‘I feel like I’m here for a reason, not just to make pretty music’ – Rhiannon Giddens shines light on forgotten history of black America
The Limerick-based US artist plays Sligo Live on October 28
The opening song on Rhiannon Gidden’s latest album, Freedom Highway, tells the true story of a 22 year-old slave girl advertised for sale in 1820 with her nine-month old baby also available ‘at the purchaser’s option’.
The fate of baby and mother is unknown and reading that advert, particularly as a mother of two herself, Giddens felt compelled to share their story on a powerful album populated by similarly haunting stories from the slavery era, as well as civil rights songs from the 60s - the title track is a 1965 protest song written by Roebuck Staples.
Of the songs she wrote herself, from At the Purchasers Option to Julie, a song about a conversation between a slave and her mistress, the Limerick-based artist says she simply “receives” them.
“A lot of the history is tough to get through but the stories are what people grab on to and these stories kind of make themselves known, if they want to be a song,” she tells Independent.ie
“At the Purchaser’s Option was like that, Julie was like that – they have a life of their own. I have written songs and I have sort of received songs, and these I felt like I received, and so I just shape it and I’m responsible for it but these stories are demanding to be told and I just say right now I’m a conduit for them. I feel really lucky to be able to do that.”
She adds, “It connects people to history – you can look at something and go ‘that’s terrible’ but do you really feel that? It’s hard to feel that without a connection to one person’s own experience. With music and art you can really come in and create that emotional bridge to a bunch of data and facts.”
Giddens (41) grew up in North Carolina to a black mother and white father who married just three years after the landmark Love Vs Virginia ruling of 1967, which overturned all state laws banning interracial marriage. Born a decade later, Rhiannon arrived into a society in which attitudes had, for many, however, remained unchanged.
Although Rhiannon started out as an opera singer after she left school, she later discovered the banjo, and found her groove mining old-time African American music with the string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, which she co-founded in 2005.
In 2010 they won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album for Genuine Negro Jig and five years later Giddens branched out on her own, releasing her critically acclaimed debut solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett, and featuring mostly covers of songs by Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, and Nina Simone among others.
Last year’s Freedom Highway set her on a unique path. It led to her being named one of the 2017 class of MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellows, earning herself over $600,000 to do with as she pleases. She was awarded for “reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and present.” It has given her the opportunity to take a break from touring.
“I had to get off the road,” she says. “I was touring relentlessly and have done for ten years and it was wearing me out. It’s a lot, and it’s a lot of responsibility keeping a full band, and touring in a bus, the crew, the equipment... Now I’m kind of entering a period where I’m not tied to that. I feel like I can slow down a bit and create more.”
That's not a flippant statement - among her ongoing projects is composing music for Nashville Ballet’s Lucy Negro Redux, based on the book by Nashville poet Caroline Randall Williams, which features a rare lead for an African American ballerina. She’s also working on an opera, and a musical about a forgotten massacre in North Carolina history.
The musical, which is currently in the early stages of development, tells the story of the only known coup d’etat in American history, which took place in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. Armed white men drove people of colour, and the whites with whom they had formed a fusionist party, out of power, out of their homes, and out of town. It is an event which has been largely forgotten, and when it is referenced, it is often framed as a ‘race riot’. Giddens is working with historian John Jeremiah Sullivan to gather the facts about what was ultimately a massacre.
“I’m from North Carolina and I didn’t know about it myself as a child growing up,” she says. “People are shocked [when they hear about it]. They’re like, ‘what are you talking about?’ It’s ridiculous. It amazes me when people say, ‘We don’t need to talk about race anymore and it’s all fine.’ Um, really?
“This has been completely hidden in our history. How can you say things are fine when massive things like this are hidden? In Tulsa in 1921 [when a mob of white citizens attacked what was the wealthiest black community in the US at the time] that was a huge, complete destruction of black wall Street, a destruction of black prosperity. This was the same thing basically for black middle class Wilmington. It has happened in smaller ways all over the States for a long time.
“It is part of an overall pattern of white supremacy and an intent to destroy any kind of black wealth, or working together between whites and blacks, and you see the statistics of black American wealth as a fraction – even taking account of percentages – compared to white American wealth.
“Surprisingly it doesn’t come from us not wanting to ‘pull our bootstraps up’ – that fallacy, that it’s probably your own fault, if you could just get it together, that’s a really huge part of the story.”
She elaborates, “This goes all the way back to the plantation days, [you had] letters of slave owners to each other saying, ‘this is how to keep poor whites and blacks at each other’s throats, this is how you do it because if they continue to fight they won’t overpower us’. They’re very clear about that. From the very beginning that was a strategy and it worked.
“It still continues to work – we still see it in Trump’s campaign. We see it in politics today. Let’s keep them all fighting amongst themselves for the scraps we’re throwing at them. It’s a concerted effort and it’s beyond race, it’s economic.
“For me it just becomes very very clear – can we stop calling each other names and get our shit together, focus where we need to focus,” she says, adding that the only way to take things out of the personal is to know the history, and highlighting that history through music is her mission.
Now, she says, she only works on projects which ‘serve the mission’. Her two year stint on hit series Nashville served the mission to some degree – she insisted on her banjo being written into the script.
“I brought my banjo to the audition and I said, ‘This banjo needs to be in the show’ and they put the history of it into the show – all the black kids learned about the banjo on the show. This was part of the mission,” she says.
“Pop songs that have nothing to do with anything... I don’t know, it’s got to ring true for me. Everything I’ve done has rung true and anything that I kind of thought maybe I did do it and recognised that it wasn’t [part of the mission] I whittle that stuff out.
“I feel like I’m here for a reason, not just to make pretty music.”
Rhiannon has just recorded a new album with Dublin-based jazz musician Francesco Turrisi at Windmill Lane Studios and will share some of those new songs as well as previous work at the Hawk’s Well Theatre at Sligo Live on Sunday October 28.
She has been coming back and forth from the US to Ireland for the past ten years. She was married to the musician Michael Laffan and they have two children together, Aoife (8) and Caoimhin (5), who attend a local Gaelscoil. They have recently separated, and she’s finding her feet in her own place.
“Things are very cordial [with Michael],” she says of life in Limerick. “We’re very good friends and we coordinate with the kids are we’re close to each other. I’m really enjoying sort of getting a community here, and friends, and just becoming part of the furniture.”
She laughs about only having a ‘cupla focal’ herself, and finds it ‘hilarious’ that her kids now argue about translations when they’re trying to explain Irish to her. “I’m pretty happy they’re getting an education here, they’re very content,” she says. “It’s kind of like, I can’t argue with that.”
Sligo Live runs from October 24-29. Rhiannon Giddens plays Hawk’s Well Theatre on Sunday October 28. Tickets €28 + €2 s.c. on sale from www.sligolive.ie and from Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo 071-9161518 or in person.