April 01, 2022

Rhiannon Giddens

Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens discusses what her journey from opera to Black string band music taught her about her own identity, her mission to reclaim the true history of the banjo, and how her “American music” transcends genres.

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MH: A musical journey and its revelations, This week on Firing Line.  A child of a multi-racial family in North Carolina, she wrestled with her own identity before finding a home in music. Rhiannon Giddens’ first love was opera… Until she picked up the banjo, and uncovered its true roots. Giddens honored the Black string band tradition when she co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and won a Grammy. Now, she’s using the power of song to embrace America’s full history. From slavery, to the civil rights movement, to police brutality… 

 

Music “Young man was a good man. Never played the fool”

So can music help strum together our shared story? 

Music: “Young man was a good man. Never had no drama”

What does Rhiannon Giddens say now? 

‘Firing Line’ with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by: Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation, The David Tepper Charitable Foundation Inc, The Fairweather Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation and by, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Damon Button and The Simmons Family Foundation. Corporate Funding is provided by Stevens Inc. and Pfizer inc.

Music:“Young man was a good man. Always took care of his mama”

 

HOOVER Rhiannon Giddens, welcome to Firing Line. 

GIDDENS Hi, thank you for having me. 

HOOVER Your music has been described as folk, bluegrass, country, and even as blues and R&B. And I’ve also heard you talk about your disdain for genres. How do you describe your own music? 

 

GIDDENS I do hate genres because I think what American music is great at is crossing barriers, you know. These days I just say, I play American music. You know, I play acoustic music. I play roots music. Basically, it kind of pulls from all the different roots of American culture. I know there’s no bin for that, but that’s kind of how I explain it.

 

HOOVER You grew up in North Carolina. Your father is white of European descent and your mother is of Black and Native American heritage. And you describe your experience growing up in the United States as, quote, “confusing”. If you were speaking to your childhood self now, what would you tell her? 

 

GIDDENS You know, I would say, just chill out. You’re going to figure it out. [laugh] And I just, yeah, I would just tell her, just hold on, and don’t try to fit yourself in anybody’s box because you’re going to find your own. 

 

HOOVER So you first discovered opera at a choral camp when you were a teenager and you went on to train as a soprano at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. In the audio memoir that you published in July To Balance On Bridges, you said, quote, “I was a Southerner, suddenly transplanted to the North and the Midwest. I was financially insecure, suddenly surrounded by people who didn’t have to worry about money at all, and I was a brown girl in a sea of white faces.” How was that adjustment? 

 

GIDDENS It’s one of those things where I look back on it and I go, Wow, that was a lot going on. But when I was in it, I was just kind of doing what you do, which is you sort of put your head down and you, you know, and you do what’s in front of you, which for me was learning everything there was to know about classical music, which– and you know, I didn’t know how to read music. I didn’t know the history. I didn’t know so many things that people all around me already knew. It kind of makes me proud of myself at 18, 19, 20 that I kind of didn’t– I just, you know, I just focused on what I was there to do, you know? And there’s moments, there was definitely moments, you know, you get mistaken for the other brown girl, you know, in your class. But you just kind of keep your– just I was there to work and I was there to learn. 

 

HOOVER At your senior recital at Oberlin you performed a traditional black spiritual dating back to the end of slavery. 

 

GIDDENS SINGING “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”

 

HOOVER You say in your memoir quote, “I searched out black composers on my own, trying to make sense of the African-American experience for the classical lens.” Was that your turning point in your musical journey? 

 

GIDDENS You know it wasn’t, but it was a preparatory. It was kind of like, obviously the roots of what turned into my life’s work, you know, when I, when I discovered the banjo were already planted at that time. So I think that all those seeds kind of started to bloom and it was just the tool that I decided to use changed.

 

HOOVER So you’d been told your whole life the banjo and folk music were the inheritance of white people and white America. And in 2005, you met Joe Thompson, a fiddle player who was one of the last living performers carrying on black string band traditions. He was 86 at the time. And you were only 28, and you call his influence, quote, “foundational to your identity as an artist.” What did you learn from him? 

