Rhiannon Giddens: Shared Roots

Photos by Ebru Yildiz

If there is any place on Earth you might expect to dine with the Grammy-winning banjo virtuoso, cultural anthropologist and MacArthur Fellow Rhiannon Giddens, this bland Panera on the ground level of a Nashville office building probably isn’t it. That’s where we are, though, at 9:30 a.m. in late March, as men and women rush in and out with computer bags and giant coffees en route to work while Giddens sits in a booth, poking at a disappointing egg sandwich. This egg sandwich, missing its promised avocado and looking about as appetizing as leftover airplane food, does not know it is on the plate of one of the most important musical minds currently walking this planet. This egg sandwich is for shame. 

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At least Giddens is enjoying her tea, sitting at a booth in a corset, blazer and a long black skirt with her banjo stashed at her feet. In a few hours, she’s due to appear at the press conference for Ken Burns’ new docu-series on country music (called, simply, Country Music), and then it’s a long day of rehearsals before an event celebrating the project tonight at the nearby Ryman Auditorium. Giddens appears in the film, as a grounding source to trace country music’s roots away from some falsified version of the genre that belongs squarely (and square-dancingly) in the white south and lands it back with the minstrels and the forgotten dark-skinned voices whom history has often scrubbed away. If Giddens had her way, she would have done 14 hours of footage on just that alone. She’s gotten used to having to live with only a portion of the story being out there, for certain, but she’s also gotten used to doing everything she can to right that balance. 

“You have to choose a narrative,” Giddens says, lifting up a piece of bread to search for that missing avocado. “Would I do it differently? Sure, but I have nothing but respect for the time they spent and the people they engaged, revealing country music as the multifaceted, vast thing it is. People have an idea that it is very monolithic. But when you tell a story, you have to choose a path. For better, or worse.” 

Giddens has built an entire career, and a body of music that is both meaningful art and impactful scholarship, on rewriting that narrative and deconstructing that monolithic characterization. From this year’s project, Songs Of Our Native Daughters with Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla that speaks for the missing, the unsung and the erased black woman in folk music, to 2017’s triumphant Freedom Highway, to a score for the ballet Lucy Negro Redux and her most recent release with Francesco Turrisi, there is no Other, Giddens’ work has looked to reclaim the American country music canon — one that has erased entire contributions and entire races because of a system designed to only tell one side of the story. And that’s where Giddens comes in, often through the lens of her primary instrument (though she plays many), the banjo, which most people know as resting in the hands of a white player, and not for its roots in West Africa. And, as Giddens points out, the story didn’t just end up that way by accident.  

“The important thing is that wasn’t by chance,” Giddens says as the majority of the morning crowd empties out to their offices. “It wasn’t by natural attrition. It was done on purpose, and that’s the story. The story is not that the banjo is from Africa, the story is why don’t we know that. In who’s best interest is it to hide that story? There is so much work to try get people to understand that the narrative is not true, because it was so skillfully sold. I’m starting to call it cultural genocide, since that’s what it was. What they do to people, they also do to culture.”

“Cultural genocide” might feel like a strong phrase to some, but it’s appropriate when one considers the reasons that the real genesis of the banjo has been lost to time, or why the history of the black string band is only there if you aggressively dig for it. As Giddens says, this is not something that just happened due to the natural passage of time. People of color have been written out of American country music history even before the black musician Lesley Riddle helped to found the Carter Family, but never stayed part of the story. And it was through slaves and minstrelsy that the banjo made its way to America, and helped to build country music into what it then became. 

This is a story that Giddens first started to tell through the Carolina Chocolate Drops, her first vehicle to reclaim the art of the black string band. Since then, Giddens has been venturing into the difficult corners of our history — the corners that feel too uncomfortable to even peer into for many, but grow like mold if left untouched, devouring the truth beneath the rot. 

