Revisiting Rhiannon Giddens
Music Credits: “Goin' Down The Road Feeling Bad” traditional, performed by Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson from the cd, Carolina Chocolate Drops & Joe Thompson.
“The Angels Laid Him Away” written and performed by Rhiannon Giddens from the cd, Freedom Highway.
“Trouble in your Mind,” traditional, performed by Carolina Chocolate Drops from the cd, Genuine Negro Jig.
“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, This is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. Because June is Black Music Appreciation Month, it seemed like the perfect time to revisit my 2021 interview with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and the artistic director of Silkroad Rhiannon Giddens…
Rhiannon Giddens:I got home to North Carolina and I started dancing at this local contras and squares, and the bands were old-time bands, and I was like what is this, like I heard bluegrass but the old-time banjo is totally something different and it's much more connected for me to like the African sounds, the African diasporic sounds that would have come from the original banjo which is an African-American-Caribbean invention, and I didn't know it at the time but I was just so connected to that beat and that sound and then I just wanted to play it.
Jo Reed: Rhiannon Giddens excavates the past to bring the forgotten stories and music particularly of Black people into the present. A daughter of North Carolina, she has made it her mission to explore the often elided Black roots of American music. Rhiannon Giddens is co-founder of the Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, which insisted on reclaiming a central and historically-accurate place for black musicians in old-time music. Rhiannon then went on to create solo albums of haunting beauty and power born from the African-American struggle past and present. Her opera Omar which just had its debut at Spoleto is a case in point: it tells the story of Omar ibn Said a Senegalese man who became enslaved in the early 19th century and yet still wrote several works in Arabic including an autobiographical essay. Rhiannon Giddens and her collaborator Michael Abels reimagines his story with a variety of musical genres that have deep roots in African-American traditions. Rhiannon Gidden’s musical background is a wide as it is deep…she’s so steeped in it that I wondered if she grew up in a musical family…
It almost seems like it was fed to you with mother's milk.
Rhiannon Giddens: (laughs) Well, in some ways yes and in some ways no, so I'm an interesting mix I think. I'm fortunate because I did sing a lot with my family, my dad in particular, like we just sang all the time. We would just sing wordless melodies, and he was a classically trained singer that ends up going into a different industry for various reasons that I won't get into here. But he was just an amazing singer and guitar player, and so I was always around that and I just was always a singer, like family lore, I'm like singing as soon as I can draw breath basically and never stopped and annoyed my mother to no end because I wouldn't shut up. But I was in a very nurturing environment for my good fortune because like they didn't, my parents didn't push me. My dad didn't see that I was musical and then go, "Oh, let me get her into all of this stuff and teach her how," you know he was just like let me just sing with her and like let's make music, and so that's kind of been at the core of everything, and I didn't have, any formal training I have was in a choir which was great. But then not really knowing, you know not really engaging with it in a really formal sense until college, and so like my sister and I would want to go, you sing at the talent searches, and my mom would be like, no. She just was like there's no need for that right now, and I just think that was the best thing ever because it meant when I got into music I got into it for the love of it, not because I saw it could give me applause or it could give approbation, and so I've always been into it I think for the right reasons for me, and I can't speak for anybody else, but it works for me and the idea of the mission that I've been kind of on for a long time really feeds into that because I wasn't happy until I found that mission, which is why I left opera because I just couldn't reconcile like that I needed a connection to what I was doing deeper than just singing these stories, which is amazing, I love opera. I mean, I loved it, I love singing, I miss it to this day. In some ways that was where I was the happiest in terms of not having to think about anything but just I'm singing this thing, you know singing the most beautiful notes I could possibly sing and emotionally and blah, blah, blah, and there's not much about my life now that is like that. So there's so much head stuff going on, but I think that that's kind of informed everything. So I didn't have specific like cultural, I mean I had cultural touchstones because I was born and raised in the South, but I've brought that whole idea to everything, whether it's Celtic music, Scots Gaelic or old-time music or opera when I came back to it, writing it now and all that kind of stuff, I think, you know and again that sits really squarely with what Silkroad is trying to do, so it's really using the beauty of art and the emotional ties that art creates with a listener or a watcher, it could be dance, and then using that as a way to better the world, and so even from that point of view it was a great fit, even if you don't think of anything else, like I was like, oh, wow, this is a way that I can do this thing that I've been obsessed with, i.e., like doing that exact thing but on a bigger platform than I have on my own, so it's a I'm joining the family, which is lovely, it's a really wonderful feeling.
