On a musical mission with Rhiannon

Rhiannon Giddens – back in Oberlin (Photo: Tanya Rosen-Jones)

From the Piedmont to Knockcroghery

The modest back lounge of a small village pub on the main road from Athlone to Roscommon Town is an unlikely venue for a performance by a Grammy award-winning multi-instrumentalist and singer, whom T-Bone Burnett recently called the most profound musician active today. But Rhiannon Giddens is anything but conventional – and on a cool Saturday afternoon in October the full house in Murray’s Bar in Knockcroghery is every bit as enthusiastic as any audience from the major auditoria Rhiannon Giddens has played around the world. Her ‘song-talk’ to the South Roscommon Traditional Singers Festival is an engaging tour de force. Her virtuoso banjo and fiddle playing – as well as the amazing range and control of her voice – is interspersed with sharp insights into some of the key influences in her own career as a performer.


Rhiannon Giddens, first came to public prominence as the lead singer, banjo and fiddle player with the country, blues and old-time music band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops – which won a Grammy in 2010 for its acclaimed debut album, Genuine Negro Jig. She has released two solo albums Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015) and Freedom Highway (2017) and was recognised as Folk Singer of the Year in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2016. Again in 2016, Rhiannon won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.

Aside from her widely acclaimed work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and on her solo albums, Rhiannon has just recorded a new album with Francesco Turrisi at Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studios for release in 2019. She has also just launched an opera podcast in conjunction with the New York Met. Meanwhile she has a continuing role in the US TV drama series, Nashville.

In 2019 she will premiere her score for a new ballet, Attitude: Lucy Negro Redux by the Nashville Ballet, while in 2020 she is due to play Bess in a new production of Porgy and Bess in Greensboro, North Carolina. She is also working with writer, John Jeremiah Sullivan, on a theatrical treatment of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898.

Rhiannon in Knockroghery: with Declan Coyne (left) of the South Roscommon Singers’ Circle and Johnny
Johnston (right) of the Ballinasloe Singing Circle.

Rhiannon outlines how she grew up as a woman of colour from a rural working class background in North Carolina and took the rather unconventional step of heading to the Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio to study opera before eventually coming home to find her distinctive musical voice right on her own doorstep with the veteran fiddle player, Joe Thompson, who not only lit the fuse which would lead Rhiannon and two musician friends, Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, to form the ground-breaking Carolina Chocolate Drops but also fired her growing passion for research into the history and development of popular culture.

Today Rhiannon remains on a continuing mission to explore a cultural legacy that is often found in the margins of conventional wisdom – in the work of collectors and researchers like Alan Lomax – that has made an immense but generally unacknowledged contribution to the musical heritage of the United States. As she brings her audience with her on the journey, she gently unpicks the warp and the weft of the tapestry of cultural history to highlight patterns and motifs often ignored by the largely middle-aged white perspective that has traditionally dominated and defined much of the discourse on culture. So her personal story merges into the broader political narrative of racism in America, where the ghosts of the past often become all too real in the present.

When I got started in this kind of music, I was fresh from opera. I went to the Oberlin Conservatory to study classical music and fell in love with Puccini and Verdi and all those fellas, then burned out on it and came back home and found my people’s music from that area. I was lucky enough to fall in love with the banjo and wonder why I loved the sound so much and why I felt like such an interloper because nobody looked like me who played the banjo fifteen years ago. There were a few but I didn’t know of any.

So I got a banjo and snuck around in old-time jams. The old-time community in North Carolina were very open and said come on in. For me folk singing started with this. I found my route into African American singing was through the banjo. I discovered that, lo and behold, black people played the banjo and I didn’t know that.

Master Musicians: Odell (left) and his cousin, Joe Thompson in 1988 (Photo: Nancy Kalow)

I looked into the history of the banjo and found a gentleman by the name of Joe Thompson who was an 86-year-old African-American fiddler and the last of his generation. His whole family had been musicians for years. There was a Thompson Family Band. He and his brother played fiddle and banjo for all the social dances and square dances. That’s when I found out that black people also square danced. There was this huge deep history of square dance all over America and in the South even before the big dresses and the idea of what square dances became. It was the social dance. Before there was electricity, it was all there was to do.

