A FEW MINUTES WITH… Rhiannon Giddens
By Don Wilcock
Singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens – appearing Sunday night (August 6) at The Egg’s Hart Theatre in Albany – is pleased the producers of CMT’s “Nashville” TV show did not turn her into a “magical Negro.” In the show’s fifth season, Giddens plays Hallie Jordan, a rural southern gospel singer who pulls the white country superstar Juliet Barnes out of a deep funk after a plane crash that lays Juliet up for months.
“I was very interested by how they handled the story line,” explains Giddens, the former lead singer of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. “I know the idea of a white singer coming into a black church and being bowled over by the music is not new, but I really like what they did knowing they were going to go in this direction. They cast me as deepening Juliet with her connection to traditional music and bringing that to the story line that fleshes her out a little bit and not taking it down the usual path of turning Hallie into a magical Negro – of which I was scared in the beginning – but making her a real person and not answering all of Juliet’s issues. I thought it was realistic.”
That said, Giddens really is a “magical” African American whose intensely busy career has turned her into a high-profile spokeswoman for civil rights. She is one of the most intense, outspoken and talented such performers since Odetta broke onto the folk blues scene in the 1960s or the deeply soulful blues/jazz singer Nina Simone, who chronicled black injustices for more than five decades.
An Oberlin Conservatory graduate with a degree in opera, Giddens gained wide acclaim singing and playing Appalachian fiddle and banjo in her bare feet with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She went solo in 2013 and has since released two stunning albums, Tomorrow Is My Turn and Freedom Highway. On them she covers everything from Patsy Cline’s “Faded Love” to Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday,” from Pop Staples’ “Freedom Highway” to Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree.” Her originals include “At the Purchaser’s Option” from the point of view of a slave: “You can take my body, you can take my bones/You can take my blood but not my soul.” And “Better Get It Right This Time” about cops quick with a gun: “Told to reach for ya papers they think you strapped with a pistol.”
Giddens is a tireless crusader out to use her art in correcting misconceptions about the role the white power structure assigns to African Americans and other downtrodden cultures.
“What we’re doing is not rewriting history. We’re uncovering the history that actually is. It has been rewritten, and what’s happening is culturally we are challenging what everybody is saying that is not what really is. It’s actually way more interesting, and it’s way more actually American because when you look at America, America is a country of immigrants that native Americans have been putting up with for the last 600 years. When you look at the history, it is constantly of people coming together. It is constantly of cultures mingling.
“We have to get rid of this idea that there is this one WASP way of being American because it’s not true even if you look at all these different ethnicities of white society that used to be sidelined. People say to me, ‘I don’t have a culture.’ Yeah, sure you do. Dig into your family. What shapes your family? So, there’s this weird dichotomy, this weird fantasy that is not interesting because it’s not true.”
This well-read history scholar of American musical history points out that for every 98 mentions of a black fiddler in 1750, there are mentions of two white fiddlers. The banjo is an African instrument, and the African culture is steeped in music that slave masters used at country dances while “race records” producers relegated black recordings to blues appealing to urban blacks but not necessarily rural blacks who gravitated toward “hillbilly” sounds.
“Culturally, we get to mix and then the powers that be say, ‘Wait a minute! If they do that, then they outnumber us, so we can’t have that.’ I remember reading letters from slave owners writing other slave owners advising them how to keep their poor whites and their slaves at each other’s throats. Literally, they’re saying, ‘You have to do this. Better make sure they despise each other,’ because they knew if they
joined ranks it was all over, and any time that happened – poor white and blacks joined ranks – it was like World War III.
“It was basically a coup in Wilmington, North Carolina because poor whites politically formed a party and started kicking ass, and the Jim Crows of the time were like, ‘Oh, we can’t have this,’ and they literally planned for a campaign of hatred and white supremacy, and when that wasn’t enough, they just took over the government.”
Rhiannon Giddens is constantly breaking ranks with what one might expect of even a contemporary black singer. A trained opera singer who performs Appalachian banjo, she’s the first woman, and the only person of color to win the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, a $50,000 prize she used to pay her bills. She duets with country superstar Eric Church on his hit “Kill a Word.” Plus, she sang the blues classic “St. James Infirmary” with ’60s British pop icon Tom Jones on BBC Two’s “Jools Holland’s Hootenanny New Year’s Eve 2015.”
“I’d actually worked with him before. We worked on this Christmas album with an Irish singer and got to sing together on that, so it was really neat. It was great not having that as my first meeting with him because it’s kind of a high-profile thing. He’s a really nice guy, a great musician, and it’s amazing what his voice still sounds like at his age, so it was pretty cool.”
Rhiannon Giddens is singlehandedly breaking down barriers, and her chops are unbelievable. I never thought I’d hear a version “Faded Love” that could match Patsy Cline’s, but this lady does it.
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