Jo Reed: Okay, you studied classical voice at Oberlin and then when you came back you stepped out of that world, that doesn't surprise me, but that you hadn't picked up a banjo until then, that surprised me. First, what drew you to the banjo? And, my God, you became very proficient very quickly.
Rhiannon Giddens: Well, I like to say I don't play many notes on the banjo, but the ones that I play I really know what I'm doing with them. I'm not Chris Thile on the banjo, far from it, like I know what I know and I stick to it, but what I know I play it a lot, and I think that that's an interesting approach and one that is not, it's not often honored in the classical world, it's like you've got to do everything with your instrument, and that is one way of making art in a very high fashion, but you know what, you can also be a folk artist that does this thing but like amazingly well and it has this connection to it that sometimes the other doesn't. It's just like it's a give and take and it's a tradeoff sometimes. But that art is not held up to the same kind of loft. It's like I think art music has been taken too high given where a lot of classical music comes from. A lot of classical music is very influenced by vernacular. There used to be much more of an exchange there, and I think that it has just become such a classist thing which is one of the reasons, this is one of the things that I didn't like about opera. I was like why doesn't everybody have access to this, I love these melodies, I love this music, I love these tunes, like why is it so inaccessible to people, why is this so cut off, and anyway so when I didn't play anything, I play a few guitar chords but that was it, and I started dancing, but when I got home I just kind of burned out of classical, I just needed a break, and I got home to North Carolina and I started dancing at this local concerts and squares, and the bands were old-time bands, and I was like what is this, like I heard bluegrass but the old-time banjo is totally something different and it's much more connected for me to like the African sounds, the African diasporic sounds that would have come from the original banjo which is an African-American-Caribbean invention, and I didn't know it at the time but I was just so connected to that beat and that sound and then I just wanted to play it. So and I didn't play fiddle either, so I picked up of them kind of within a year of each other and just was extremely frustrated, it sounded like crap for a long time. But I was very lucky because I think, and this is an experience that I wish, that I think we all should have at least once every 10 years is that we should learn to do something completely that we don't know how to do and try to get good at it, because it reminds us of what it feels like to suck. Because you kind of get good at something and then that's what you do, right, and we kind of stick to what we are good at because nobody wants to suck because it's not fun, I wasn't looking to be a violinist or a banjoist, I used the music to get to what I wanted which was to play dance music, or to play with Joe Thompson eventually, when I met him, the last African-American practitioner of the old style black fiddle and banjo music, and so you just use the notes that you need in that kind of music. When you're playing dance music you don't try to learn all the notes, and also it's an apprenticeship so you're doing it all by ear, and I'm not recording stuff, I'm just learning in the moment. I mean, recording is important but I almost never listened to them when I made them, it was just really, we just sat and played over and over again and then me and the Chocolate Drops would just play over and over again, and then we would play for kids who tell, you know they immediately tell you if it sucks. We would play for dancers, same thing, they want you to support them, and so that was the beginning of my instrumental career and it has been the best thing ever because it's that sense of service that I think, you know I was just talking to some folks from a conservatory and it's just like the idea of artists being of service I think is really lost, it's not a part of our conservatory training, and an organization like Silkroad, that's exactly what we, I say we now, are doing, is being of service with our music. I'm so into this realizing, you know kind of looking back on my life as one of service as a musician and realizing how much that brought me as a musician. As much as I love standing there singing that high note with all the costume and just the amazing sheer awesomeness of it, doing something with my music as well brings an equally transcendent moment, you know what I mean, feeling like it is serving brings its own kind of joy, and I just think that that is, we need more of that.