The people who played for the dances were considered servants. It was like put on the jukebox. So most of them were enslaved. So the players for the square dances and social dancers were most often black and when they weren’t, the notices made a point of saying white fiddler or white band. Otherwise it wasn’t mentioned. So Joe Thompson was one of the last connections to that music that was all over the South played by string band musicians. So me and two other musicians of colour – who eventually became the Carolina Chocolate Drops – went down to his house in rural North Carolina which is where my mother’s family are from. I had been down there before, most summers, for family reunions but never knew he was there until I was in my late twenties and he was 86.

But I wasn’t playing anything back then so I probably would have been like: ‘Black dude playing the fiddle, what?’ So when I was ready and I needed it, there he was. So we would go down on Thursday nights and we would play the same fifteen tunes. We were apprentices learning to play with a master musician. I feel very lucky to have done that and to have made that connection with my history. I discovered my calling when I found Joe. Then we started the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The history had been completely hidden in plain sight almost and when you go back and look at most of the images it is clear that for a very long time the banjo was an instrument played mainly by black folk.

The banjo is an African American instrument. It’s a very interesting journey. Loads of people were taken from West Africa over to the Caribbean to be ‘seasoned’ and then brought up to the United States. They would have brought either the memories or in some isolated circumstances the actual instruments themselves. There are a lot of gourd and lute style instruments all over West Africa such as the akonting, the ngoni, and other instruments with a gourd body and a wooden neck. These instruments morphed into what we now call the banjo.If you ended up on a slave ship and were then sold at a dock and taken along with twenty or thirty other Africans who you did not know, you didn’t speak their language, you didn’t share their religion and you really had nothing in common with them because Africa is an enormous continent with a wide variety of languages and cultures. So they had to meet each other somewhere and music is one of the most universal forms of human expression. So a musical language and culture soon grew up in the Caribbean centred around this instrument – known variously as the banza, bangie, bonjaw, banjer or banjar.

Ground-breaking: The Grammy awardwining album, Genuine Negro JigWhen I started getting into the history of the music, I uncovered this idea of what the banjo was and I began to wonder what else I didn’t know about my own culture. So I started reading a lot about slavery. Even though it is talked about, it is talked about in a very superficial and non-helpful way in the United States because you are talking about many years of how the country was founded and grew based upon this economic reality of enslaved people.

I started reading slave narratives and began to wonder where are these stories in our music. I realised that, unlike traditional narrative balladry in Ireland, say, where you could sing a song about what’s happening in the community, you couldn’t do that in the slave quarters because you would be killed. So things were encoded. Spirituals are allowed – so they become code for other things – but there are no direct narrative ballads. So I started thinking: ‘what if.’ What if you could? So songs like Julie started writing themselves from these stories.

“When I first went down to play with Joe Thompson, I was a fiddler. But Joe never played without a banjo player. Unfortunately by the time we met him, he had lost his brother and his cousin who had stepped up and started playing banjo with him. He didn’t play without a banjo player. So as the lady in the bunch I said ‘I will do what needs to be done and I’ll switch to the banjo.’ So I became the banjo player with Joe. it was very important because we helped him win the highest award as a heritage musician because we came out of it and people saw that he was passing on the tradition to a younger generation in his own community – especially since he was the last in his family. That was a very important part of my life.

As far as Joe was concerned, we were playing social dance music and all the rhythm and the leadership came from the banjo. So in the Piedmont in North Carolina the banjo was at the front and not the fiddle, whereas in the Appalachian Mountains it was more the fiddle. That may have been because there were higher concentrations of African Americans in the Piedmont.

But even among African Americans, the fiddle was the star instrument: it had higher status because the banjo was a plantation instrument. It was just used for their own dances, whereas the fiddle was played for the white people’s dances. So a lot of African Americans learned not only the music that they were playing in their cabins on the plantation but also the Playford Dance Book, the Scottish tunes if the masters were from Scotland or Ireland or wherever.

Rhiannon explains that the enslaved black musicians not only learned the dance tunes, but also the songs and even the language of the “old country” of their masters. So in Scotland County in North Carolina, for example, black slaves not only became accomplished performers of ‘traditional’ music but also fluent speakers of Scots Gaelic. In exploring this aspect of her own heritage, Rhiannon learned to sing in Scots Gaelic and competed with success. But she recalls that her presence at a highland games singing contest in the US was met with incomprehension.

