Rhiannon Giddens sings slave narratives
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting last week while I took the week off. Yesterday was Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S. It's been celebrated by African Americans in various forms since 1865 and last year was recognized as an official federal holiday. It fell on a Sunday this year, so many people have the day off today to celebrate. We're going to observe Juneteenth by featuring our interview with songwriter, singer and musician Rhiannon Giddens, who has set several slave narratives to music. She first featured some of them on her album "Freedom Highway," which was released in 2017, when we recorded this interview. She has a beautiful voice, and she brought her banjo with her to sing some of her songs.
Giddens has a personal and musical background that crosses boundaries. She grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of an African American mother and a white father. She studied opera at Oberlin. But she found her musical identity after graduation when she started playing string band music from the 1920s and '30s with songs based on African American musical traditions. She co-founded the band The Carolina Chocolate Drops. And in the same year of our interview, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the Genius Award. In 2020, she was named artistic director of Silkroad, the ensemble and cultural organization founded by Yo-Yo Ma.
She wrote the libretto and music for the original opera "Omar," based on the autobiography of an enslaved man. It premiered last month at the Spoleto Festival. Giddens had a featured role in the TV series "Nashville." Her latest album, "They're Calling Me Home" with Francesco Turrisi, won a Grammy earlier this year for Best Folk Album. Let's start with one of her songs inspired by slave narratives from her album "Freedom Highway." This is "Come Love Come."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME LOVE COME")
RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) Come, love, come. The road lies low. The way is long and hard. I know. Come, love, come. The road lies free. I'll wait for you in Tennessee. When I was 4, my loving mam was cornered by the boss' man. She turned her head and got struck down. They buried her in the cold, cold ground. Come, love, come. The road lies low. The way is long and hard. I know. Come, love, come. The road lies free. I'll wait for you in Tennessee. When I was 12, my father dear was strong...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Rhiannon Giddens, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Tell us about the slave narrative that the song we just heard is based on.
GIDDENS: Well, that one in particular is actually kind of based on an amalgam of stories that I was reading just - you know, just sort of the usual - I hesitate to say that word but the usual experiences of a lot of people back then. And it kind of - it takes all of those and puts them into one life. You know, the loss of parents, whether by, you know, death or by them being sold away, that breaking up of the family is in there, the first two verses.
And then the whole idea of the one-day-a-week marriage - you know, if you married somebody who was on another plantation, you only got to be together for one day a week, you know? And, of course, that marriage wasn't even legal. It's like your own cultural marriage, you know, jumping the broom. So you know, all of those things and then leading to the thing that so many enslaved people did, which was to follow the Union Army and camp right outside the barracks in Tennessee. They were called contraband. I put all of that into one life.
GROSS: What got you into reading slave narratives and thinking you'd base some songs on them?
GIDDENS: You know, getting into the banjo and discovering that it was an African American instrument, you know, just - it totally turned on its head my idea of American music and then, through that, American history, you know, because the music that we do is all a result of the cultural aspects and the historical aspects that are going on.
And so I just started going, OK, if I'm playing this music that has its roots in slavery and the Civil War and, you know, especially when I started playing my minstrel-era replica banjo, I was like, well, I really need to know what was going on. And I always knew a little bit, of course, you know, through the educational system, a very little - I will, you know, not hesitate to add - about that time. And I just started digging. And the more that I dug, the more music made sense and the more that today started making even more sense. And so I just became, you might say, obsessed.
GROSS: So you describe your banjo as a minstrel-era banjo, a replica of a minstrel-era banjo. So what makes this banjo different than other banjos?
GIDDENS: Well, you know, the original banjos were all handmade instruments. It would be made with gourds and whatever, you know, materials would have been around. And, you know, the first hundred years of its existence, the banjo's known as a plantation instrument, as a Black instrument, you know? So the white community is not even touching this thing. It is a plantation instrument.