Jo Reed: I'm glad you brought up Joe Thompson because he is a National Heritage Fellow.
Rhiannon Giddens: Yes.
Jo Reed: I would love to have talk about your interactions with him because he is such an important figure in American music.
Rhiannon Giddens: We were so lucky, we didn't know then how lucky we were. I think we know now, like me and Dom Flemings and Justin Robinson, the original Carolina Chocolate Drops, we started going down to meet Joe, Joe was 86 at that time, and he'd had a stroke but he'd kind of recovered enough to be able to play, which was amazing, and the white community around Mebane, which is where he lived, you know the white old-time community, had been really active in keeping him playing because he wouldn't play by himself, and this is a really integral part of the kind of music that he came from, he wouldn't play without a banjo player, which is one of the reasons why I ended up playing banjo in the band because I was the only one who could, so I said, well, I'm sticking with the banjo and filling the slot that needs to be filled, and I'm really grateful for that because I learned everything that I know. Well, not everything, of course, we all have multiple teachers, but the core of how I played banjo comes from playing with Joe Thompson, and he was an amazing, gentle, you know I think he was aware of the importance of his music but not enough to be too stressed about it. I don't know, I just think he knew his job was to teach and so he taught anybody who wanted to come by, and by teaching he played with them, and he was a really open person, and we got him for a handful of years which was really amazing, like a couple of those years were really intensely learning from him and playing with him and playing with him in public, and then when John Jeremiah Sullivan's article came out connecting Joe Thompson to Frank Johnson who was a black string band musician, he was a fiddler who had bought himself out of slavery with his fiddle, and bought his family out of slavery, and formed this string band which was famous all over the South, so famous that they actually started calling the music he played Frank Johnson music, like he was hugely influential, right, and so when Sullivan connected him to Joe Thompson it was like, I can't even explain how big of a deal that was to me. In African-American history it's so difficult to get names and connections because of the nature of enslavement, because of the nature of being discarded, and most people, it's very hard for them to trace back over the ocean, you know a lot of people have a hard time getting specific names for their family tree. That didn't matter so much to me, this did. I actually have a musical lineage that has a name at the end of it, which was really incredible, and it was like I was, you know we realized, okay, we were like this is really great, we were able to do this with a living member of the African-American community, this music which was almost dead in our culture, and then however many years later it was like another wave of, oh, my gosh, like we almost missed that. He was 86, you know we almost missed that, and it almost kind of freaks you out because you're just like, oh, because it's such an important thing, and so it really does inform so much of how I look at music and how I look at the world really, is having that experience.
Jo Reed: Well, some of the songs you sing, you unearth, and, in fact, I know you've worked with Sheila Kay Adams who is another National Heritage Fellow, and then others you write yourself, and you've been inspired to song by narratives of enslaved people, bringing that past into the present, and it reminds me of Tracy K. Smith and her collection of poetry "Wade in the Water," one of those longer poems, she's just using excerpts from letters of formerly enslaved people, and I see you two doing very similar work in that regard. Talk about the importance of that, of filling that story out.
