Rhiannon Giddens on African American Contributions to Music

Rhiannon Giddens is a folk singer and multi-instrumentalist who also happens to be a classically trained opera singer. Having grown up in North Carolina, she’s now on a mission to re-frame the history of African Americans and their contributions to the musical landscape. Giddens sits down with Walter to discuss her latest album, “There Is No Other,” and play a little banjo.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: we turn now to the award-winning musical polymath Rhiannon Giddens, a folk singer and multi-instrumentalist. Giddens grew up in North Carolina. And she’s also a classically trained opera singer. She’s on a mission to reframe the history of African- Americans and their contributions to the musical landscape. A quest that is already won her a Macarthur Genius Grant. Rhiannon sat down with our Walter Isaacson to discuss her latest album “There Is No Other” and to play some banjo.


WALTER ISAACSON, CONTRIBUTOR: You have this amazing new album called “There Is No Other” and it’s about diversity and different strains coming together. First, let me ask you about your own personal ancestry.

RHIANNON GIDDENS, MUSICIAN: You know my parents got married in North Carolina. Interracial couple, got married, not — but three — maybe three years after the loving decision —

ISAACSON: In other words, that t allowed interracial marriage in North Carolina.

GIDDENS: Yes. I grew up kind of going back and forth between my white side and my black side. And then kind of as the years have pass, you hear these hints of stories about Indian blood and this and that and kind of going all right. And then I started kind of getting interested in that side of things.

ISAACSON: So Native American background you had, too.

GIDDENS: Native American, yes. And so I got myself got interested in that side of things at the high school that I went to. There’s a Native American drumming group there and a powwow that happens every year. And so I learned how to sing powwow songs and, you know, really just kind of explored that for my own self.

ISAACSON: Where is this?

GIDDENS: This is in — this was in Durham, North Carolina.

ISAACSON: Durham, North Carolina.

GIDDENS: North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.

ISAACSON: Because you have Greensboro, William, and Durham, quite a few of North Carolina roots in you. How does it all come together and what are you trying to do by bringing them together with this album?

GIDDENS: I kind of feel like I represent, you know, a lot of the south, which is a mixture of black, white, and native elements. We’re not quite sure exactly what comes from what. Sometimes we are and sometimes we’re not, and that’s kind of how my, you know, my roots are. And I don’t like to — that’s why I kind of — I’m not looking for any kind of validation or claim a particular kind of this or that. It’s kind of like well, I’m a mix. And I think the best of American music comes from that aspect of the mixture. And so that’s kind of what I’ve been doing with my music in America, like, looking particularly at the African-American heart of things. Because in the music that I’ve been interested in, it’s been sort of suppressed. The true role of black Americans and the creation of some of these things like, you know, country music, all time music, bluegrass, you know, things at the heart of lot of what is really American. And so I’ve been doing that for some years and this record, you know, “There Is No Other,”it was an opportunity to place that in a global context.

ISAACSON: And it talks about the ties that bind us, as well.

GIDDENS: Exactly. So, you know, when I met Francesco, who was my musical partner, who I did the record with, he’s from Italy, very similar story to mine. I went to classical school and learned how to sing opera and then kind of came back to my roots in North Carolina. And, you know, he went to conservatory and kind of went back to the folk music of his folks, which should be the Mediterranean. And his family is from Sicily. And, you know, his journey has been trying to, you know, talk about how mixed that area is and how you wouldn’t say have the renaissance without the years of Arabic domination of Spain, of Sicily, of all these areas. You have this incredible influx of cultural elements from somewhere else that then transform to what was already there. And so that’s what I’ve been talking about on my side of things. So we basically kind of just met across the Atlantic Ocean and found out that there’s actually a lot of similarities and parallels in what we’re both doing. And so that’s kind of what we’ve done is put our musics together.

ISAACSON: So I saw you in the Ken Burns documentary on country music. And we think of country music as sort of a white genre. And you’ve helped resurrect the roots of country music for many diverse backgrounds including the African-American one.

GIDDENS: Well, I mean I’m, you know, and a handful of people who’ve really been trying to change the narrative or restore the narrative. Because really, it has been a crafted thing and as I’ve been researching what I find is that it didn’t happen by accident. This idea that the banjo is a white instrument, that country is this, you know, base of pure white culture. Because that’s what it’s sold as. And so when I first got into folk music and found the origins of the banjo being African-American, I was like what, then I kind of started going whatelse don’t I know? And that’s really kind of what started me down the path, you know, which is why I’m sitting in front of you today. It’s kind of led me to everything that I feel like is meaningful in what I do with my music because it’s not just a music issue. It’s a real cultural issue. And what we’re finding today is that people feel really divided and they feel like, you know, I’m not like them and they’re not like us. But when you look at the music of America, you find that this is a place where we all came together and created this beautiful thing. But if you rewrite history and take out one of the pillars of this, it’s not like African-Americans influenced people. They did but they’re also one of the main pillars of this. That can’t be stated strongly enough. That without African-Americans, without black string band music, without the banjo, country music, as we know it, would not exist.

