Rhiannon Giddens isn't afraid to carry the weight of history in her music. The North Carolina singer-songwriter and banjoist is a founding member of the Grammy-winning group the Carolina Chocolate Drops which won both critical acclaim and loyal fans for their revival of the African-American string band tradition.
2017 was a big year for Giddens. She released Freedom Highway, a solo album of haunting songs inspired by slave narratives. She also received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as a "genius" grant, awarded to individuals who have shown exceptional creativity in their work.
She's on tour now, and stopped by NPR's headquarters in Washington D.C. to talk to NPR's Michel Martin about her work and perform two songs from Freedom Highway. Hear their conversation at the audio link, read an edited transcript below and listen to two a live performance of two songs from Freedom Highway.
Michel Martin: Well, first of all, congratulations on the MacArthur grant. I have to ask: Where were you and what were you doing when you found out?
Rhiannon Giddens: I was on tour, as usual. I think. Or maybe I wasn't. I don't know [laughs]. I don't even know anymore what my life is. But I was out somewhere; I wasn't home. I was working and I got a phone call. I was at a cafe and this woman I didn't know said, 'Are you somewhere we could have a private conversation?' It's like, 'I guess, I'm in a cafe...' And you know, the bomb dropped and I was just completely floored.
Do you remember what went through your mind when you heard?
You know, I was super shocked. Of course, every year the list comes out and every year you think, 'God, what I wouldn't do for one of those.' But you never think you would actually get one. And to get that phone call — I was kind of in shock when I got it, but then when she went on to read what they'd written about me, it just really made me feel amazing because I went, 'Gosh, people are actually listening and appreciating what I'm doing!' Because you just like do and you do and you do and you do what you feel like you're supposed to be doing. And you don't know what's landing, you don't know what's affecting people. You don't know. You just kind of do it until something like this [happens]. It's not the money so much as the validation from people, my peers who are in these industries who are like, 'We want to encourage you to keep going.' That was the best thing for me.
Here's what they said: The Foundation honors you for "reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present." Not too bad, not too shabby. (laughs) Well, speaking of the money, one of the first projects that I've heard you say that you're going to work on is a musical about the — is musical the right word? Like an opera?
No, it's definitely not an opera.
A theatrical treatment?
With music, for sure.
A theatrical treatment of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, and I know that you said this was actually a coup more than a riot.
Yes. So this is the only coup that's ever happened on American soil, as far as I know, which is an enormous event. I'm a North Carolina native, grew up in North Carolina — never learned about it. So not only was it a coup, it was also a massacre. It was not an insurrection, it was not a race riot. It was a massacre. But that is the language that has been used about it to change the narrative. What happened was a fusionist party of white and black political working class people, got together and made this party and were gaining ground, were getting successful in the political arena in North Carolina, and the white supremacists were having none of it. They were like, 'Nope, we're going to take this back. This is not happening.'
And so for the year leading up to this election in 1898 they employed the Ku Klux Klan to do their intimidation and terror and all this kind of stuff and people were so scared. A lot of them didn't even go vote. So they got a lot of those seats back, but there were still fusionist politicians who were in office a few days after that. [The supremacists] get a bunch of rifles, just literally started shooting people, shooting black people in the streets. And a bunch of people go hide in the swamps, a lot of them die of exposure because it's November and it's days they're hiding out there.
This was literally a state-sponsored massacre.
Absolutely. They not only killed a bunch of black people, but they ran the white politicians out of town and they ran any prominent black businessperson, any prominent black cultural leader, ran him out of town. They said, 'You can leave or die.' So they ran them out on a rail basically, replaced those offices with their own politicians and the federal government didn't do a thing.
How did you know of this? How did you hear about this?
There's an amazing writer who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, he's been doing a lot of work with this, called John Jeremiah Sullivan. And we were talking about a different project and he brought this up, and I was like, 'The what? Of what? What are you talking about?' I had no idea. I started digging and I was like, 'Oh my god.' So we're working together on it. And the idea is that there was this promise of this biracial coalition, culturally as well. And you think: That's what Reconstruction was trying to do.