Sisters in Song: Helen Lahert of the Howth Singing Circle (left), Rhiannon Giddens and Martina Ní Chearnaigh of the Malahide Singing Circle, pictured in Knockroghery.

So I went and sang my song and won a big gaudy plate. And somebody said to me “why are you here?” because clearly you’re not Scottish. But you know, I’m half white so I could be. And that really struck me because I don’t go up to a white person playing the blues and say “why are you playing the blues?” Because we don’t own the blues and nobody owns this music. And also the music itself comes out of a cultural mixture. So in the Gaelic world, you spoke Gaelic and you had that culture where you worked no matter what colour you were. It is an important distinction.”

I began to find my voice through the history of the music. Then I began to get into what went on in Appalachia and I found a whole other singing tradition that really spoke to me. I realised that there was a connection to my dad’s side of the family. There is a lot of cross-over especially in the mountains

Race relations in the States is very tied to economics. Racism is basically a tool that folks in power are using to keep people of the same socio-economic status at each others’ throats so they don’t realise they are being kept there. It’s very clear. There are letters from plantation owners to each other saying this is how you keep your poor whites and your negros at each other’s throats. They were just very blatant about it.

I am doing research for a project about the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 which was a coup on American soil in North Carolina where white supremacists overthrew a legally elected black and white working-class coalition government and replaced it with their own people and the federal government did nothing. There was a massacre and they killed a bunch of black people. It’s been very interesting for me to explore the art through that lens. My people are all black and white working-class people.

Immigration is a hot-button issue in the US at the moment. I like to sing a song about immigration at my concerts because, as you know well, America is a nation of immigrants. When I think about what’s going on right now, it really makes me mad. This is why history is so important. This is also why music and folk music is so important.

Defiant: Rhiannon Giddens
(Photo: David McClister)

A spirit of defiance

Refusing to be defined by others, Rhiannon Giddens is a genuine Renaissance woman brimming with creative curiosity

Rhiannon Giddens is on a relentless mission to explore the outer limits of creativity. While other artists find their niche and are content to exploit it for the remainder of their careers, Rhiannon has a restless spirit of boundless curiosity that continues to seek out new challenges – not only across musical genres but also in other areas of the performing arts.

She does not so much defy convention as defy definition. She will not be put in any box. Her creative impulse ranges widely. But she doesn’t dabble: once she engages on a project, she commits to achieve complete mastery of the discipline. So where does she get the time and the energy?

Well I don’t know that I am fitting it all in. This year has been a transitional year. I am going from being a performer to becoming a performer and creator. They are two very different disciplines and I am discovering that they are very hard to put together. I have overcommitted myself a bit this year. I am getting it done just barely. I try to only take projects that work with all the other projects I’m involved in – so that I’m not re-inventing the wheel and doing brand-new research. That helps a lot.

Also I don’t have a TV. I don’t watch TV. It’s not a judgement thing. I have watched plenty of TV in my life. I have wasted hours watching House. I read fiction to unwind with throwaway fantasy novels but they don’t take any kind of commitment. They don’t take any real brainpower and that’s what I need. I don’t need to try to keep up with a fictional world like
Game of Thrones. I don’t have the brain space for it. I don’t have the energy for it. I find that I just want to focus on this stuff. It’s all I think about. It’s my life and it’s either that or I am baking bread for my children. They are the two strands and I am okay with that.

Before I became a musician, I used to come home from work, watch TV for four hours and then go to bed. I had that part of my life and I’m done. That’s not to say anything against people who do that. Each to their own – but for me I am much more excited thinking about these creative projects including the research and now being with my kids have been away a lot and part of the MacArthur fellowship is to allow me to be in their lives and to bring them to some music events. It’s important to give them the opportunity to be exposed to these experiences. I feel good about the balance they are getting. They are exposed to all kinds of things as part of my career but I am also baking the bread and making the lunches. I took them both on tour. They are very flexible and it’s really cool to see them grow.”