ISAACSON: And this goes back to the 1850s where African-Americans were leading in the banjo movement.

GIDDENS: Well, it goes back way before that. I mean, the banjo comes from the 1700s. You’ve got the banjo coming up from the Caribbean. You know, up until the 1840s, ’30s only black people played the banjo. So it’s only in 1830s that white entertainers start to take it and perform with it and it becomes kind of an inextricable part of the show. And that’s one of the reasons why we don’t engage with this because, you know, despite the fact that it was the most popular form of entertainment in America for over 50 or 60 years, people want to forget it. You know, except for when it pops up with people who are in black face. Even today. It’s a really — it’s woven into our cultural in so many different ways and we just have to kind of come to grips with that in a way that is informed. You know, there’s a lot of knee jerk reactions from somebody. But at the heart of it is American music. It’s the music that kind of goes in. It’s a combination of African, European, all of these kind of things go into what became instrumental music. So what happens in Ken’s documentary, Ken Burns’ country music documentary is a piece of it and it’s a really important piece but there’s like a mountain under that, that we’re trying to grapple with.

ISAACSON: When you first got interested in square dancing, did you know that it had been sort of created as a white genre by people like Henry Ford and were you trying to rescue the roots of square dancing?

GIDDENS: I mean I had no idea. I mean, square dancing, you know, it was – – I learned it in middle school. This is part of this whole thing to, you know, as this is America’s dance or whatever. By America, we mean white America. And so I never thought it had anything to do with me, you know. And so when I started calling contra dances a square, I kind of felt like, you know, we like to say I was the raisin in the oatmeal. I was used to being the only one and felt like I was sort of inserting myself in somebody else’s tradition.

ISAACSON: But you felt you were black. You say you were on both sides.

GIDDENS: This is the reality of being, you know, biracial in America or whatever, you know, southern is that it’s the shifting thing. It’s a target that you can’t ever really catch down because some people treat me this way, some people treat me this way. When I’m here, I feel this way. When I’m here, I feel this way. And so I fluidly have followed that, you know. Now, I feel like I’m North Carolinian, I’m southern. But back then, I mean it’s really hard. You kind of have to try to. So even though it’s a legacy that is mine just by right of being southern, I still of kind felt — and then also I don’t look like anybody else. There, you know. So there’s just realities to that. But I got it too because I loved it. And I love the banjo and I love the sound. And then as I started to find the history, I went wow, you know. And then I found out that, oh, black people probably invented calling. Wow, that we played for these dances. Wow. Like we had a huge piece of creating what has been set aside as this ethnically pure white thing. And I’m like this is is a problem because the actual truth is actually way more interesting and it’s actually more indicative of who we are as a people. Like, people up here whose best interest it is to keep us divided, they don’t want us to know this stuff. You know, because then it just makes us kind of oh, then actually we outnumbered them, wait a minute, you know. And this has been the conflict of the south since the very beginning, is keeping all the poor people, all the working class people at each other’s throats through the invention of race. And that has been expressed through music. So I’m a musician, so it’s the only way I can fight that is through knowing the history and doing it through music.

ISAACSON: You have an 1850s replica banjo there. Show it to us and show us some of the roots of the music that you can do with that banjo.

GIDDENS: So for me, this is a lot closer to — you know, I studied some pre-banjo instruments in West Africa and, to me, this is a lot closer to that than, you know, say the modern bluegrass banjo. So when I picked it up, I kind of — I felt an affinity for it. And for the majority of the banjos’ life, this is what the banjo sounded like. It’s deep and resonate, which is very different to what people think of as the banjo.

ISAACSON: So show me some Hillbilly roots that you would do on the banjo.

GIDDENS: Well, it’s interesting because there are things that, you know, instrumental style, playing was called stroke style. It’s called claw hammer today.

ISAACSON: Very percussive.

GIDDENS: Oh, yes, banjo is very percussive. Take off the stick, you have a drum, right. And they think — there’s an idea that the way that they did this came from a frame drum or the tambourine, but that’s — it’s unsubstantiated.

ISAACSON: So what other influences go in? We have the Hillbilly. Tell us about some of the influences that go into banjo playing.

GIDDENS: Well, I mean Hillbilly is a term that, you know, became used as a way to try to — you know, if you talk about Hillbilly, it’s like — it’s people who lived in the mountains and they were from all over. There’s a lot of (inaudible), there’s a lot of this but there was up to 20 percentAfrican-American. And the idea of the music being, you know, untouched for hundreds of years in the mountains, it’s kind of not a thing really. I mean nobody is isolated. You know, people are more isolated than others and there is music that definitely survived in the mountains longer than in other places, but it’s kind of been taken as a thing, you know. And sort of this mythology has been — has grown around it. So what goes into this early music is European dance forms, African, you know, tunes and rhythms. Not just rhythms, there’s lots of tunes.