Rhiannon Giddens: I just, I think the more that we can listen to the voices, I mean, it's important to listen to the analytics and the analyzers and the people who contextualize things, I mean, they have been my saviors. I've read so many incredible books by so many amazing academics who've done all that leg work that I don't have to do, and that's important to set the scene, but when it comes to the emotional heart of it, it has to be from the voices. There are a lot of different ways of going at it. There is looking at the voices of enslaved people, which always has to be taken with a really big grain of salt because of the different levels that the meaning has to fight through because a lot of the people in the WPA, the narratives project, were very old when they were talked to. They were talking to white people, white people were sometimes writing them in dialect even if they weren't talking in dialects, white people were asking leading questions, and it's not to say that that work wasn't good work, it was, but it was work of the time. So we have to remember that there's still a code that's happening in a lot of these narratives, so I always try to keep that in mind, and the other thing is that it's not always just their voices. For me, I also get a lot from reading letters written by enslavers, written one enslaver to another, don't forget, here's some tips to keep your poor whites angry at the black people and vice versa, don't forget, you've got to keep the crackers and the, you know what I mean, like they were just really super clear, like they were so clear why can't we be clear, and that's kind of the line I take, and there's also the voices of people who write runaway ads, people who write slave advertisements, those are also important voices, they're tough voices because they're voices of the oppressor, but they still can uncover things that have an emotional veracity to them. So for me the primary sources, even if within a book, their voices come clear. Now, what it means and the layers and the coding and all that stuff, that's a whole other ball of wax, and that's where the contextualism really does come in handy because the more that you read about the time around when these people were living I think the more that you can intuit some of the things that are coming from their words, or understand why they would say this or that, at least as much as you can coming as a 20th-century born person, and living in comparative luxury to any of these people. So that in and of itself is a barrier that I'm very open about. It's like I can only tell the story as I can feel it from these words, but it's imperative to me to go as far as I can to those people, which we have words, we have sometimes oral traditions, oral histories that were written down, those are amazing too, and so that's just kind of how I look at it.
Jo Reed: Yeah, well, it's teaching history through song, it's singing history, and I don't mean it's didactic at all. But there is so much that music is capable of because it opens the heart as well as the head, and you're not being talked at but at the same time you're forced to recognize the partiality of history as it has been taught.
Rhiannon Giddens: Yeah, and I think that there is, it's a team effort. I always kind of look at myself as the performing arts arm of the historian society because it takes so much to get this knowledge to light. But like a musician has an ability sometimes to take a three-minute song and that person who is never going to read that book can get the gist of something really important from that book after listening to that three-minute song, and I think that's where I come in, and it has felt like a service, it has felt like a call to action, like I just feel like it is a calling for me. These songs, I don't know where they'll be in 50 years, I don't really care. I feel like if they're doing their job right now that's all that matters, and if I'm representing, because I listen to voices or read voices but I also try to represent the voices in a way that feels right, so to try to get out of the way as much as I can to allow the song to be what the song needs to be.
Jo Reed: You've written an opera called "Omar," which also has its historical traces. Tell me the story and how it came to you.
Rhiannon Giddens: Well, the amazing folks at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina, Spoleto USA, they decided they had never commissioned an opera before and they decided they wanted to tell the story of Omar Ibn Said who was a Senegalese Koranic scholar who was stolen and sold into slavery and ended up first in Charleston and then ran away from his enslaver in Charleston and ended up in North Carolina, and he ended up a slave for 50 years and he wrote his autobiography in Arabic, which is an amazing feat considering that as soon as he stepped foot in America like he no longer could speak any of the languages that he spoke with people. He couldn't speak Arabic, which wouldn't have been his first language, you have to read the Koran in Arabic, right, so he learned it, but he would have been very proficient in it. You know couldn't speak any of his native languages, and to be able to retain, the Arabic and the Koranic verses, like he could quote huge swaths until he died, just shows an amazing force of will, and he's just a really incredible person, and what he said with his writings and how he walked that line, living in a Christian, not only enslaved but also enslaved by Christians and so how did he keep his faith and all of these questions were very interesting to me. I'd never heard the story, I mean, despite being born and raised in North Carolina I'd never heard of Omar, which made me mad all over again. Every time this happens I'm just like, what, why is somebody else telling me my own history, this is terrible, and so I wrote the libretto and I partnered with Michael Ables who is an incredible composer, and he writes film scores, he does classical composition, he's just an all around amazing guy, and I said would you write this with me because I can come up with the thematic material but I don't know the orchestra, I don't know dots, it's going to take 14 years, and I just loved what he did with the soundtrack to "Get Out" which is that amazing Jordan Peele movie.
Jo Reed: Yes.
Rhiannon Giddens: Right? And I was just like, oh, my God.