The MacArthur Fellowship

The MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as a “Genius Grant,” is a prize awarded annually by the MacArthur Foundation typically to between 20 and 30 US citizens or residents who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction” in any field. According to the Foundation’s website, “the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” The current prize is $625,000 paid over five years in quarterly instalments. Past winners include writer, Cormac McCarthy; jazz musician, Ornette Coleman; civil rights activist, Cecelia Muñoz; and cartoonist, Alison Bechdel.

Francesco Turrisi (left) and Rhiannon Giddens

When we meet, Rhiannon has just finished recording a new album with Dublin-based musician, Francesco Turrisi, in Windmill Lane Studios. How did that come about?

I reconnected with Francesco Turrisi in Dublin. We had met three years before. He is very good at reaching out and making connections with people on projects that bridge different genres – which is very much up my alley on the other side of the pond. We had a jam years ago connecting spirituals and frame drums – basically African-American music with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern type sounds. We thought: “whoa this is awesome!” And then he said “Can you do these dates?” “No.” It was literally like that for three years.

Then he happened to see me in
Songlines magazine. So he made contact. Then we struck up a conversation and realised how similar we are in our approaches to music – even though it might look different on the surface. So we got together last December and had a jam – we posted one of those videos of tamburello and minstrel banjo – and stuff started to develop from there. So I got this idea and said why don’t the two of us just go into the studio for five days and see what happens.

I sent some of the material to (record producer) Joe Henry and he was really excited about it. So it was an amazing thing. We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do but at the end of five days we had sixteen tracks. It was very intense. We did everything live: I played and sang at the same time. We didn’t record each instrument separately or the vocals separately. So that was a really cool experience.

In his background, Francesco has two degrees in jazz improv and early music from the Hague Conservatory but then he spent the last ten years studying frame drums and traditional tamburello techniques from his home country of Italy – specifically Southern Italy and Sicily. I’ve got a classical degree in opera but I have spent the last ten or fifteen years studying traditional music and the same with Francesco. He started off studying jazz but then went into these other territories.

So when the two of us got together, I told Joe this is the opportunity to catch us when everything’s really fresh. So it was in that really beautiful moment when we had been playing enough together to know some things but we didn’t know everything. We were making discoveries in the studio. There were some songs that were one take. So there are a few original things on there and everything else involves radical reinterpretations of existing pieces. There are a couple of arias but they are sung in the vernacular voice.

There is a traditional Italian piece and an Appalachian piece done with a daf (the Iranian frame drum). Putting these sounds together hadn’t been done in any kind of serious way before. So there is no genre or style to categorise it. It’s not even world music. But if there is a label on earth for this record, it’s Nonesuch. They are thrilled with it. So I feel very lucky about that. I have sent it to a few people and have got really good feedback on it. I am very excited about it.

Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi

Rhiannon and Francesco are to play eleven dates in twelve days in March for an Irish tour organised by the Music Network.

I’m really excited about it. It’s going to be a great show. You never thought you wanted to hear a minstrel banjo and an accordion together but once you hear it, you say: ‘oh my God!’ We have also been finding a lot of connections between the tamburello (the traditional Italian tambourine) and the banjo in terms of the minstrel show. We think that the tambo most likely came to America from Italy through Britain and that they were using those old Italian techniques until at some point it flipped over. I showed Francesco some old iconography of minstrel shows and he said that’s how they still hold the instrument in Italy in contrast to the modern tambourine technique in the US.

When Francesco was in the States with a frame drum, people would say: “Look it’s a bodhrán,” even though the frame drum was around for millennia before the bodhrán ever came along but that’s how people associate it now even though the bodhrán is a relatively recent instrument. It’s interesting that the Irish word is the one that now defines that kind of instrument in the US.

There is such a fetish now in the US for Celtic identity and culture because white people in America feel that it’s an OK ethnicity to be and it’s an easy thing to claim. It’s an interesting phenomenon because at one point nobody would have claimed Irish ancestry. But now the Irish seem to regarded as the acceptable immigrants.

Iarla Ó Lionáird observed recently that folk music has often been seen as white music even though it clearly embraces many ethnicities…

Folk music has always been diverse and always been multicultural. But the commercial interests have generally promoted a very narrow sense of folk music. For example, bluegrass has always been diverse. But what happened when it got commercial and what happened to the image of it were deliberate acts. In the States, the whitening of folk music and country music was a deliberate act by racists. It is very clearly documented. There are knock-on effects that have resulted.