 

GIDDENS Oh, some things that I can put into words and some things that I probably won’t ever be able to put into words. To have an actual living proponent of a tradition, an elder, is just– it’s an unbelievable stroke of Providence, luck, God, whatever your belief system is.  We were just extraordinarily fortunate to have that experience with Joe. We learned how to play his music the way that we play it, but we learned from him. We learned, you know, the idea of being a service musician, you know, like Joe was a community musician. That’s how we grew up, which meant that he was in service to his community. And so the idea of music as service, I think, was really massive thing that the Carolina Chocolate drops – all three of us, me, Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons – got by sitting at his knee. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, we were never, like, interested in fame or, you know, being super rich or, you know, hitting it big. It was more like, how can we be of service with this music? And I really think that playing with Joe and learning from Joe was a big part of why that was our part of our identity. 

 

HOOVER Your banjo is a replica of one from 1858, and it has some unique characteristics that have their roots in black history. Can you show me your instrument and walk me through those distinctive features? 

 

GIDDENS Yes, I’m delighted to. I have actually with me three banjos. The one that I have here is kind of an in-between banjo. So this is the replica from 1858 and this is my ax, I like to say. People are often very surprised at the sound of this banjo because they expect to hear… [picks up turn-of-the-century banjo]  this. This is actually a turn of the century, an actual turn of the century banjo. It is not a replica. People expect to hear something more like this. [she plays turn-of-the century banjo]. But my banjo, the replica from 1858, which was the moment where blacks and whites are all playing the banjo. It is a massive, very, very popular American instrument. But it sounded like this. [she plays the 1858 replica] And people are shocked because they’re just like, whoa. I was shocked when I first heard this, and this is one of my turning points. And then I got a hold of one of these. Right. [picks up the oldest banjo]

 

HOOVER: Okay

 

GIDDENS: So this is this, before this, you know?

 

HOOVER When you listen to it, Rhiannon, 

 

GIDDENS When I first heard this, the thing that struck me was the warmth of it, you know. And also, it’s fretless. So there’s blue notes everywhere. [she demonstrates] 

 

HOOVER So Joe Thompson taught you how to play Lights in the Valley, which is a traditional black spiritual. Would you be able to play a little bit of that song for us? 

 

GIDDENS Oh yeah, I’ve played that a lot because it is one of those memories I have of Joe. You know, we’d sit in either at his house or at a show, and he’d say, ‘You got to let ‘em know you go to church every once in a while.’ He’d always say it just like that, you know. 

[She plays and sings Lights in the Valley]

 

Lights in the Valley outshine the sun (3 times)

Way beyond the blue

Singing in the valley, outshine the sun (3 times)

Way beyond the blue

Lights in the Valley outshine the sun (3 times)

Way beyond the blue (3 times)

 

HOOVER So we’re all clapping, we’re all clapping. Wow. That was extraordinary. OK, so let me ask you. You have become vocal about the warped narrative surrounding the history of American folk music and the banjo. 

 

GIDDENS: Yeah.

 

HOOVER: And you even, you told the Smithsonian Magazine quote, “there was such hostility to the idea of a banjo being a black instrument.” What is the origin of the banjo? And why is there a complicated history around it? 

 

GIDDENS Well, I’ll try to be. I’ll try to be brief. The banjo is an American invention and is specifically an African American invention because it comes out of all the different African cultures that are forced to be together in the Caribbean first, right? So the culture already starts right there, starts on the ships coming over. People are already having to communicate with fellow Africans, which can be quite a wide– you know, it’s a continent, it’s huge, right? And so they create an instrument that became known as the banjo. It had a lot of different names that sound kind of like banjo. And it was kind of a completely black instrument for the first hundred years of its existence. And it moves up with people from the Caribbean into the United States and becomes very well known as a black instrument. But the problem is that, you know, you fast forward to like the 1900s, the early 1900s, and there’s this desire to really create an ethnic– sort of an ethnic narrative for the culture of like the Appalachian Mountains being sort of, the what white people have contributed to American music, right? And so there was this idea that mountain music in the Appalachians was kind of the sort of Anglo– it was a direct line from like England and Scotland and Wales and whatever, and that it had survived in the mountains and that the banjo was a mountain instrument invented by white people. But there was this interest in supporting the white nationalist movement at this time. And it became kind of part of how we tell the story of American music. Then you have stuff like the Beverly Hillbillies and Deliverance and, you know, all of this also going into a very simplistic version of what mountain culture is, you know. And that becomes a stereotype. So everywhere is a mixture. You know, it’s just when it’s a simple– when it’s a simple story it’s usually wrong. You know what I mean? 