The thing is, we think Reconstruction failed. It didn't fail. It was deconstructed. It was destroyed, right? And this is what happened: There was this pocket where this was actually working in Wilmington; it was a majority black city. The only, I think, full-time black paper was there. This is actually one of the first places they went and burned it down to the ground. That's like a whole 'nother part of the story. For me, it's like, yeah, a lot of people were killed, which is horrible. There was this whole political thing that happened, which was horrible. But also there was this destruction of hope. There was this destruction of what we could be and it was a setback. It was an enormous setback for the black populist movement, for black political power. For not just black political power, but for the idea of working together.
And the idea of making this a theatrical presentation with music, is that because that's your language, or do you hear the music already?
Well, you know, the thing is like, there's a lot of action obviously that goes on with this. And that's what some people would want to focus on — 'We want to focus on the violence!' — but I'm actually more interested in focusing on the culture that existed before. Because this is what we don't hear about. We don't hear about where this actually was working. And that's all to the good of the people who destroyed it. That's what they wanted, you know? They erased it from history. They changed the terminology. Words matter.
And the people who took the power? Their names grace our schools and our streets, and the people who were run out we don't hear about. So the idea is to create this moment of where this culture was. There's a lot of beautiful music from this time period that nobody talks about. They kind of go, on black culture, to spirituals and work songs and they skip ahead to the Harlem Renaissance with a little blues in between. I'm like, 'Wait a minute.' There are actually all these years of this incredible mixing of styles and cultures that was going on that then feed into all the things we think of in the 1910s and the '20s. But we don't hear about it.
This is fascinating. You've given us so much to think about. Have you started writing it at all?
Yeah, I have started.
I'm thinking the last person that many people would know who created a theatrical musical work after winning a MacArthur grant was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created Hamilton. No pressure, though.
No pressure [laughs].
Do you have any of it in your head? Can you give us even a couple bars?
No, I can't, but I have worked on some of the music. My songwriting partner Dirk Powell, who I did a lot of Freedom Highway with, we've been working on songs and it's very exciting. I was just there in Wilmington. There's no commissioning body for this, you know, so whenever we have time ... and this is part of what the grant is for, so that I can create space for that and try to find residencies to do this and not have to be beholden to the the record cycle and all of that.
Can you tell us about the banjo's role in the music that you are creating and that you have been reviving all these years?
Absolutely. And particularly this banjo that I have with me — I mean, obviously, I got started in old-time music and roots music, and the history of the banjo was a great spur for where I ended up, really getting into the historical milieu for the music that we were doing. So finding out the banjo was an African-American instrument, all of that just blew my mind because I had no idea. And then, I found this banjo which is a replica of a banjo from 1858. People always are like, 'Whoa!' They act like it's a new banjo, but actually this is what banjos sounded like. Because before whites took up the banjo in the '40s and the '50s — that is, the 1840s and '50s — they were gourd instruments, they were homemade instruments and they sounded like this. They were deep and they were dark and that's what the banjo sound was.
Eventually it changes and it becomes the sort of bright sound that we know today, but for the first few hundred years of its existence, it was much more of an earthy instrument, you know? And so the sound really attracted me. When I started working on these narratives, these songs that were inspired by slave narratives, I couldn't handle all emotions reading these stories, and then I started thinking, where are these stories existing? Where are they existing? Where are they in the songs? And you realize: People couldn't write about this stuff back then. They had to put it all in code, and it's in the religious music and all that, so it's like, what if we had a narrative ballad tradition in our history, in our culture? What would it be like? I wanted this banjo to go hand in hand with that. For me, when I picked it up, I went, 'This is my instrument.' I was literally like, 'I hope you're selling this, because I'm walking out of this room with it.'
Thank you. What are you going to play?
I'll do the first one that I wrote. This was years ago. It's called "Julie" and it was written after I read this book called The Slaves' War by Andrew Ward. What he did is he took all of these pieces of slave narratives and he put them in the context of the Civil War. So as you read the beginning, the middle, and the end of the war, you know what people's experiences were — a lot of people, not just one. It kind of gives you the idea of a community. It's a really beautiful book. And there was a story in there that inspired this song of two women who were seeing the Union army coming and one of them was the mistress and the other one was, you know, the person that the mistress thinks she owns in her mind. And there's this conversation that goes on and it really hit me hard. It was like, this woman deserves for her story to be told. You know, this was the first time that I sort of thought, 'Oh my gosh.' The song wrote itself and the name came from nowhere. It was Julie. I don't even know the women's names.
Rhiannon Giddens, "Julie"
You're a mother yourself. How do you get through that, singing that song on tour every day? How did you get through it?