“People think the beginning of the recording industry is the beginning of America,” Giddens says. “That’s my fascination, but no one is going to touch that shit with a ten foot pole. I can talk about blackface. It’s more difficult for white people to talk about blackface, but it should be hard for white people to talk about blackface! It should be hard for all of us to. I’m just no longer knee jerk about it. Look, this is a system that came about and there are a lot of reasons why, and it’s a thing we all suffer from. Nobody wins in that system. Nobody wins in slavery, in minstrelsy. We either win or we all lose. There is no us versus them. It’s these few people at the top who are pulling the strings. That’s really the us versus them.”

In our polarized world, it’s easy to assume this leads to Giddens being on a search to make some sort of partisan context, but she’s much less interested in applying this to one party or another. Her music and her work looks beyond, to the systems that have marginalized and oppressed and, for some, left people to “vote against their best interests and die of medical issues they can’t afford to fix.”

“I don’t want to write a song about Trump or Obama,” she says, though she has sung for President Obama in the past, at a special White House event dedicated to gospel. “I want to write a song about the people who have lived with the decisions that the people in power have made. If you’re doing a song that just says ‘fuck Trump,’ you are doing it to people who agree with you. If it doesn’t say anything, it doesn’t say anything.” 

Giddens also works to make sure that her message, and the truth that she spreads, is able to touch anyone, left, right or in between. She tells the story of a time she found herself in Washington, D.C., lobbying for digital rights, and ended up talking to Senator Lindsey Graham’s chief of staff, who had been listening to Freedom Highway and its song “At the Purchaser’s Option,” about a 19th-century slave advertisement that offered an infant up for sale.  

“He came up to me, and said, ‘I didn’t know about this, and it’s terrible,’” Giddens says. “It was my lesson in that you don’t know where a song is going to land. But he heard it, and he heard what I was trying to say with it. Who am I to say who is going to benefit? It is arrogant beyond belief to say, ‘Oh, they are Republicans.’ They are people first. This is what music does.” 

Down the street from where we are having breakfast, sits a new museum in progress dedicated to helping more of these stories land in the right bands: the National Museum of African American Music. Giddens has mixed feelings on it all — she’s glad it’s being built, and she’s grateful for any organizations or institutions that look to pose a fair depiction of history. But there are reservations, too. 

“It’s still segregated. We have to keep pushing to get this as part of the mainstream narrative,” she says before packing up her banjo and the remains of her tea. “The people who are going to go there are already predisposed. It’s good, but we gotta keep pushing. I can’t wait until a big chunk of that is in the Country Music Hall of Fame.” 

“I was born in North Carolina, and my grandmother was born in a coal mining camp in West Virginia,” says Giddens, now standing on stage next to Ricky Skaggs at the Burns press conference a few hours later, here at a theater inside the Country Music Hall of Fame. “I lived with her when I was a young child and we watched Hee Haw every weekend. And that was the black side. The white side, my grandfather was a bluegrass musician. When I was older than a kid, but not an adult, I fell in love with commercial country music. Kathy Mattea, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. But I came to be an adult still feeling like I didn’t have a right to like country music. Because I didn’t know the real history behind it. It’s a history of America.”

This is the story of Giddens’ life in a very succinct nutshell — growing up as a child of a black mother and a white father in North Carolina, never feeling that the country music she gravitated toward could ever be something that applied to her life, or her history. After studying opera at Oberlin College and exploring Scottish and Celtic music, she found herself becoming more and more curious about the sounds that emanated from her home state: the songs that she was told didn’t include her or people who looked like her. Once she discovered the fallacy of that history, a world opened. She purchased a cheap fiddle and banjo, and, in 2005, Giddens attended the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, where she met Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, who would become future fellow members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  

Since then, Giddens has become a force determined to unlock the black contributions and the history of the black string band for so many like her, who felt excluded from a narrative that should have been theirs to own. But this isn’t just about one color: humanity wins when we tell the fair story. The equal story. We learn that all roots are shared.  