The Tarab Project: from left: Nick Roth (soprano sax, furulya and davul), Francesco Turrisi (accordion, percussion and lavta), Kate Ellis (cello), Emer Mayock (flutes, whistles and pipes) and Robbie Harris (percussion). (Photo: Francesco Turrisi)

Ireland, in particular, is becoming aware of how to not be a homogeneous country any more because it is not. Now there’s all these other folks who have come in and the great thing about Ireland is that it’s so small that change can happen quicker than the US which is so large with so many different regions. It’s nice to see that.

Francesco had a great thing with Tarab – with Middle Eastern percussion and Robbie Harris on bodhrán. It was really great. But, he said they went to a music expo where bands were auditioning for booking agents and the reaction was they were neither fish nor fowl: the bookers didn’t know what to make of them. It seems you have to have enough of those groups for people to realise this is a thing. So it’s hard for the pioneers. You can be lucky and hit on something like the Afro-Celt Sound System or whatever but for countless one-offs like “we’ve got this great idea or oh we’re just whistling in the dark, OK.”

But it’s great that there is more of that going on. The groups that are the most interesting to me are the ones that, instead of just smashing things together, lay things on top of each other and find where they naturally support each other. If you follow that it’s really interesting to me. Not everybody does that but for those who do, it can be really cool.

Outside the usual boxes

An untraditional traditional musician

One of the most interesting developments in Irish music over the last year has been the growth of the FairPlé campaign for greater gender balance…

Karen Casey and I and two other song-writers did a lunchtime gig in the University of Limerick recently where she talked about the FairPlé initiative which is great. When I was guest-curating the Cambridge Folk Festival earlier in 2018 I came across the fifty-fifty initiative in Britain, called Keychange, to raise awareness at music festivals to ensure that line-ups are gender-balanced. In Cambridge we had a panel on women in music and I think, for some of the older performers, if you wanted to make it in the business, you just had to plough ahead and pretend that you didn’t see anything.

I have always been very lucky because I was doing something very unique. I was young I was pretty and I was in a band with two other guys. I had to actually work against it and not pop out. I wanted to be like I’m sitting here playing a banjo. I’m not saying I’m being the pretty lead, I’m not doing that. So I myself haven’t had a lot of negative experiences with the industry. I’ve actually been very lucky I dealt with very honest people. I was just doing something with Daniel Lanois and he said to me what do you think the split should be on this song. There are times when I wouldn’t even have been on the split and I am very aware of that. I think it is very important to speak up for people who are doing the right thing while acknowledging that we still have quite a long way to go.

Behind the scenes it’s even harder because there are so few visible women. When I go out with a full band, my crew is all female. And the stories I hear especially from my front-of-house engineer – she’s like 5 foot nothing and very positive – but the crap that she puts up with from people who assume that she doesn’t know what she’s doing because she is a woman. What a lot of white men don’t understand – because they see themselves doing everything – is that representation matters. If you never see anyone, like you, doing things, of course, you are going to start off thinking that’s not for me. That’s very damaging.

I played a set recently with the First Ladies of Bluegrass: they are all the first female winners of the instrumental awards for the International Bluegrass Music Association. Me and Gillian Welch were their special guests. So it was all women on stage – an all-female band and they were killing it. You could see people just losing it. So it seems we have to do this for a while to get over the stereotypical reactions of ‘I didn’t know women could play’ or ‘I didn’t know black people could play the banjo.’ So I am very committed to gender equality in music and in society as a whole.

Native Daughters: (from left) Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah, Alison Russell and Rhiannon Giddens

I‘m just finishing up co-producing a record for Smithsonian Folkways with Dirk Powell showcasing all black female banjo players – of which there are more than just me. There are actually quite a few of us out there now. I’m very excited about it because you talk about gender stuff but then you talk about black women in particular and the intersectionality of it is pretty epic.

We have just recorded a whole album with Amythyst Kiah, Alison Russell (from Birds of Chicago) and Leyla McCalla responding or talking about the historical place that black women have had in the United States and I am very excited and proud of it. So, yes, gender remains an important issue.

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