Rhiannon Giddens: Pure Folk Fire From ‘A Good-Ol’ Mixed Race North Carolinian’

Courtesy Rhiannon Giddens/Big Hassle / 'It’s not like I would ever put myself forward as an Indian woman, but I’m always interested in finding out musically about these different pieces,' Giddens says of her heritage and musical DNA. Photo courtesy Rhiannon Giddens/Big Hassle

Rhiannon Giddens: Pure Folk-Music Fire From ‘A Good-Ol’ Mixed Race North Carolinian’

Rhiannon Giddens’ first solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn (available on iTunes), is a mixture of blues, folk, and country songs, many of them previously performed by some of the great women performers and writers of popular music, including Patsy Cline, Odetta, Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, and Geeshie Wiley. The beauty of the album is that it seamlessly mixes songs from artists who blurred genre lines and demonstrates that American music really is one music, even if we tend to segregate it along class, regional, and racial lines.

Giddens is the perfect person to understand how all these different types of music are connected. She formally studied opera at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music and has also sung at pow wows, but she is best known as a singer, banjo player, and violinist who co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The Grammy Award winning band learns and researches early 20th century African-American music, including the blues, hot jazz, country music, folk ballads, and jigs that you would hear at a minstrel/medicine show, and the string band music that evolved into bluegrass. Mentored by a legendary fiddler, the late Joe Thompson, the Carolina Chocolate Drops approach their music from an anthropological and historic perspective, while learning to play the pieces in the loose and lively tradition that breathes life into these historic songs.

In 2013, Giddens stole the show as a solo artist at the New York Town Hall folk concert “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis,” organized by the soundtrack’s producer T-Bone Burnett. She went on to work with Burnett again on Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, where she joined a group of musicians, including Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, to write music for a recently discovered set of lyrics written by Bob Dylan in the late-1960s.

“I’ve always been interested in different kinds of music,” Giddens said. “When I was a kid, I was exposed to a lot of different things; folk revival music, stuff that was on the radio, I heard a bit of gospel guitar that my mom liked and, you know, bits and pieces. I really got into the idea of singing for a living when I was about 17 and I went off to opera school: I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was a great experience. At the end of that it was like I fell into folk dance and fiddle and banjo stuff, and I learned the history, so I just kept falling further and further into it.”

Giddens was born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the heart of the Piedmont Crescent, the cradle of the blues. Giddens’ father was white and her mother was African-American and Native American. Though she was not raised culturally as a Native American, Giddens found a deep connection to her Native heritage, which includes Ocaneechi, through music. “When I was in high school I was a part of a pow wow drum group a guy at the school put together called Southern Sun. I just loved that tone of that in my ear and carried that. It was an incredible opportunity for me to explore that for a little bit. After college I found Gaelic singing from the islands of Scotland, which was very similar to what my memories of pow wow singing had been. All of these cultural connections are a big part of who I am. I’m a person of mixed race and I’ve always looked from one world to the other, not only culturally, but from classical to folk, or from instrumental to vocal: that’s kind of been a theme since I started studying music.”

Her Native heritage comes from an area where all the races blurred together in America, and she is equally proud of all of it. “I’m a good ol’ mixed-race North Carolinian; I’m all mixed up in there,” Giddens continued. “There’s an area in North Carolina where there are a lot of Blacks and Indians, and of course, a lot of mixing. I wouldn’t be able to say exactly what percentages I am of this, that, or whatever, but we know, you know what I mean? I know history and I know family lore and the way we look. It’s not like I would ever put myself forward as an Indian woman, but I’m always interested in finding out musically about these different pieces. I don’t know if I have Celtic roots, but it doesn’t matter to me, because the music of North Carolina has Celtic roots; that’s all I need to know. American music is a mélange of all the cultures who were here, it’s a mixture of cultures that wouldn’t have met at any other time in any other place.”

Giddens’ group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, have been together for 10 years and have released 5 albums and an EP. “I’m the only original founding member that’s left, but that’s a time honored tradition in bands,” Giddens laughed. “Tomorrow is My Turn came about when T-Bone Burnett approached me about doing an album after the Inside Llewyn Davis concert, which was the first time I had stepped out of the Chocolate Drops and did a solo thing. I was not on the soundtrack; he just invited me to be a part of the concert. They probably needed a little bit of color up there because when you look at the American folk music revival movement, Odetta was such a huge presence, and Harry Belafonte, and all these people; I was very happy to represent that part of it. Then the solo album came after that and the response has been really great, I’m really pleased.”

Critics have received the album enthusiastically; George De Stefano of Pop Matters called it a “superb debut” and said that Giddens displays the “dazzling brilliance of a genuine star.” Hal Horowitz of American Songwriter praised Tomorrow as “a wonderful album whose restrained pleasures reveal themselves gradually over repeated playings.” (For an endorsement from within Indian country, there’s Martha Redbone, another banjo-picking folkie with Native and African heritage; after witnessing Giddens’ performance of some New Basement Tapes material, Redbone openly mused on Facebook “Can I be her when I grow up?” And a duet between Giddens and Native -folk music institution Pura Fé, Tuscarora, has achieved substantial YouTube popularity.)

An American tour will start at the end of this month (see facebook.com/RhiannonGiddensMusic for dates), and run through the summer. “There’s only 11 songs on the album, so we’ll be doing all the solo material, but we’ll also be doing songs from The New Basement Tapes and we’ll be doing some Chocolate Drop songs as well, so it’ll be a really nice mix for anybody who might come from any of those worlds.”

Tomorrow is My Turn is available from Nonesuch Records in both vinyl and digital formats, and you can stream it for free on YouTube and Spotify. For more information, visit rhiannongiddens.com.

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