“Like many other black people, I’ve always felt an instinctive connection to American folk music,” says Jake Blount of the band Tui. Blount was the first black person to make the finals at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia in 2016. “And like so many others, I ignored that connection because it didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know where it came from. It never would have occurred to me that there was a black influence in the music, because I had never heard of a black person listening to it — much less playing it. Rhiannon’s presence alone served as both a vindication and an inspiration for me. The knowledge she has imparted to me has changed my understanding of history and my approach to performance. This is a story I’ve heard over and over again, from colleagues, research participants and friends. The overwhelming whiteness of our genre and industry can feel paralyzing at times. Rhiannon’s incredible success has made her a beacon in that storm for other black people who feel drawn to this music.” 

Giddens works tirelessly to make sure that she tells the stories of artists past, but also the new generation: her bandmates in Our Native Daughters, and voices like Kaia Kater, Birds of Chicago and Valerie June. These names should be part of the casual music lexicon when it comes to country and roots, but far too often they are classified as some sort of subgenre.

“Rhiannon is really about giving back to her fans and upcoming artists in folk that hold the values of being as authentic and self-aware as possible, to talk about the truth and to tackle difficult social topics through music,” says Our Native Daughter’s Kiah. “She is not only an incredible singer, musician, songwriter, performer, and historian, but also an advocate of truth and uplifting underdogs.”

Up here at the Hall of Fame, Giddens is on full truth advocate duty, standing amongst a storied group of country music notables — Mattea, Skaggs, Holly Williams, Ketch Secor, Marty Stuart. She is shuffling in her skirt and sneakers, waiting for her turn to speak as “the girl at the party everybody backs away from,” at which everyone will laugh nervously. At one point during her brief speech she hops behind Skaggs and pops her head around from behind to make a point. “It wasn’t just black people standing back here,” she says, peeping out, “influencing. We were partners.”

In this new phase of Giddens’ career, she has begun to make this message global: alongside Italian multi-instrumentalist Turrisi, there is no Other is a vehicle to examine the missing links between African, Arabic, American and European music. Links that very much exist but have, too, been smudged out of history. Through original songs, interpolations and traditionals, the sounds meld smoothly and seamlessly —her custom remake of a 19th-century minstrel banjo flowing lyrically along with instruments like an Italian frame drum.

Giddens learned a lot from that frame drum — an instrument, known as the tambourello that is not much different from the tambourine. Turrisi’s background, too, is not much different from hers: as a Sicilian, he was treated as “the other” in Italy and discriminated against. “His family is Sicilian, and there were still people putting out signs, saying, ‘We don’t rent to Sicilians,’” she says. “These things exist everywhere. You take the tambourine, which is a frame drum. Everyone has a frame drum. Everyone has a tambourine transition, and this even lands with Britain, who then gets obsessed with the tambourine. You realize that, actually, we are all connected. Which to me is fascinating.” 

The album itself, and its synchronicity — Giddens and Turrisi are also romantic partners — challenges the listener to rethink what they know or have come to believe about the dividing lines in music. Produced by Joe Henry in only five days at a studio in Dublin, there is no Other revolves around this idea that almost everything is a construct: from race to birthplace. 

But Giddens, who lives in Ireland, has seen the sort of defensive reactions that can happen when this education process is in progress — just like how country music “traditionalists” often have a knee-jerk reaction when they feel that someone is trying to take away the music and culture that they hold so dearly. She saw the way that people in Ireland reacted, too, when they were made aware of the origins of the bodhrán drum, which evolved from the tambourine — whose roots can be traced back to Egypt but also has French and Arabic origins, among many others. On the record, Turrisi plays the Middle Eastern daf drum on an Appalachian ballad, like it could be a simple tambourine or even a bodhrán. It is all the same, just like how the banjo that is played now is not too dissimilar from the banjo played by African slaves: there is, indeed, no other, except those we create.  

“We force everything into these categories,” Giddens says. “What we are trying to do is puncture this stuff. We aren’t trying to take the bodhrán from the Irish people. We are trying to reconnect them to the rest of the world. Because all music is world music.” 

In Photos: Forecastle Festival, 2019