Before Rhiannon Giddens went to New Orleans to work on her stunning second solo disc, the former Carolina Chocolate Drops member visited Sing Sing in upstate New York as part of a program for artists working with prisoners.
“It hit me like a blow. I’ve read all the books, I know the population of prisons, but to walk in there and to see so many black faces — the visceralness of that, the result of centuries of institutionalized discrimination, all of that,” she told NPR’s Terri Gross.
“So all of that was kind of swirling in the air, and I had gone down to Louisiana to start working on this record with my co-producer, Dirk Powell, at his studio … and we were sitting there talking about this and how intense everything is and we just started writing this song, which turned out to be “Better Get It Right.”
The song, one of nine originals among the 12 tunes on “Freedom Highway,” is about black men being shot that features Gidden’s supple, enchanting voice and a rap from her nephew, Justin Harrington.
“We were recently in Dallas with this show and it was just the most unbelievable thing. The exact thing that he raps about happened in Dallas like three or four days before we got there,” Giddens says. “This young man, straight-A student, went to this party with some of his friends and somebody called in underage drinking, so the cops were coming. So he and his friends leave in this car, he’s in the passenger side, and this police officer takes a rifle and shoots after the car and kills this young man, shoots him in the head, and he dies.”
“It’s like, doing that in that city in Dallas, three or four days after that happened and hearing the eeriness of my nephew rapping these words, it just — I don’t even know. I couldn’t even hardly get through the song, I just started crying.”
It’s not a comfortable subject, but then Giddens has been exploring heritage, race and privilege pretty much since she was the child of a white father and a black mother growing up in Greensboro, N.C. in the 1970s.
She’s the Sunday, June 25, headliner of Funhouse Fest, the three-day music extravaganza in Williamsburg curated by Bruce Hornsby. On Friday, Hornsby plays his “hits” before Sheryl Crow, touring behind a new album, closes the show.
On Saturday, there’s something for everyone starting with Kenny Garrett at 4:30 p.m. and moving through the stunning harmonies of the British trio, The Staves, and on to the dance and rock and roll soul of favorites Lake Street Dive before Hornsby closes it out playing songs of his buddy Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.
The Sunday show may be the most intriguing for those with big and adventuresome ears. It opens with Hiss Golden Messenger, the folk rock band featuring MC Taylor from Carolina getting strong reviews for their new “Heart Like a Levee,” then features The Staves, Hornsby and the Sonny Emory Duo before closing with Giddens, a singular voice. (She also happens to be a TV star these days with an important role on the prime-time soap, “Nashville,” as the gospel singer with the voice of an angel).
Her new album after one solo disc and a couple for Carolina Chocolate Drops, Grammy winners, moves from Appalachian bluegrass to jazzy phrasing to spare folk songs including the murder ballad, “The Angels Laid Him Away,” that sound like they could be a century old. She makes clear this is not going to be easy listening on the opening cut, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a song she wrote about a mother anguishing over the future of a child, a future she does not control. “You can take my body, you can take my bones,” she sings. “You can take my blood but not my soul.”
That willingness to stare into the pain of history continues on cuts like “Julie,” a Civil War conversation between a slave and her mistress inspired by something Giddens read, and the wistful “We Could Fly” that is a modern spiritual. There’s also the sly, sexy Louisiana romp of “Hey Bebe” and her take on The Staple Singers classic, “Freedom Highway,” as the closer.
“I’m a very spiritual person. I believe we are all put here for a reason. Some of us are lucky to find this early on and some of us are not,” she says. “That’s just the way it is. If you are lucky enough to find what you are put here to do, then you better do it. I feel like that is your responsibility. One of the things I am here to do is to give voice to these stories. I didn’t write any of these songs. These songs were given to me. I am the instrument.”
Giddens has been a musical explorer for all of her career, now stretching more than a decade. That exploration has also introduced her to partners along the way that changed her musical direction like a river switches course. She declined an interview request but she has shared her story with NPR and other publications over the years.
She studied opera at the conservatory of Oberlin College then returned to North Carolina burned out on classical singing. There, she joined a Celtic band (eventually, she would marry an Irishman and split her time between Carolina and Ireland). Later, she competed in Sottish music competitions.
At Oberlin, she’d gone to a contra dance, not understanding what it was (she thought perhaps something out of Jane Austen). She fell in love with the rhythm and beauty.
She began traveling the state calling dances for money and also playing small sets on the banjo. Eventually, she found her way to a festival called the Black Banjo Gathering and her career took its second turn.
She met an octogenarian fiddler named Joe Thompson who introduced her to Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson. Later, she met Sule Greg Wilson. Together with Flemons, they started playing as a postmodern string band, Sankofa Strings. Eventually, that band became the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
For Giddens, it was a chance to explore musical heritage. “When I first heard the minstrel banjo — I played a gourd first — I almost lost my mind,” she says. “I was like, Oh, my god. And then I went to Africa, to the Gambia, and studied the akonting, which is an ancestor of the banjo, and just that connection to me was just immense … the connection of that to the minstrel banjo, minstrelsy being the first American cultural export to the world. So this sound, that deepness, that quality is what people associated with American music.
“Whenever I play it, people are like, “What is that?” I’m like, “This is America, dude.” This instrument right here, born in Africa, but then made in America and then altered by white America, that’s the story of so much of our music,” she adds. “And it starts here — it’s the first thing that people heard.”
Giddens’s career took another bend when she met producer T-Bone Burnett while in New York for a show. He suggested she do a solo record — he produced her debut — and also featured her on the
Wrote Jon Pareles, the long-time music critic for The New York Times: “The concert’s real head turner was Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She turned to the folk revival repertory of Odetta for the enigmatic “Water Boy,” singing it with the fervor of a spiritual, the yips of a field holler and the sultry insinuation of the blues. And she followed it with a pair of songs in Gaelic, making them peal and dance. These weren’t her local folklore; they were learned, and the performances were splendidly polished.”
Finding the common ground in a song, that place where the singer and the song’s history meet, is something Giddens has pondered, something she does so well.
“When you’re singing a song, you should have that common ground. You have to have common ground with it. I’ve been asked by white artists or students — because I do teach in workshops — and they go, “How do I approach this work song or this spiritual? Can I sing this?”
And I say, “Of course you can sing it. Should you sing it like an eighty-five-year-old woman from Alabama? No. You shouldn’t try to sing it like that. I can’t sing it like that because I’m not an eighty-five-year-old woman from Alabama. You have to find the core within the song that speaks to your core.”