Some paths to the past are well-traveled. Textbooks and school lectures draw straight lines between cause and effect, between history and history repeating. Other paths are visible but lesser-known, uncovered by alternate narratives and specific research. And others still are completely invisible, so overgrown with time and lack of attention that they disappear either forever or until stumbled upon. Folk musician and unofficial keeper of stories Rhiannon Giddens aims for the second tactic and lands on the third in the video to her swinging cover of the Appalachian ballad, "Black is the Color."
In her work with old-time and bluegrass outfit Carolina Chocolate Drops, and as a solo musician performing traditional gospel, soul and folk music, Giddens has made clear her commitment to unearthing American music's roots. Her approach is both respectful and innovative, and is on full display here. Sung with real joy and desire, backed by ebullient percussion and harmonica, this version adds a layer of earthy physicality missing from most previous incarnations. The video's narrative matches the song's revelry, as Giddens pores through trinkets and photographs depicting histories real and imagined. About the shoot, she told NPR:
We all had such a great time filming this video and were so honored to set our story—an old love story rediscovered—on the campus of Fisk University, a Nashville HBCU [historically black college or university] that dates back to 1866. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were among the first African-American performance groups to tour America and Europe, and they single-handedly kept their school from closing its doors with the money they raised with their singing.
Pairing artifact with imagination is critical to the study of history, particularly when reconstructing images of a past that were willfully ignored. In Giddens' curious and reverent care, an old song and an old story become intriguing, infectious, and downright sexy.