Jo Reed: That was some scary music.
Rhiannon Giddens: Yeah, he's incredible, and what he has done with what I send him is just stunning. Basically the whole orchestra is a banjo, like I've written most of the, a lot of the music on the banjo, and it's a mixture of folkloric kind of stuff and classical, you know because I was classically trained so I go into that when the spirit hits, but it's just a real, the patchwork of who I am, and he has really made it come to life, and he has added his own pieces to it, but he's made it come to life and in just a stunning way, and I think it's a really good example of fusion, of classical folk fusion, I think it's a real example. I think there's been attempts, and I'm sure there are real examples that I just haven't heard, but for me it feels like this is really two worlds meeting at their peak and then combining to, you know this is not an arrangement of a folk song, it really is something new, it's a real coming together, and I just have never heard anything like it, so I'm excited. I've done as much as I can as a composer, I'm not a writer, I'm not writing a history of enslaved Koranic scholars. So I kind of had to draw a line and go, okay, I can do as much as I can but ultimately I have to write a good opera that's telling the story of my Omar, this is not the Omar because he's gone, all we have is his words that he left behind, and, again, multiple layers, who is he talking to, who does he, you know who knows who is reading his story. So even within that he's very strong in what he's saying so I would love to like know what he would have said without having those layers laid upon his work, but, yeah, it has been a real privilege to work on that.
Jo Reed: You became Artistic Director of Silkroad in July 2020…what made you want to take this on? What attracted you to it?
Rhiannon Giddens: A lot of things I think. Firstly, I am, I don't know, I'm a new thing kind of person. I'm always interested in how to do things that I don't know how to do, and if I feel like they are close enough to what I already do I will try it, and if I think it makes sense for me and if I can learn and then, of course, most importantly if I can offer something up for that role. I don't want to do something just for the sake of doing it because that's not really respectful. But this came at a time where I had been performing a lot and traveling a lot and was a little bit burned out, a little bit just because of the intense nature of the work that I do and the music that I sing and the historical connection and all of that, and also the other thing that kind of made me think twice about it rather than just kind of going, oh, no way, was my partnership with Francesco Turrisi who we had been, you know we'd made a record together and we'd been doing things, and he has kind of connected my music to the rest of the world for me. So I had been doing such a deep dive in American history and American cultural music, and then he comes from the Mediterranean and thinking about you know his questions of why don't we talk more about how like North Africa and the Middle East really influence so much of the European art, and there's all these reasons, and so I was just kind of realizing there's such a larger picture, which I always knew but it really kind of brought it home to me, you can't actually finish this story without looking at what came before and what was happening in the rest of the world. So through I've been learning about lots of instruments and types of music that I would have never known anything about. So it gave me a little bit of confidence, like, look, I have so much to learn about the group, about all the instruments, about the music. I have a lot to learn, but I think that's a strength to know when you have a lot to learn and what you have to offer and when you need to learn more, and they always go hand in hand, you know? But knowing him and having experimented and learned a lot about like maqams and frame drums and things like this that were outside of my realm kind of gave me a little bit of confidence to go, okay, well, at least I have a little bit more of a basis to take this job, like I think if the offer had come like two or three years prior I would have had to say no because I don't feel, I wouldn't have, at that point, had the right perspective. But I feel like at this point I have just enough knowledge to know what I need to know and to be open to learning. But I also have a very particular point of view which can be really useful for where the organization is after 20 years of being in existence. That's a point usually, you know whether in marriages or in organizations you reach a point where you've been a certain thing for a while and then you have to make a decision, do we continue doing this certain thing, do we go our separate ways, do we do a different thing but together. It's a natural thing for any kind of long-standing organization, especially a group of artists. So just all of the sort of different pieces of it seemed to say this is a good idea, and I have the people around me who can help me with the stuff that I don't know. Because I don't think everybody needs to know everything, I think you have to have the group around you that can kind of fill in the blanks and so that you're each kind of doing what you're best at, and I thought I could bring a perspective. That's a long answer to a short question.