And it's in the 1840s when white entertainers start making the first commercial changes to the banjo. And by commercial, I mean that's the banjo that starts to be commercially sold. So when these entertainers get a hold of this, they - you know, they change it from a gourd to a tension hoop, so - the wooden rim, which then turns into a metal rim later. And so this is the first banjo that's being commercially sold, this style. And so this one in particular that I'm playing, made by Jim Hartel in upstate New York, is a replica of a Levi Brown banjo from 1858. The sound of it is the sound of the original banjo. I mean, it's that deep, really deep, beautiful, you know, thing.
GROSS: It is deep. It's deeper than I'm used to hearing. And the way that you play it - parts of the album are really haunted. I mean, you're talking about slavery. You're talking about death. You're writing songs about, you know, mothers who have to give up their children. So - and your singing has a haunted quality but so does the banjo. And you have your banjo. Maybe you could illustrate this for us to talk about the style that you're playing to get that deep sound and to not have it be this frailing or lively kind of banjo - to have that sad, haunted quality to it.
GIDDENS: Yeah. I mean, this is the original sound of the banjo. And it's like - you're surprised; I was surprised when I first heard these. And when I first heard the minstrel banjo or the - I'd played a gourd first - I almost lost my mind. I was like, oh, my God (laughter). And then I, you know, went to Africa to the Gambia and studied the akonting, which is an ancestor to the banjo. And just that connection to me was just immense. And for me, the connection of that to the minstrel banjo - and, see, minstrelsy being the first American cultural export, you know, to the world - so this sound...
(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO STRUMMING)
GIDDENS: ...You know, that deepness, that - you know, that quality is what people associated with American music, you know? And now it's so opposite because of, you know, the journey the banjo has taken, you know, to be where it is now. And that's what's in people's minds because that's the narrative that's been written about the banjo. This part...
(SOUNDBITE OF BANJO STRUMMING)
GIDDENS: ...Has been left out, you know, for various reasons - as we can get into or not later. But this is the sound that I wanted to be associated with these songs because this is what you would have heard. Whenever I play it, people are like, what is that? And I'm like, this is America, dude.
GIDDENS: Like, this instrument right here, you know, born in Africa but then made in America and then altered by white America - I mean, that's the story about so much of our music, you know? And it starts here. It's the first thing that people heard.
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to perform for us another song that you do on your album, "Freedom Highway." And this is called "The Purchaser's Option." And this is based on an ad that you saw, a historical ad for a slave that was going to be sold. So this was the owner taking out an ad.
GIDDENS: Yeah. That was a - you know, a lot of people, you know, we like to think that slavery only existed in the South. But, you know, up until a certain point, it was all over, you know, the United States at that point where - you know, the fledgling United States. And, you know, a lot of people - majority of slave owners only had two or three or, you know, even one or two enslaved people in their household. And they were a form of wealth. So if somebody had, you know, needed some money, they would sell somebody. I mean, that's just kind of how it was. So they put an ad in the paper and they'd get their cash. I mean, it's - for me, the - that whole story is just - it just shows the absolute commonplaceness of it, which also shows how horrible that is, you know, that that's commonplace.
And this ad, you know, really killed me because at the end of it, it says she has with her a 9-month-old baby who was at the purchaser's option. And I just started thinking about what this young woman - what her life was really like, you know, not having any agency over any part of her life. Like, we take that for granted. Like, I have two children and I'm like, I don't have to worry about them being sold away from me or taken away, you know? And just how do you make it through that, that kind of life?
GROSS: So at the purchaser's option in this context meant that if you buy this woman who's a slave, you have the option of buying or not buying her baby along with her.
GIDDENS: That's right. That's right.
GIDDENS: It's just - it gives me - it gives me the creeps just even talking about it now, even though I've, you know, been singing the song now ever since. but...
GROSS: Can I ask you to sing it for us?
GIDDENS: Yeah. (Playing guitar, singing) I've got a babe, but shall I keep him? 'Twill come the day when I'll be weeping. But how can I love him any less, this little babe upon my breast? You can take my body. You can take my bones. You can take my blood but not my soul. You can take my body, take my bones. You can take my blood but not my soul. I've got a body dark and strong. I was young but not for long. You took me to bed a little girl, left me in a woman's world. You can take my body. You can take my bones. You can take my blood but not my soul. You can take my body. You can take my bones, take my blood but not my soul. You can take my body. You can take my bones. You can take my blood but not my soul. You can take my body, take my bones. You can take my blood but not my soul.