I am drawn to those stories. The song we almost name the record after, "At the Purchaser's Option," is also about a mother, you know? And I am drawn to those stories because you know we we pay the price in so many different ways of the system. You know, women. And I don't think it's a story that gets told enough. And I don't think what happened to the African-American family, you know, the way that it was torn apart time and time and time again — these details and the subtleties of these kind of stories, I think that's what I'm here to to say. I didn't have any control over this. This is what I was given to do. And having children myself definitely gives me a strong connection to that. I get through it because I didn't have to live it. The least, the very least I can do, is tell these stories because all these ancestors and all these people who came before me lived this so that I can sit here with you and talk about it. So I cannot be self-indulgent.
Has the way people have responded to your music changed in recent years? It's just interesting that your work has been dedicated to giving voice to voices that have been forgotten, suppressed, ignored, buried. Now, we are having violent conflicts over whose story gets told and how. You know, last year in Charlottesville, a tragic death after these white supremacists [were] protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. In New York just this past week, the statue of a man who experimented on enslaved women without anesthesia who is revered as the father of obstetrics and gynecology. And people had been asking for this thing to be removed, remembering what he did. He treated people in a way we don't even allow people to treat animals now. And so I'm just wondering where your work fits into this conversation. What do you think?
This is what I tell people. It's like, when you look at something like, say, the massacre of 1898, you understand what's going on in North Carolina today. You understand the politics that are going on now. And so that's why I think this stuff is so important: This is not relics. I'm not doing this for fun. Of course I enjoy music. But in terms of this message, the white supremacist stuff they have in Charlottesville all make sense when you know the history. Even the cultural history that the music reveals, you know, when you learn coon songs and you learn minstrelsy and you realize how deep this is in our culture when you get into the history realize where we are everywhere. The more I dug in finding out the true role of African-Americans in the creation of old-time music and square-dancing, for example, which is considered the ultimate American thing. Right? It was a white American thing.
Well, that was a narrative that was created in the '20s that was wholesale fabricated because all of the players for these dances back in the day were black and there was a lot of evidence that black people invented dance calling, which is what sets square dances apart from the quadrilles and things in Europe. They didn't have that. So when you look at that, it's not just, 'Oh, wasn't it interesting,' it's like, no, actually, it didn't just disappear. It was actually dismantled, this idea that we were involved in all of these different things.
So when you go back and you look at that it's actually very freeing. Yeah, I mean, there was a Great Migration, there's changing musical taste — all this stuff contributed to the decrease of African-Americans playing the banjo. But the biggest piece is this destruction of the real story and the creation of a false story and then a separation into boxes of American music. And when you do that to our culture, that allows politically things to slot in. Because then you believe, 'Oh, we're so different,' when we're actually a lot more similar than we are different. It shows up in music over and over and over again and that's why they have to stop it.
Do you feel that the music is changing things? Do you feel that the work changes anything?
What, my work? I have no idea. I mean, that's the hardest thing about being an artist: You literally just have to do what you were given to do and you don't know until somebody walks up and says, 'I'm now playing the banjo,' or until somebody walks up and says, 'I read that book and I have a different idea of what's going on,' you know? I feel like if five people walk up to me and say that, I feel like I've made a difference. I don't know what the impact is overall. I know The Carolina Chocolate Drops has contributed to the conversation. I know what I'm doing is contributing to the conversation and I don't really think about what the impact is. I can't. All I can do is get feedback from my audiences, and people say, 'We love the history, keep it coming.' That's really powerful feedback for me because nobody's coming to my show to hear me talk. But the fact that they still appreciate that I contextualize these pieces, that means a lot. So I take that feedback and I just sort of sink it into my brain and I go, 'OK, let's just keep going.'
Rhiannon Giddens, "At The Purchaser's Option"
Well, keep going. What's the last song you're going to play?
I'll play the other song that was inspired by being a mother called "At the Purchaser's Option" that was inspired by an ad that I saw in the late 1700s that was for a young woman who was for sale. This was very common, like used car ads. Seriously, you needed some cash, you just put an ad in the paper. It was horrible; these are human beings. But it was so common and it said at the end of it: She has with her a nine-month-old baby who is "at the purchaser's option." And those words said everything to me. I tried to put myself in her position. Her frame of mind.
Web editor Sidney Madden and web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.