Folk polymath Rhiannon Giddens honors the musical cultures of the oppressed

Rhiannon Giddens - JOHN PEETS

  • Rhiannon Giddens
  • John Peets

Rhiannon Giddens first gained international recognition in the late 2000s as a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an acoustic combo dedicated to honoring the African-American string-band tradition. During the heyday of these bands in the early 20th century, they incorporated a wide range of influences, among them antebellum slave songs, acoustic blues, popular tunes, fiddle breakdowns, creole music, and Celtic reels—though most modern listeners simply characterize the banjo-and-violin melodies of string-band music as “hillbilly” or “country.”

Like their predecessors in the 20s and 30s, the Carolina Chocolate Drops cast a wide net: a typical set might touch on blues, folk, pop (and not just vintage pop—the group has included beatboxer Adam Matta), vaudeville-tinged musical storytelling, and folk dances that hybridized Anglo-European and African-American cultural tropes as effortlessly as the music did. Giddens’s supple, expressive voice (she’d studied opera at Oberlin) proved more than equal to the diverse challenges she set it, and her flamboyant showmanship upped the ante further. She often ended her portion of the show with a folk version of the 2001 Blu Cantrell R&B number “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” complete with body language and audience shout-outs borrowed from hip-hop.

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In 2006 the Chocolate Drops released their acclaimed debut, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (Music Maker), but Giddens continued to record with other artists. In 2007 she appeared on Indian Summer by ethnomusicologist and singer Talitha MacKenzie, contributing vocals, banjo, fiddle, and traditional “flatfooting” dance-step rhythms; in 2009 she and mezzo-­soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis formed the group Eleganza to release Because I Knew You, a set of songs drawn from classical music, the African-­American spiritual tradition, and American theater and film.

After the Chocolate Drops won a Grammy for the 2010 Nonesuch release Genuine Negro Jig (Best Traditional Folk Album), Giddens’s solo career blossomed. In 2013 she participated in a Manhattan concert organized to promote Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers film based loosely on the memoirs of folksinger Dave Van Ronk. Her renditions of “Water Boy” (where she invoked the spirit of African-American folksinger and activist Odetta) and two traditional Gaelic dance songs earned her a spontaneous standing ovation and widespread critical praise. She also recorded contributions to We Are Not for Sale: Songs of Protest (a 2013 compilation released by a collective calling itself the NC Music Love Army) and T-Bone Burnett’s 2014 Bob Dylan project Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.

Giddens’s solo releases under her own name—the EPs We Rise (2013) and Factory Girl (2015) and the albums Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015) and Freedom Highway (2017)—have solidified her status as a major creative force even as she remains difficult for marketers to categorize. African-American artists who don’t make R&B or hip-hop often get lumped into “blues,” especially if they play “folk” instruments, but Giddens’s output is too varied and extensive for that kind of racially coded knee-jerk label to stick.

Because Giddens has made a specialty of stylistic and cultural mashups, the words “postmodern” and “postracial” get thrown at her a lot. But hers remains the voice of a proud black woman celebrating her heritage—and her understanding of that heritage means she embraces and honors the entirety of “people’s culture,” both high and low, no matter its origin or background. Whether borrowed or original, her songs are fables of struggle and triumph, usually from the perspective of the oppressed—the kind of staunch-hearted anthems of solidarity that we need now more than ever.  v

Rhiannon Giddens performs on Sunday, June 11, at 6:20 PM at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

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