GROSS: Thank you for doing that. That song is really chilling. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rhiannon Giddens. She's a singer as well as a banjo player and violinist who has - was a founding member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and has since done a lot of solo work. We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHIANNON GIDDENS SONG, "SHAKE SUGAREE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with singer, banjo player and violinist Rhiannon Giddens. Before starting a solo career, she was a founding member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, which plays string band music in the African American tradition. Our interview was recorded in 2017 after the release of her album "Freedom Highway," which featured several original songs adapted from slave narratives.
One song was inspired by an 18th-century newspaper notice selling an enslaved person. I'm wondering if there are any slave stories that have been passed on through the generations in your family, stories that you heard told or that you asked about and found out the answers to?
GIDDENS: Yeah, there actually is. And I hope I get this right because, you know, as a kid, you hear things and you don't even know you're changing them, you know, in your brain. But the one that's in my family that has been told is that, you know, there's two brothers that - this is my family in North Carolina. And we descended - the Morrow family descended from these two brothers. And, you know, the lore that I remember is that they were saved from the slave catchers by being tossed up in the loft by this woman who was living there. They were on the run, and they were the only ones who were saved in this group because she threw them up in the loft and the slave catchers didn't find them up there.
And I never really thought about this, you know, until I started digging into this. Like, it was just kind of part of our story, you know? And, like, what does that mean and what does it mean for me, like, if they hadn't been thrown up in the loft? It just - it was really profound to connect it to my own family, you know, in that way.
GROSS: Rhiannon, you know, another thing about this album is it takes it up to the present. It takes it up to a song that's really, as far as - at least it sounds this way to me - is a song about, you know, all the young African American men who have been shot without cause by police and, you know, young men for whom, like, just one misinterpreted gesture can land you in jail or in the grave. The song is called "Better Get It Right The First Time." Can you tell us about the song and writing it?
GIDDENS: Yeah, so it kind of has its roots in a couple of different things. And one is that, you know, I have a 19-year-old nephew who has been really struggling with this. So we've had these conversations about what it means for him to walk down the street in his hoodie and fears about him going off to Cincinnati to school. And so that was kind of in my brain. And then, you know, I visited Sing Sing Penitentiary (ph) in upstate New York as part of this Carnegie program that - where there were - artists go in to work with prisoners. And it hit me like a blow. Like, I've read all the books. Like, I know the population of prisons. But to walk in there and to see so many Black faces, you know, it just - the visceralness (ph) of that, you know, the result of centuries of institutionalized discrimination and all of that.
So all 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 in Breaux Bridge. 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." And, you know, we wrote this song, and we both agreed that it really needed a voice that was of now and in a way that ours - it is, and it isn't.
And so, you know, we knew we wanted my nephew Justin to be a part of it 'cause he's a rapper and he's very, very opinionated in a beautiful way and just, like, very angry about what's going on and wanted him to be a part of the statement because that's his life. And so we collaboratively wrote the song. And, you know, then, he wrote the rap that went into that - the place that we left for that. And it just - man, I was just - it was pretty intense to have it all put together.
GROSS: So let's hear it. This is Rhiannon Giddens and her nephew, Justin Harrington, from Rhiannon Giddens' new album, "Freedom Highway."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME")
GIDDENS: (Singing) Young man was a good man. Did you stand your ground? Young man was a good man. Is that why they took you down? Young man was a good man. Or did you run that day? Young man was a good man. Baby, they shot you anyway - better get it right the first time, better get it right the first time, better get it right the first time, better get it right the first time.
