Five American History Lessons From Folk Singer Rhiannon Giddens

Photo: Tanya Rosen-Jones

BY Peter EllmanPublished Mar 1, 2017

On her new album, Freedom Highway (out now on Nonesuch), folk singer (and former Carolina Chocolate Drops member) Rhiannon Giddens juxtaposes historical narratives (from slavery through the civil rights movement of the '60s) with present-day contexts. It's emotionally powerful, but can also be educational in a direct, visceral way. Here are a few insights into American history that Giddens is bringing to the fore.
1. Mothers lose their children all too regularly, especially in the context of race.
In talking about the song choices for her new album, Rhiannon Giddens tells Exclaim! that this emerged as a constant theme: "'Angels Laid Him Away," I learned from my co-producer Dirk Powell. It's an old, old traditional tune, but we had been talking a lot about cycles and through-lines of American history and this idea of the mother losing her child, especially in the black community for whatever reason — slavery, violence, institutional racism, whatever — that's a through-line. So having a song like 'Angels Laid Him Away' next to something like 'Better Get It Right the First Time,' it just kind of felt right."
2. Violent attacks on black churches continue today.
Freedom Highway includes the Joan Baez song "Birmingham Sunday," about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama. Giddens explains the importance of including this song, and of Baez's significance: "I've always admired her, and she was someone that I had heard about for a long time, and Dirk played with her full-time for a long time. So we were talking about their recent trip to Birmingham, and a lawyer who prosecuted some of the folks who planted that bomb that killed four little girls at that church in Birmingham. Listening to her version of that song was giving strength — just the idea of what art does, you know, the power that art can have. Also, what's been happening [now] — the shooting in the Charleston church, and church burnings that hardly get news headlines, but there are these black church burnings happening. Again, it's this idea of through-lines of American history. It's important to point out that these things have happened before, they're happening now, and the only way to stop them is to know that. And to start there."
3. Music genres can be problematic.
On how she would categorize or describe her own music, Giddens says that "Labels are problematic for music like mine, because I'm rooted in American genres and American genres have traditionally, constantly defied labels. And where I come from musically speaking, a lot of it is from the time when there were no labels, and everybody just played everything. And I think whenever we get away from that, it's bad. You don't want to get too boxed in."
4. "Things survive because they're awesome."
Consumer culture tends to value the hottest trends over idioms with long histories, but as Giddens explains, "There's room for everything, and the more that I dig in American music, the more that I find every reason that things are like they are today. The more you dig in the history, the more you dig in the earth, the more you find the roots of that plant that's growing, the roots of that tree, and what has gone into those roots. So you know why that tree is the way it is.
"You take that and you marry it to whatever is going on now, it can really show people a different way of looking at history, it can show people a different way of looking at music. When you get down to it, it's just awesome stuff — things that have survived for hundreds of years survived because they're awesome. The shitty stuff just gets cast aside. We still play Mozart, it's not like 'why are you still playing that old shit?' — it's still great stuff. And I think that American music, especially really, really early stuff, hasn't gotten the Mozart treatment, hasn't gotten the justice it deserves, in large part because of the racial context that comes with it and makes people uncomfortable. But that's okay. The best art makes people uncomfortable, so let's go for it."
5. "The reason that America is anywhere is because of the people who have lived here."
In regards to the song "Freedom Highway," Giddens wrote online: "We can't leave anyone behind. Let's walk down freedom highway together." Expanding on that idea, she adds "the hate and the vitriol and the willful ignorance, you can't walk together with those things in between you. I'm like, 'Anybody who wants to know the truth and anybody who wants to have compassion, come on!' I don't have time for hate, and I don't hate that person for being hateful, because I don't know what their story is. I am willing to give that person the compassion that they won't give anybody else, but I also am not willing to have to listen to the hatred that's coming out.
"All we have to do is support each other and look forward and look up and go high, but also know what's going on in the country, and know our rights, and know the history. Because when you know the history of America, when you really know the real history, all the good stuff, all the bad stuff, the complicated stuff, you realize that it is this enormous, grand experiment that is unprecedented. The reason that America is anywhere is because of the people who have lived here. All of them. So inclusionary language is American language. You look at the history, it doesn't matter what the constitution says about who can own land, what matters is the 'We the people.' What matters is who was here building those highways, and building the White House, and who was here drafting the laws as well. It's everybody who goes into this country.
"Anybody who's not interested in hearing that doesn't want America. They want something else, and that's fine, but don't call it America. So that's my issue — who gets to say what American ideals are? Who gets to say what an American is? Who gets to say what an American story is? I challenge the idea that it's this specific, narrow, white, European model. No, if you look at the history it's not. So anyway, that's what 'Freedom Highway' is about. Knowledge sets you free."

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