Push It Further: Rhiannon Giddens Takes A Turn On Tradition "If you're going to do something that's been covered a million times, you want to do it differently," Giddens says of her funky version of "Black Is the Color."

Push It Further: Rhiannon Giddens Takes A Turn On Tradition

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The Carolina Chocolate Drops is an African-American string band made up of young musicians who put a modern twist on old-timey music. Now the singer who helped found the Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens, is out with a solo album. Giddens describes it as a journey through songs sung by women who pioneered Americana music, from the famous Patsy Cline to those worth discovering like Libba Cotton. When Giddens came to our studio, we talked about just two songs. One is on the album - the ballad of love and longing called "Black Is The Color," popularized by the jazz great Nina Simone.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Black is the color of my true love's hair.

MONTAGNE: Giddens says she first heard the Joan Baez version.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: Then I really hooked into the singer named Sheila Kay Adams from western North Carolina. And she's from a long line of ballad singers. And I loved her version of "Black Is The Color." And I - it had always felt really soulful to me. You know, (singing) black is the color of my true love's hair. It just had these kind of dips in it that I really loved. And then I just started going, what if I just kind of pushed it a little bit further? And I just had this idea that I've had for a long time, actually, to sort of do this really funky version.


GIDDENS: (Singing) Black is the color of my true love's hair. His lips are like some rosey fair.

MONTAGNE: This is so far away from any other version of "Black Is The Color" that I've ever heard.

GIDDENS: Well, we - you know, it's the kind of thing - if you're going to do something that's been covered a million times, you want to do it differently. And you want to kind of put your spin on it.

MONTAGNE: You rewrote the lyrics. How so?

GIDDENS: Well, I was looking at these versions of "Black Is The Color," even the one that Sheila Kay sang. I was just, like, this - it's not speaking me. You know, I loved the song. I loved the idea of it. But the part that I loved about the song was sort of that - the idea of love. Like, the line that I took, you know, to add to my words was I'll kiss his mouth 10,000 times. I mean, that kills me. That line is just - you know. I kind of love that part of it, not the sort of sad mourn-and-weep idea. I didn't even really think about it that hard. I just thought, I'll just write some - you know, this has been done a million times. I can take it in a different direction. I'll just write some verses.


GIDDENS: (Singing) I love my love, and he loves me. To my soul he owns the key. I have his heart, and he has mine. I'll kiss his mouth 10,000 times.

MONTAGNE: OK, Giddens' version of "Black Is The Color." The second musical number we talked about presented a different challenge. Rhiannon Giddens has managed to master Gaelic mouth music exactly as it is supposed to be sung. Here, she's at a festival in Glasgow.


GIDDENS: (Singing in Gaelic).

MONTAGNE: What sort of song is that, and how do you manage to sing it for what is quite a long time without seeming to breathe?

GIDDENS: Well, it's a type of music called Gaelic mouth music - puirt a beul. It's a tradition in many places - the idea of mouth music - vocal music to dance to, basically. And this particular strain of it is from Scotland. And the reason why it's usually called mouth music is because the poetry is considered sort of throwaway lines. They're chosen often for percussive sounds. And so they didn't really have names. I really got into Gaelic music and the whole sound of it. And I got to go to Scotland. And I've studies with native singers. And it's just a beautiful music, and it reminded me a lot of, you know, Native American singing. I've done, you know, some pow wow singing. You know, the largest settlement of Scots Gaelic speaking Highlanders in 1700s was in North Carolina. And there was cultural interactions between them and, you know, the natives who were there and the African Americans. I mean, it was just kind of a fascinating history to me. And I love being able to sort of push that musically and sort of try to represent that in my own - sort of my own way.

MONTAGNE: Well, you - I know you've recorded songs in Gaelic. Is that your tradition? And mean your name is a Welsh name from mythology.

GIDDENS: My mother was reading the "Mabinogion," the Welsh mythological epic when I was born, and...

MONTAGNE: Queen Mab.

GIDDENS: Yeah. And decided to name me Rhiannon. You know, that definitely got me on, you know - interested in sort of Celtic culture and stuff. But, you know, that whole idea of is it my culture? You know, it gets asked of me in a way that white people who do blues music don't get asked. You know, 'cause I could - maybe I could. I don't know all of my genealogy and - but my point is that if a music speaks to you, I think that you have the ability to do that. Now, I think you have a responsibility to that. Now, when I do Gaelic music, I've learned about Gaelic culture. I've tried to learn the language. Whenever I go do mouth music and there's a Gaelic speaker and the audience and they come up and they go, good job, I'm always, like, whew. You know, I really feel a responsibility to the music. And, you know, I teach workshops in music sometimes, and folks do come to me and they go, how do I make this blues song my own? You know, how do I feel like I'm not an imposter doing this? And I'm, like, that's an excellent question. That's where you should start, where you go, how does this speak to me?


GIDDENS: (Singing in Gaelic).

MONTAGNE: You studied opera...


MONTAGNE: At Oberlin Conservatory of Music. When I heard that, that did seem to explain some of the technical ability to keep on moving through a very powerful song almost as an athletic feat.

GIDDENS: Well, it's like - I mean, it's one of the reasons why I don't do a selection of mouth musics. I do one 'cause over the years, I've got it. And also the pronunciation - I mean, you know, it's hard. You learn one, and you want to keep it. But, I mean, my training at Oberlin has been absolutely invaluable. I mean, I had to learn how to adapt that training to this kind of singing. It is kind of great because, like, I'll be doing that mouth music, and, like, I'll feel a, you know, pardon me, but I'll feel a burp coming on. And you can't stop. So I've learned how to sort of release it, like, as I go so nobody knows that that's happening. It's kind great to feel, like, as a technician, that I've got this thing that I've done over years now. And so I've sort of developed this technique. And I just do that because I love the mouth music, and it's so much fun.

MONTAGNE: Well, it's a showstopper.

GIDDENS: Yeah, I know. People...

MONTAGNE: People start cheering halfway through (laughter).

GIDDENS: Yeah, I know. I mean, it's really interesting. Like, I don't know what it is about that. It's really tapped into something for people. And I mean, I've had people come up and they just feel like the primalness of it, or - you know, and that's - for me, that's the strength in folk music. It's, like, here's this piece of music that's, like, however old it is. And you put a fresh take on it, and it still speaks to people.

MONTAGNE: Thank you so much for joining us.

GIDDENS: Yeah, thanks for having me.


GIDDENS: (Singing) Black is the color of my true love's hair.

MONTAGNE: Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her solo album is called "Tomorrow Is My Turn." And you can stream it for a limited time at nprmusic.org.

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