JUSTIN HARRINGTON: (Rapping) We done seen it on the daily, reposting obituary pages, losing beloveds. They want to change the subject. It's nothing new for the blue. Is it the who or the hue? It's kids watching they fathers die when they pull up the tube. We know enough to be cautious, but honesty is not simple. Told to reach for your paper, they think you strapped with a pistol. I was chilling, had nothing but good intentions. I knew to achieve success, had to learn to finesse the system.
(Rapping) It was GPAs and test scores, had to be the best for college, my only option. My mama told me to prep for it. So it was kind of tiresome, stress reddening my irises. I got the invite to another function - like, finally. Had to pull up with the homies, only pouring some soda. I keep a clear head - seen enough to know how it goes. But I noticed they getting louder. Neighbors complain about the noise. Before I knew it, heard someone yell out, run, it's the boys.
(Rapping) I didn't know what direction. I hit the curb, and I run. Everybody loud - ain't hear them tell me, put my hands up. Headed toward the lights. Someone screamed my name from behind. I guess you better get it right the first time.
GROSS: That's "Better Get It Right The First Time" from Rhiannon Giddens' new album, "Freedom Highway." And that was her nephew, Justin Harrington, doing the rap. So was this song, or what your nephew raps on the song, related to any specific incident?
GIDDENS: The story is really just one of many. And my nephew had written this last year, and we were recently in Dallas with this show. And it was just the most unbelievable thing. The exact thing that he raps about, like, happened in Dallas, like, three or four days before we got there. This young man, straight-A student, you know, 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 - you know, shoots him in the head, and he dies.
And it's like - doing that in that city, in Dallas, like, three or four days after that happened and, like, hearing the eeriness of my nephew rapping these words, it just - I don't even know. I couldn't even - I can't even tell you. I couldn't even hardly get through the song. I just started crying, you know, 'cause I was just like - it - yeah, it was just really intense.
GROSS: We're listening to my interview with Rhiannon Giddens from 2017 about her album "Freedom Highway." Her latest album with Francesco Turrisi won a Grammy for best folk album. We'll hear more of the interview and more of Giddens' music after a short break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM HIGHWAY")
RHIANNON GIDDENS AND BHI BHIMAN: (Singing) March down freedom highway, oh, yeah, marching each and every day. March down freedom highway, oh, yeah, marching each and every day. Made up my mind that I won't turn around. Made up my mind that I won't turn around.
GIDDENS: (Singing) There is just one thing I can't understand.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with singer and musician Rhiannon Giddens in 2017 after the release of her album "Freedom Highway." The album includes several of her songs adapted from slave narratives. Her album with singer Francesco Turrisi won a Grammy earlier this year for best folk album. It's titled "They're Calling Me Home." Giddens also co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group dedicated to string-band music inspired by African American string bands of the 1920s and '30s. She studied opera at Oberlin and wrote the libretto and music for the original opera "Omar," based on the autobiography of an enslaved man. It premiered last month at the Spoleto Festival. As you can tell, her musical abilities and interests are wide-ranging and deep.
When you made this album, you were actually preparing for your first Broadway role, the starring role in the musical "Shuffle Along," which was about the making of the 1921 musical "Shuffle Along," which was the first Broadway musical written and performed exclusively by African Americans. But the show closed because the star of the - you were going to replace Audra McDonald in it 'cause she was pregnant...
GIDDENS: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: ...And couldn't continue past a certain point. And this was 2016 or 2015? I lose track of time.
GIDDENS: It was 2016.
GROSS: 2016, yeah.
GROSS: So you were going to replace her. But then the show closed when she left. And so you never got a chance to do it. But not knowing that you wouldn't get a chance to do it, you asked the producers - while you were planning to take over from Audra McDonald, you asked them if you could take a couple of weeks and record this album.
GIDDENS: Yeah. And they gave me a week and a half (laughter).
GROSS: Well, my question is - so this was a huge opportunity for you, right? And you were learning all these...
GROSS: ...New things 'cause you...
GROSS: ...Hadn't done Broadway before. So why did you feel so compelled that you had to leave then and make this album, like, right away?