 

HOOVER: Yeah

 

GIDDENS And that’s why American music so amazing. You know what I mean, this is the thing, the thing that, you know, people try to sort of strip out of the narrative is actually the thing that makes American music great.

 

HOOVER You have been described as a performing historian. You’ve written and performed songs based on slave narratives, songs about civil rights activists in the 1960s, and songs about police brutality. How do you, as a songwriter, think about and manage the balancing of the devastation and the resilience of the stories that you tell in your lyrics? 

 

GIDDENS Oh yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, that’s kind of how I started making sense out of all of it was writing these songs, you know. Because when you’re digging in the history, it’s pretty tough, you know. 

 

HOOVER You came across an advertisement of a woman who was being advertised for sale that had a child who is ‘available at the purchaser’s option’. 

 

GIDDENS: Yeah. 

 

HOOVER: And you wrote a song about it called “At the Purchaser’s Option.” Would you mind playing that song? 

 

GIDDENS Yeah. It just made me really think. I’ve got two kids, you know? And I think what we take for granted. I don’t ever think about anybody taking my children for me. You know, I mean, it’s just the most basic right in life. And to think that whole generations and generations of people did not have that dignity, you know. So I just thought of her. I thought of what it would take to get up in the morning with that as your reality. 

 

[PLAYS AND SINGS ‘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

 

[chorus]

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

 

[chorus]

 

Day by day I work the line

Every minute overtime

Fingers nimble, fingers quick

My fingers bleed to make you rich

 

[chorus, twice]

 

Songwriters: Joseph Edward Ryan / Rhiannon Giddens Laffan

At the Purchaser’s Option lyrics © BMG Rights Management, Wixen Music Publishing

 

HOOVER Thank you. Wow. It’s pretty clear that it’s very important for you to become a voice for generations of women who have come before you. Why is that? 

 

GIDDENS I feel like this is my responsibility. My ancestors went through what they went through so that I could sit here and talk to you about the banjo. You know, so that my daughter can– maybe she doesn’t have to think about some of the stuff so much. I just feel like with the lives that, you know, our ancestors sacrificed for, for us to have, that comes with the responsibility to do something with it that adds to the conversation in a positive way. So I’m never going to be in the music industry without that mission. 

 

HOOVER This program, as you know, is a renewed version of the original Firing Line that was hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. And in 1989, William F. Buckley Jr. welcomed Rosalyn Turek, who was a scholar and an interpreter of Bach to the original program. And I know you dislike paying too much attention to genres, but she actually might agree with you. Listen to her here in this clip, talk about the cross-pollination between Rock, which she calls modern folk music, and classical music. 

 

BUCKLEY Are you surprised by the longevity of rock music and by its apparently unlimited hold on young people? 

 

TURECK No, I’m not surprised because this is the late 20th century folk music, as I view it. It’s popular music. There’s always been folk music, which I think has been much more widespread than what we call art music. However, the popular music that we called folk music was always a fertilizing material, nutrients for art music. And I think that’s happening today too. 

 

GIDDENS Yeah. Yeah.

 

HOOVER Right, so I thought that might appeal. You know, she talks about this nourishing aspect of folk music. Of course, all the great composers borrowed from folk melodies. How do you see folk music being borrowed in genres today? 

 

GIDDENS I mean, this is the thing is cross-pollination is the strength of music, right? Like all the best-– when we solidify something into a genre, it’s usually come out of something that has a mixture of things, right? Genre in itself isn’t inherently bad. It’s when we solidify and we just sort of put cement walls in between, because then it stops that, that crossing. And I think an excellent example of that is high classical– classical music today. You know, it used to be a lot closer to folk music, like if you look a couple hundred years ago. And I think that’s starting to change now. People are realizing that without that cross-pollination, stuff dies, you know. And I’ve got the opportunity– I’m super excited, it’s premiering this May actually at the Spoleto Festival is my first opera. 

