Like a good gospel preacher midsermon, Americana musician Rhiannon Giddens becomes more and more impassioned when she talks about her ongoing efforts -- a crusade, one might call it -- to promote the musical contributions of populations that have, as she puts it, "disappeared."
"There's so much pushback, even against a simple tweet," Giddens, 42, said with an even-keeled chuckle. "People who put Europe in the center of the universe, they're very fragile. They'll say, 'You're so smug, you're stripping everything away from the Europeans.' But Europe is merely part of a larger global culture. Anybody who thinks the lute just came out of a vacuum doesn't know the history.
"I'm not trying to strip anybody's accomplishments from anyone. I'm just asking, 'Can we look at this a little more accurately?'"
Her reference to the origins of the lute ties directly to her latest album, there is no Other (Nonesuch), her collaboration with Italian jazz-trained multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, with whom she's on a U.S. tour.
Giddens and Turrisi have married their respective fascinations with the roots of their homelands on the new album. That project reunited her with musician and producer Joe Henry, who shared a traditional folk album Grammy Award with her and members of her former band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, for the 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig.
"Musicians always find these points of connection," she said of the eclectic collection that travels from folk-gospel standard "Wayfaring Stranger" and Italian opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti's aria "Black Swan" to early 20th century singer-songwriter-banjo player Ola Belle Reed's "Gonna Write Me a Letter" and several of Giddens' compositions.
"We all have the same urges: You sing this way, and I play that way. They really go to the same places."
The diversity of the album's songs showcases both musicians' instrumental dexterity -- she moves from her main instrument, the banjo, to violin and viola, while Turrisi hopscotches from accordion, cello, piano, oud and banjo to a variety of percussion instruments including frame drums and the tombak, a Persian hand drum.
The connective thread is Giddens' commanding and exceptionally versatile and nuanced voice, which has made her one of the most lauded singers of the new millennium.
"Rhiannon is next in a long line of singers that include Marian Anderson, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Rosetta Tharpe," said producer T Bone Burnett. "She can take this strange music that's grown out of this convergence of cultures and take it back around the world. We need that person in our culture."
That's precisely what she has continued to do to considerable acclaim. The MacArthur Foundation awarded her one of its so-called genius grants in 2017, a $625,000 prize paid in five installments, something that she says hasn't so much transformed her world as allowed her to continue pursuing projects she'd always envisioned "without having to stress about doing them."
Those projects include the tour de force album released this year, Songs of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Folkways), highlighting songs based on writings of 19th-century black girls and women. Giddens collaborated with three notable musicians, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell, in adding music to century-old letters and poetry expressing the impact of slavery on those women.
The cushion of the MacArthur grant also gave her some financial security as she completed the music for Lucy Negro, Redux, the first ballet score written specifically for a black ballerina, Kayla Rowser , who danced the title role in the work that Nashville Ballet premiered in February. The New York Times called it "the kind of miracle Nashville has never seen before."
SMOOTH THE PATH
And the MacArthur grant also helps smooth the path as Giddens chips away at her first opera commission, a work slated to premiere next year at the prestigious Spoleto Festival of performing arts in Charleston, S.C.
"I have to continue to work, and I have to be touring because that's how I earn a living. My idea is to spread things out as much as I can," Giddens said. "I like to pay people for what they're worth, and I also have to keep supporting my family while I'm flying back and forth." (Giddens has a daughter, Aoife, 10 and a son, Caoimhin, 6, from a previous marriage with Irish musician Michael Laffan.)
Her impassioned scholarship spans the rural mountain music of her native North Carolina to the Celtic music in which she immersed herself when she took up part-time residence in Ireland with Laffan, to the classical repertoire she studied while pursuing opera training at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.
Her renown caught the attention of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who tapped her for a significant role in his latest PBS series, Country Music.
"We love her to death," Burns said. "In her debut, she's talking off-camera about stuff that ratifies a lot of assumptions people have about country music. Then, we pull back and we see this African American woman with dyed hair, and it helps deconstruct whatever defenses you might have and helps enable people to hear this music."
The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and music historian has spent much of her life happily transcending barriers separating music and culture, a proclivity that grew out of her upbringing as the daughter of a white father and black mother who married shortly after laws banning interracial marriage were struck down in the state.
U.S. history and issues of racism are deeply personal for Giddens and powerfully informed her journey with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that researched and brought to the fore the central role black musicians had in the emergence of string-band music in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries.
(Giddens is a banjo nerd who can happily talk all night about the instrument's origins in Africa.)
SALUTED HER INFLUENCES
For her first post-Chocolate Drops solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn in 2015, she saluted female musicians who had influenced her and shaped popular music socially, politically and/or aesthetically, including Odetta, Edith Piaf, Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Nina Simone.
In 2017, she turned to the music of the civil rights movement in Freedom Highway, tackling songs she'd written, for the most part.
Finally, she and Turrisi enlisted Henry to help them find a cohesive approach to the vastly disparate source material that captured their fancy.
"I heard it and kind of fell over," Henry said. "I couldn't respond fast enough. I told her, 'However you see this through, I encourage you not to lose your nerve.'"
Giddens' simultaneous quest to move music forward while understanding and honoring the past is a big part of the reason she was recently chosen, along with pioneering 19th-century musician Frank Johnson, also from North Carolina, as recipients of the Americana Music Association's inaugural Legacy of Americana Award.
The Legacy Award is part of a new partnership with the National Museum of African American Music, scheduled to open next year in Nashville.
"The Americana scene is getting better, but it has had its own problematic racial stuff," said Charles L. Hughes Jr., director of the Lynne & Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College and author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.
"For a long time, Americana was basically a white space, with just a few black artists in a real rootsy scene often thought as being connected with the music of the past," Hughes said. "Rhiannon has really forced that issue in a powerful way."
Giddens spoke of black musicians highlighted in the Burns' Country Music series, such as Lesley Riddle, who helped Carter Family patriarch A.P. Carter take down songs preserved through generations by oral tradition and take them to wider audiences.
"So many of them are not just slighted but erased," she said. "It's all about what's being sold, why it's being sold and who it's being sold to. Whether it's money, nationalism, power or whatever, there's always a reason why a narrative gets foisted upon something that didn't happen before."
"I'm still trying to form it so it all makes sense," she said. "Why is this music so popular? Because it is a music of working-class people coming from different backgrounds and coming into all these amazing things.
"Who is benefiting from it and who is commodifying it? That's where it gets into problems. But the music itself is always innocent."
Style on 10/20/2019
Print Headline: Giddens' musical crusade is her radical inclusiveness