GIDDENS: I mean, my team could testify to this. I felt crazy. I felt like a crazy person. I was like - I felt this unbelievable urge, you know? I just felt like it had to be made right then, you know? I was kind of in this state, this hyper state of just being connected to these voices that wanted to be heard. I mean, I can't really explain it any better than that. It was just - it was a really, really super intense time. The band had been together for a year and a half on on the road, like, constantly touring. We had this really tight sound. I knew it was, like, now or never. It was like - to make this record, whatever it's going to be, we have to do it right now. It was that kind of weird certainty and yet not knowing exactly how I was going - you know, it was - oh, it was intense.
GROSS: So I was hoping to see you in "Shuffle Along." But since the show closed and you never got to do the part, I thought I would selfishly ask if you would be willing to sing an excerpt of one of the songs that you would have sung had the show remained open.
GIDDENS: I would love to. My favorite, of course, is "Memories Of You," which is her last statement in the show. And it was written by Blake and Andy Razaf, who was an incredible lyricist. And let's see.
(Singing) Here and there, everywhere, scenes that we once knew - and they all just recall memories of you. How I wish I could forget those happy yesteryears that have left a rosary of tears. Your face beams in my dreams. In spite of all I do, everything seems to bring memories of you.
GROSS: Well, thank you. That was really so lovely. And I think - am I hearing, like, your opera training in there, too, when you sing that? That song has an enormous range.
GIDDENS: Yeah. And the thing is, like, they wrote - you know, they wrote for unamplified voices back then, you know, so...
GROSS: Because there wasn't amplification yet.
GIDDENS: Yeah, there was no - there's no microphones. There's no head mikes, you know? And so, like, this time period is very much - you know, a lot of the songs in "Shuffle" are very high, you know, because that's how stuff's getting heard, is that it's tapping into that head voice. So yeah, absolutely. I have no qualms bringing in the classical training for that in particular because it just - that's where it wants to sit, you know?
GROSS: So I want to talk with you about your life. And I want to quote something that you've said, which is, I am a daughter of the South, of the white working class, of the Black working class, of the Democrats and the Republicans, of the gay and the straight. Is that all literally true?
GIDDENS: Yep. My...
GROSS: So - yeah. Let's go through it.
GIDDENS: Sure. I mean, I ended up moving to Greensboro. But I spent the first part of my life with my grandparents out in the country. So my mom's folks are from one side of Greensboro and - you know, outside of Greensboro. And then my dad's folks - the white side - is from another very small town outside of Greensboro. So both sides are coming from the country. And, you know, one side being, you know, my dad's side - I'd say a lot of those folks are a lot more conservative and would be Republican. And us coming into that family was very interesting, you know? And...
GROSS: But - you mean, the Black side out of your family.
GROSS: Right. Yeah.
GIDDENS: Yes, the colored girls. Yes - me and my sister. And I think - I find the story really beautiful because the fact that my parents came together in Greensboro - they went to, you know, college and found each other in Greensboro, the big city. It's by no means a New York City. But it was the big city for all the surrounding towns. And they met there and, you know, created, you know, these two - me and my sister - and got married. And these two families had to deal with that, you know? And, of course, the Black side - a lot more easier knowing how to deal with the white folks, you know, because it's kind of, you know, what you have to do. But the - my dad's folks, like, not knowing quite what to do with me and my sister, you know?
And for me that - the story is really beautiful. And it is the way that we change things, is that sometimes it just takes one person. And that in that family was my grandmother, my dad's mom. My sister was her first grandchild. And she had a choice. She was like, I can treat this child differently, or I can just treat this child like I love them 'cause they're my grandchild. And that's what she did. And she set this tone, you know, that was like, these are my grandchildren. And it was just this love. She was just made of love.
And I just - I really feel like one person can make a huge difference if they just, like, believe what their heart tells them - and, you know, my mom's parents loving my dad and just bringing him in. And, you know, there was a lot of that going on. And this is the middle of North Carolina in the '70s. You know, I mean, they couldn't even get married in Greensboro. I mean, it's just...
GROSS: They couldn't get married in Greensboro?