Jo Reed: I'm curious about how you're going to take some of your life's work which has been a musical historical excavation and bring it to the Silkroad.
Rhiannon Giddens: Well, and, again, this is where Francesco comes back in, the idea of American music as immigrant music, that's really where it begins because the work that I've done it's just over and over and over and over again, it's like this comes from here, this comes from here, there's nothing in America other than indigenous music, which is a whole story of its own, how it has been erased and overlooked and forgotten, I mean, indigenous people are still around, agriculture is still happening. Other than that everything has been brought, right, so whether by force or by choice, or by forced choice depending on where you're coming from. So the fact that anybody could look at American music, because this continued up until the current day, like it's not like this happened in 1705 then that was it, it just kind of went from there and has been American music ever since then, that's just not true. There's been wave after wave after wave, and every wave makes this huge change, and at the core of all of it is this sort of black, white working class cultural exchange that has generated so much of what's going on. So there's all this going on and I'm like so all we need to do really is to connect that to what Silkroad has been doing. For me it's not hard because you have people of all those populations that are represented by what Silkroad has been doing in America, like so how has it affected American music, how could we put American music back within the context of global music, and so I just think one of the projects that came to my mind immediately is talking about the railroad, particularly because you have an interesting combination of a lot of Chinese laborers, which, of course, Chinese music has been a huge part of Silkroad music and history, and then you have African-American laborers, you have Irish laborers, you have other European immigrant populations, and you have all of this stuff going on to build a capitalist kind of connector, right? So this railroad is not for people to get from point A to point B, it's for goods to get from point A to point B. So it's like the best and the worst of America, there's a lot of the worst of America in the railroads when you consider how the workers were treated, which was awful, how you consider the land that they went through and stole, like Native lands, to connect the East to the West, what runaway economic progress does, who does it benefit, who does it take from, who dies to make it happen, these are the things that we are going to explore with that project. It's like basically bringing Silkroad into America, it's like we have a lot of the same things that were going on along that route and that's been explored in certain ways for 20 years and it's beautiful, and we'll continue to explore that, but I think it's important to, a lot of the people in Silkroad ensemble live in the States, I just think it's a really I think great opportunity to expose the world within America by using that historical event and the people who are involved in that as a jumping off point for creating art, for creating discussion, for that kind of thing. So that's pretty much the first idea that I have had that we're now building into a multi-year kind of really big project because there's a lot that can be done with it that's coming from my specific perspective to Silkroad.
Jo Reed: And I think that's a great place to leave it, Rhiannon. Thank you so much for giving me your time, I really appreciate it.
Rhiannon Giddens: You're welcome
Jo Reed: We just heard my 2021 interview with MacArthur Fellow, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and the artistic director of Silkroad, Rhiannon Giddens. Keep up with her at RhiannonGiddens.com You can learn more about Silkroad at silkroad.org LA Opera is presenting Omar written by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels in the fall. You can find out more at LAopera.org You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating it helps people to find us. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
We’re celebrating Black Music Appreciation Month by revisiting my 2021 interview with MacArthur Fellow and artistic director of Silkroad Rhiannon Giddens. A classically trained singer, banjo and fiddle player, and composer, Giddens excavates the past to bring forgotten stories and music, particularly of Black culture, into the present. Giddens is a co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, which insisted reclaiming for Black musicians a central and historically accurate place in old-time music. She then went on to create solo albums of haunting beauty and power born of Black struggles past and present. Giddens is, first and foremost, an artist determined to be of service, which drives her commitment to unearth musical roots and put that knowledge of different musical traditions to good use. In this podcast, Giddens talks about uncovering the Black roots in old-time music, the importance of National Heritage Fellow and fiddler Joe Thompson to her musical lineage, the path to creating her opera Omar, the centrality of history on the margins to her music, and her plans to have Silkroad explore the multiplicity of musical worlds within the U.S. (Here's a link to Silkroad's July "Phoenix Rising" Tour in the Northeast.)