouble in your mind

Don’t get trouble in your mind 

Giddens: So, I spent however many years in a chair playing banjo in a string band, and that experience really counterweighted the being in a costume and singing and sort of being, “It’s all about the voice and it’s all about me.” I just realized that I really liked that better, you know? I liked the service, I liked playing for school shows and educating, I liked playing for dances. I used to play for square dances, contra dances, I used to call contra dances, you know? And that feeling of being in service to someone else, I mean, Joe’s whole life before the war was a function musician. He and his brother and then later his cousin, they played for the dances in the area, and then when that disappeared, the TV took over, then he found a second life as a performer. But it was still in the educational kind of capacity. He’s like, this is what I used to play for my community. And for me, that was just what I needed to feel like I’m doing something important here.

(Performance of “Country Girl”)

I was raised in the country, that’s a natural fact

Food on the table from the garden out back

Everyone working to make the land their own

Red clay cracking where the silver queen grows

Running with your cousins from yard to yard

The living was easy but the playing was hard

Didn’t have much, nothing comes for free

All you needed was your family

In 2010, the Carolina Chocolate Drops won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Success brought their message to a national audience, reminding people that Appalachia has always been a place where cultures cross and blend, and where music was never monolithic.

Giddens: ‘Cause I saw the damage that that false narrative of us versus them, you do that music, we do this music. We never really interacted. You lived here, I lived here. And that’s all not true. It’s like country music is country music ’cause it’s music of people from the country. Up to 20% of people in Appalachia were black before The Great Migration. We had black string banjo, we had white string banjo, occasionally mixed bands but not very often, and everybody played a common southern repertoire. Everybody played “Leather Britches”, everybody played these songs. They weren’t colorized.

(Performance of “Brown Baby”)

Brown baby

Brown baby

As you grow up

I want you to drink from the plenty cup

I want you to stand up tall and proud

And I want you to speak up clear and loud

You little brown baby

When Giddens started playing folk music nearly two decades ago, she was often the only African-American in the room. Today she understands how an institutional philosophy of divide and conquer was designed to keep poor whites and poor blacks from uniting.

Giddens: So, the system was set up like this from the very, very beginning. You got plantation owners writing each other, going, this is how you keep your blacks and your poor whites at each other’s throats. People did this on purpose. And the idea of notion of white as a thing is for this reason, and this is the problem. This is the problem that has not been talked about is that when this system is in full effect, the very people who think they’re gonna benefit from it don’t, because there’s still the economic layers that people don’t wanna admit. So, you have poor whites in Appalachia, you have poor whites in the South, they have more in common with the black folk down the street, but they’ve been told that if they buy into this American dream, they too can step out. 

AJC: There’s room at the top.

Giddens: And the people at the top are like, “That’s what you think.” And it’s never gonna happen.

(Performance of “Wayfaring Stranger”)

I am a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through this world alone

There is no sickness, toil, nor danger

In that fair land to which I go

I’m going home to see my mother

I’m going home no more to roam

I’m just going over Jordan

I’m just going over home

Giddens is still a musical explorer, now working with a larger map. Her latest project is a collaboration with the Italian composer and multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. They take a sound journey through African-American, South American, European, and Arabic territory. Their critically acclaimed album is called, There Is No Other.

AJC: Conventional wisdom will have it that there are plenty of others and that we all need to get along. Is this a representation of a change in mind for you?

Giddens: It’s just a confirmation of what I’ve always felt. There’s different ways of looking at it. It’s not to say that we aren’t diverse. It’s not to say that we don’t have different ways of expressing things from culture to culture, but when you really get into the underlying sort of sentiment, the underlying experiences, they are all the same, you know? Whether you’re here, or 3,000 miles away, or on the other side of the globe, you’re gonna experience the same things as anybody else. Now the way that you express that in your music’s gonna be different, but then when you look at the story of the human race, the story of the movement of culture, there actually is a lot of commonalities even in the sounds, you know? Things that seem very diverse, when you play them together you’re like, oh, actually, the core is the same. And so it’s not an attempt to erase diversity because that is an indelible part of our world. But in the way that race is an artificial construct and genetically we’re exactly the same, we just present differently, I feel like love and heartbreak is love and heartbreak, is love and heartbreak.

This thinking is exemplified in the Middle Eastern influences she and Turrisi bring to the Italian folk song, “Pizzica di San Vito”, lest we forget how geographically and culturally close those regions are. Rhiannon Giddens could’ve been a classical singer or a pop star, which might’ve been easier then excavating music and reviving what she digs up, but singing and strumming means something more to Giddens than mere entertainment.

Giddens: I mean, all I can say is that I have enough people after each show saying, “Don’t stop talking about the history.” They say this to me specifically ’cause I’m always kinda worried, you know, am I talking too much? I have tried to pick my battles, but I have enough people saying, “This is changing the way that I’m looking at this. What you’re doing even just by existing has inspired me to do X, Y, and Z.” And I don’t know what percentage that is of my overall, you know. If it’s a fraction, that’s fine because what is the alternative? I can only hope that I can add to the conversation in a positive way, and that I’m doing it because I wanna be able to sleep at night.  

(Performance of “I’m On My Way”)

I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way

Lord, if you love me, keep me I pray

A little bird is stretching out

On the shimmering, shaking blue

I don’t know where I’m going but I know what to do

I don’t know where I’m going but I know what to do

I don’t know where I’m going but I know what to do