GIDDENS: Yes. That's what I was told. Like, they had to go to Winston (laughter) to get married. I mean, this is three years after the Loving decision - they got married, yeah.
GROSS: Three years after the Supreme Court...
GIDDENS: After - yeah.
GROSS: ...That made it - that outlawed all of the anti-miscegenation laws, the laws...
GROSS: ...That made it impossible, like, illegal for a Black and a white person to marry.
GIDDENS: Yeah, I mean, and that just...
GROSS: And they couldn't marry. That's amazing.
GIDDENS: You know, it just blows my mind to think about that, to think that three years before they got married, it wouldn't have been legal (laughter). I mean, that just...
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
GIDDENS: It blows my mind, you know?
GROSS: So, you know, in terms of that identity statement that I read, the part about - that you're the daughter of the gay and the straight.
GIDDENS: Yeah. My mom, she's a part - she's had a partner for many years, my other mom, Ann (ph) - (laughter). I got a lot of moms. And they recently got married in North Carolina now that it's legal - hopefully will continue to be. And I grew up, you know - 'cause my - obviously, my mom and my dad got divorced when I was very, very young. And that's just been part of my life. You know, I didn't - I've never really thought about it. It was just my mom.
GROSS: How old were you when she came out?
GIDDENS: Well, I don't - you know, I don't know if she's ever, like, announced - she just lived her life. I think there was one day I realized, like, oh, that's Mom's girlfriend (laughter). You know what I mean?
GROSS: So you were still a child.
GIDDENS: Yeah, I was still a child. But I was just like, it didn't mean anything to me other than just that was who she was, you know?
GROSS: Now, your father sang - right? - or sings?
GIDDENS: Yeah. Yeah, he was a voice major. And, you know, he had this beautiful - I mean, still has a beautiful voice. But had an opera-worthy baritone and was going into - you know, ended up going into music education. And, you know, my - when he married my mother, I think that caused some problems for him with his teacher. And, you know, he - it wasn't easy back then. It just wasn't. You know, do...
GROSS: For racial reasons it caused him trouble with his teacher?
GIDDENS: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, it caused him troubles with his teacher, with jobs. I mean, yeah, it was tough. It was tough for both of them. I mean, the - just because it was legal didn't mean it was accepted culturally or, you know, anywhere else. So, you know, they definitely had hard times in the earlier years because of that. You know, it just kind of blows me away, you know, thinking about that.
GROSS: Well, I want to talk with you more, but first, we have to take a short break, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Rhiannon Giddens. She is a founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops that played string band music in the African American tradition. She's since gone solo. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHIANNON GIDDENS SONG, "THAT LONESOME ROAD")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2017 interview with singer, banjo player and violinist Rhiannon Giddens. She was a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops before starting a solo career.
So you studied opera, in spite of the fact that your music is, you know, out of various folk traditions, and also country music and some gospel you've sung. But you went to Oberlin and studied opera there. Given that's not the direction you ended up taking, why did you decide to study opera?
GIDDENS: I decided to study music my last year in high school. And I didn't really know much about opera. I just - I had one CD, a compilation CD, that I loved. And I knew that they didn't speak (laughter) on stage. And they sing all the time. That sounds really cool. I want to do opera. I mean, that's literally - that was my choice, you know? I just had this fear of speaking on stage. So I went with opera.
GROSS: Is there an excerpt, a very brief excerpt, of an opera, of an aria that you can sing for us that you learned in your Oberlin days?
GIDDENS: I would love to do - it's not an aria, but this art song that I just think is beautiful. It's called "Morgen!" by Strauss. And to me, it's, like, one of the most perfect pieces of music.
GROSS: And what is it about?
GIDDENS: The translation of what I'm going to sing is, in tomorrow the sun will shine again, and on the way I will go, she will again unite us, the happy ones, amidst the sun-breathing earth.
It's just about, you know, when you're with that person and everything is perfect, you know, how beautiful German is. You know, (speaking German) - the sun-breathing or sun-drenched earth. I mean, these just beautiful terms. Anyway, sorry. I'll stop.
(Singing in German).