 

HOOVER: Oh.

 

GIDDENS: And it is, you know, I basically composed a lot of it on banjo. And I’m really excited about that. I think that there’s a lot of opportunity for people to put those worlds closer together now. I think people are realizing that we need that, you know. So we’ll see what people think of it, but I’m real proud of it. 

 

SING SING PERFORMANCE

 

HOOVER: You’ve been very frank about the fact that your music appeals to white audiences. But when you performed at Sing Sing Prison in 2017 during the Freedom Highway Tour, it was the first time you had ever played for a majority Black audience. You say it, quote, “broke you” to look out at the sea of brown faces. Can you take us inside that performance and why it made you feel that way? 

 

GIDDENS Yeah, that was intense. I mean. Just to be in a prison is intense. You know, and then to see the disproportionate numbers, you know, racially speaking, and just thinking about how broken the prison industrial complex is, and how run, you know, run for money it is, and how it connects, you know, line all the way back to slavery, and all this kind of stuff. All of those things at the same time as getting a sort of a cultural response that I’d never really gotten before. You know, and it’s not to say that I don’t enjoy playing for my white audiences, but you know, how we respond to things is just different, you know? And it was just a really intense experience for that reason. It’s like this positive aspect of that. And then, you know, next to all of this negative kind of realization of being in a prison and what that meant and all of the history. 

 

TEACHING RACE IN SCHOOLS

 

HOOVER You told the Guardian that the true African-American experience isn’t being taught in schools, and you point to the 1898 Wilmington massacre as an example in history that’s completely overlooked, where white supremacists overthrew a government that included black leadership and murdered scores of citizens. You know, teaching about race and racial history and a more holistic way has become a touchstone of controversy in the United States. And I wonder if you think that your music and the way you’ve approached it could translate to the classroom in a way that answers some of the tension. 

 

GIDDENS I mean, it is why I think I do what I do. And I have had teachers say to me, You know, I use your music in my classes. My whole point of writing something like At the Purchaser’s Option is that it’s an emotional– it’s like it’s an emotional response, right to something that happened in history. And I think that it allows people to make that shortcut. You know, instead of reading a whole book about it, you hear a song, a three-minute song, and you immediately have that emotional connection to that, that woman. Right? You know, we need a story. And I’m always telling it from a, ‘Look. I didn’t know this either.’ Right? Because people can sometimes feel attacked, and I’m like, ‘You didn’t know it. I didn’t know it. Let’s discover it together.’ You know, I’m from North Carolina. I should have known about the only coup that ever happened on American soil, which was in Wilmington in 1898. I should’ve known about that growing up. So I’m working on an artistic piece around that. You know, creating different entry points to the history, because I don’t know what’s going to get taught in schools anymore, you know. So I just do what I can. 

 

IRELAND AND IRISH LANGUAGE

 

HOOVER Well, you moved to Limerick, Ireland, over a decade ago with your now ex-husband and you’re raising two children. You mentioned you have two children. They’re in Irish language schools, which is certainly not the norm even in Ireland, where most children attend English language schools. Why is it important to you to preserve the Gaelic language and culture? 

 

GIDDENS So I mean, the thing that’s important to me is that as part of my kids’ heritage. You know, it’s like I told their dad, Mike, I said, ‘Look, I don’t know what any of my ancestors spoke other than English because I don’t know where they came from.’ You know, because for most African-Americans, you get to a certain year and you can’t go further. You know, 1873 or whatever. You can’t go any further because there’s no records. So I said, You know what your ancestors spoke. You know what I mean? And why not give the kids a connection to that. So I just think it’s important to have that piece for them. 

 

HOOVER Well, Rhiannon Giddens, thank you for taking the time to join me here at Firing Line. And if there’s something else you’d like to play for us as we close, I’d welcome it. 

 

GIDDENS I love to play a little piece called it’s written down as coromente , and it was one of the earliest transcriptions of black made music in the new world. Also, it starts off my opera called Omar. 

 

[She plays]