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Tracing The Cultural Origins Of Music With Rhiannon Giddens

Vocalist Rhiannon Giddens performs with Dirk Powell, Hubby Jenkins, Jason Sypher and Jamie Dick at the Newport Jazz Festival, August 5, 2017 in Newport, R.I. (Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images)
Vocalist Rhiannon Giddens performs with Dirk Powell, Hubby Jenkins, Jason Sypher and Jamie Dick at the Newport Jazz Festival, August 5, 2017 in Newport, R.I. (Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images)
This article is more than 3 years old.

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Can a culture own an instrument? Or stake a claim on a style of music? Folk singer Rhiannon Giddens says no. She joins us.


Rhiannon Giddens, folk singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Her latest album is "there is no Other" with Francesco Turrisi. Member of the Americana, folk supergroup Our Native Daughters. 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient. Co-founder of the band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. (@RhiannonGiddens)

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New Yorker: "Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means" — "To grasp the significance of what the twenty-first-century folksinger Rhiannon Giddens has been attempting, it is necessary to know about another North Carolina musician, Frank Johnson, who was born almost two hundred years before she was. He was the most important African-American musician of the nineteenth century, but he has been almost entirely forgotten. Never mind a Wikipedia page—he does not even earn a footnote in sourcebooks on early black music. And yet, after excavating the records of his career—from old newspapers, diaries, travelogues, memoirs, letters—and after reckoning with the scope of his influence, one struggles to come up with a plausible rival.

"There are several possible reasons for Johnson’s astonishing obscurity. One may be that, on the few occasions when late-twentieth-century scholars mentioned him, he was almost always misidentified as a white man, despite the fact that he had dark-brown skin and was born enslaved. It may have been impossible, and forgivably so, for academics to believe that a black man could have achieved the level of fame and success in the antebellum slave-holding South that Johnson had. There was also a doppelgänger for scholars to contend with: in the North, there lived, around the same time, a musician named Francis Johnson, often called Frank, who is remembered as the first black musician to have his original compositions published. Some historians, encountering mentions of the Southern Frank, undoubtedly assumed that they were merely catching the Northern one on some unrecorded tour and turned away.

"There is also the racial history of the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, where Johnson enjoyed his greatest fame. In 1898, a racial massacre in Wilmington, and a subsequent exodus of its black citizens, not only knocked loose the foundations of a rising black middle class but also came close to obliterating the deep cultural memory of what had been among the most important black towns in the country for more than a century. The people who might have remembered Johnson best, not just as a musician but as a man, were themselves violently unremembered.

"A final explanation for Johnson’s absence from the historical record may be the most significant. It involves not his reputation but that of the music he played, with which he became literally synonymous—more than one generation of Southerners would refer to popular dance music simply as 'old Frank Johnson music.' And yet, in the course of the twentieth century, the cluster of styles in which Johnson specialized––namely, string band, square dance, hoedown––came to be associated with the folk music of the white South and even, by a bizarre warping of American cultural memory, with white racial purity. In the nineteen-twenties, the auto magnate Henry Ford started proselytizing (successfully) for a square-dancing revival precisely because the music that accompanied it was not black. Had he known the deeper history of square dancing, he might have fainted."

Pitchfork: "Rhiannon Giddens: there is no Other Album Review" — "there is no Other, the sparse collaborative album by Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, doesn’t shine a light on old music; it blocks out the sun entirely, scavenging the darkness for deeper understanding. Giddens is a MacArthur Fellow, a conservatory-trained opera singer, and a multi-instrumentalist with a knack for finding uncanny harmony among distant generations and geographies of music. Turrisi is a jazz composer with concentrations on early baroque and Mediterranean music. On this wide-ranging collection of covers and original material by Giddens, they speak to each others’ strengths, refining century-spanning stories into a broken prayer for unity. The music asks for close listening and contemplation; the space they create is small, with room for all of us.

"Giddens’ body of work—including three solo albums, a ballet score, and collaborative projects like Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters—is united by a desire to use everything around her to its fullest communicative potential. As a result, listening to her records can feel like exploring a well-curated home, where every object weighs heavy with meaning. Take, for instance, her banjo. A familiar tool within her favored arenas (folk, bluegrass, old-time music), it serves Giddens as a symbol within a symbol: a custom-made recreation of the 19th-century African American instrument adopted by white musicians and popularized through minstrel shows. She plays it as a reclamation, a way to ensure her music’s history remains inextricable from its delivery. 'You’re gonna have things that I never had,' she sings in a gripping rendition of civil rights activist Oscar Brown, Jr.’s 'Brown Baby.' 'Sweetie, you’re gonna live in a better world.' Churning along to the rhythm of Turrisi’s Arabic frame drum, the banjo is a source of droning dissonance and lilting refrains of hope."

The Irish Times: "‘Othering people is something humans have done for ever’" — "The ties that bind, and the bridges that unite us. These recurring themes form the basis of the musical alchemy that Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi revel in these days.

"'It’s all about movement, for both of us,' Rhiannon offers, with an animation that has informed so many of her musical adventures. 'Everything that both of us talk about is about movements of human beings and how we affect each other. If you just look at our range of instruments, where they’ve come from and how they’ve travelled across the world, it’s pretty amazing. Francesco and I connect: we find ourselves talking about the same things, but across the Atlantic Ocean!'

"Giddens, a native of North Carolina, but resident in Limerick, has forged a formidable career, from her break-out band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, to her receipt of a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the Genius Grant), and her eclectic range of collaborations, from writing ballet scores (more of which later) to the Dylan-inspired New Basement Tapes. One suspects that not a blade of grass grows under her feet. Then there are her critically acclaimed solo albums (the first, produced by T Bone Burnett) and her background as a classically trained singer. Giddens is a woman who can strip it all back to the bone, though, with the banjo her constant travelling companion."

Anna Bauman produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on July 31, 2019.



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