Anyway, I just - keep going - (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
GIDDENS: It's so - and when you hear the piano, it's just so - it's probably not a good example, but it's just - it's in my brain right now. So...
GROSS: Your voice is so beautiful. Technically, what's the difference between your opera voice and your other voice?
GIDDENS: It's - it really - I don't - it's interesting. It's like I'm placing it in different part of my head, you know? So when I'm singing, you know - (vocalizing) - it's all up here, you know? But then if I'm, you know - (singing) Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs, rhythm in their hips and in their lips and in their eyes.
I mean, it's in a different place, you know? So I'm doing all these different things with my mouth and with my placement, but all the breath is the same, you know?
GROSS: Right. And that second song was "Underneath The Harlem Moon," which...
GIDDENS: (Laughter) Yeah.
GROSS: ...Ethel Waters made famous.
GIDDENS: (Laughter) Yeah, yes, and made changes to. Yeah. And we do her version, you know, the words that she added to that song, but yeah. And, you know - and then when you're doing, you know, (singing) when I first come to this country in 1849 - that's very compressed and is up, you know, right behind my nose. You know, so they all have different places that they live.
GROSS: And that was more kind of like folk and Appalachian.
GIDDENS: Kind of Appalachian.
GIDDENS: Yeah. So there's - they all have a different place they live. It's kind of interesting.
GROSS: Yeah. And thank you for illustrating that. One of the slave narrative songs on your new album "Freedom Highway" is called "Julie." It's a dialogue between a slave and the woman who owns her. And the woman who owns her is afraid that Julie, the slave, is going to run off with the Union soldiers when they come. And they're close. And they're coming closer. And she's - so the slave owner's trying to convince Julie to, like, stay. So I'm going to ask you to sing the ending of the song. But can you tell us more of the story leading up to the end so that we get what's happening?
GIDDENS: Yeah. So back then, a lot of times, plantation owners would try to hide the wealth of the plantation in slave cabins, you know, and with the enslaved people. And I have to say, I'm finding a lot of strength and power in not saying slave and saying enslaved person. I read a book called "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery And The Making Of American Capitalism." And throughout this book, he makes this change. And it really makes a difference in how you look at it because you're not born a slave, you know? You're born a person, and somebody decides to enslave you. And that's - it is done to you. It is not an integral part of who you are. So that's something I'm trying to change in my - as I think about it because I found the change after I read that book, like, really powerful.
So anyway, this conversation that was overheard that was then written down that I read and then turned into the song "Julie" was a mistress and the woman that, you know, she thinks that she owns, you know? And they're watching the Union Army come over the hill. And the mistress is like, you know, you're not going to leave me, are you? And the woman is like, yeah. I'm out of here, you know? And the mistress can't understand this, you know? And they get to this point, you know, with - where she wants her to hide the wealth of the plantation. And I'll just - I'll sing, you know, what happens.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JULIE")
GIDDENS: (Singing) Julie, oh, Julie, can't you lie if they find the trunk of gold by my side? Julie, oh, Julie, you tell them men that that trunk of gold is yours, my friend. Mistress, oh, Mistress, I won't lie if they find that trunk of gold by your side. Mistress, oh, Mistress, that trunk of gold is what you got when my children you sold. Mistress, oh, Mistress, don't you cry. The price of staying here is too high. Mistress, oh, Mistress, I wish you well. But in leaving here, I'm leaving hell.
GROSS: I should mention that that song that Rhiannon Giddens just did an excerpt of, "Julie," a song she wrote, is on her new album, "Freedom Highway." Rhiannon Giddens, it's just been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much for singing for us. And I really love the new album, so thank you.
GIDDENS: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: My interview with Rhiannon Giddens was recorded in 2017 after the release of her album "Freedom Highway." Her latest album with singer Francesco Turrisi won a Grammy for Best Folk Album. It's called "They're Calling Me Home." She's written a children's book titled "Build A House," which will be published in the fall. After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review a variety of new country music songs. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEVIE WONDER SONG, "VENUS' FLYTRAP AND THE BUG")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.