ISAACSON: Show me a little African influence there.

GIDDENS: I mean, it’s hard — it’s really hard to say. There’s just things that I do feel and I play. There’s a lot of techniques that are still on this old banjo tunes that have been kind of whittled out when you start getting into later what we think of as Appalachian music on different kind of banjos. So I am finding these kind of oh, wow that feels like, you know, it’s all feelings.

ISAACSON: It feels like African, it feels like —

GIDDENS: It feels like — you know, especially when I approach things, you know, in that way, I’m like oh, I can really hear this upstroke and this offbeat and all of this kind of stuff really starts to come out of this really early instrumental music. And I just think there’s so many connections there that are still to be found, you know, still need to be studied. And, I mean, I’m not a scholar, I’m an amateur historian but through just playing these things and coming from learning old time music from an older black string band musician, you know, I learned from Joe Thompson who was 87, who was the last living link to that old southern black tradition and we know that he is an indirect line from a famous black string band musician in Craig Johnson from the 1800s. You know, it’s a direct lineage from Frank Johnson to me. And so having that kind of vibe and then approaching these tunes, I feel like, has brought a different way of looking at them than say just sort of an academic way.

ISAACSON: And you create the Carolina Chocolate Drops as a banjo band, in a way, to help resurrect and play with the music.

GIDDENS: Yes. I’m a cofounder of that band along with Don Phlegmens and Justin Robinson. It all came out of us going and playing with Joe Thompson. Playing with him on Thursday nights and sort of absorbing his family’s music. And, you know, I played the banjo because Joe would never play without a banjo player. So I said well, I’ll play banjo and Justin played fiddle and Don played guitar. And we just kind of absorbed as much as we could. You know, it’s a different kind of conservatory.

ISAACSON: Show me something you did with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

GIDDENS: I wouldn’t have played this banjo back then.


ISAACSON: Some of the things you resurrected were painful, especially the Wilmington massacre, which has sort of also been forgotten in history a little bit. Tell me —

GIDDENS: A little bit? A lot of it. I mean I’m from North Carolina and we didn’t learn this in school. It’s astonishing that we did not learn this. It should be taught nationally. It’s the only coup on American soil and this is huge.

ISAACSON: Tell me about it.

GIDDENS: So what happened was in Wilmington, you had — in 1898, you had a fairly progressive idea of you had black middle class wealth, you had blacks and whites working together, and most importantly, you had a political party where you had whites and blacks working together and that’s what people didn’t like. So the ruling sort of, I guess, you know, the white supremacists, basically, you know, did not like this. And so they did a campaign. They used the KKK, you know, campaign of intimidation, kind of the usual thing, the year leading up to the elections. People got a bunch of guns and they just shot, they shot people. They ran prominent black and white citizens out of town, never to be allowed to return. They shot a lot of black people just in the streets or some ran off into the swamps and petrified and died of exposure. I mean it was an awful chapter in our history and then it was completely covered up, like, it never happened.

ISAACSON: So what are you going to do with that music?

GIDDENS: I mean I would like to make a piece of art out of the — it’s not even just so much, I mean, the massacre is a horrible thing, the act of violence. But what I want to focus on is, you know, the idea of what we had, you know. It was possible. You know, the idea that we could live in harmony at that time, that if that had been not stopped in its tracks, you know, what could have led to, you know. And the fact that the federal government didn’t do a darn thing, I mean — so I think the idea of highlighting the beauty and feeling the heartbreak that that was destroyed, rather than focusing on the act of the destruction.

ISAACSON: So what will it be?

GIDDENS: I’m not sure yet. I mean I think a stage production would be amazing. You know, I’m still kind of figuring it out because John Jeremiah Sullivan has been working on this research for years and I know he’s working on a piece.

ISAACSON: He wrote The New Yorker piece.

GIDDENS: He write The New Yorker Piece. Yes. And that’s how I learned about the massacre because he lives in Wilmington. And so I know, you know, we’ll be working on whatever it is together because he — I mean he’s just — his research has just been unbelievable. And he’s finding out a lot of really important things about it. So I think it’s going to be an important thing to discuss, especially now we’ve got the 1619 project. A lot of people have been really grappling with where we are, where we’ve come from. And I think these things from the past that aren’t that long ago, when you look at it, can really be — you know, when you grapple with them in an artistic way and get people emotionally invested, you can really make a difference talking about what is happening now. You know, because then you can see more clearly, you know, the traces.

ISAACSON: Thank you so much.

GIDDENS: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Peter Frankopan and Malte Herwig join Christiane Amanpour to discuss Peter Handke’s controversial Nobel Prize win. Artist Grayson Perry showcases his latest exhibition “Super Rich Interior Decoration.” Rhiannon Giddens pulls out her banjo for Walter Isaacson to illustrate the rich history of the instrument in American music. WARNING: This episode contains graphic images.