Rhiannon Giddens and What Folk Music Means
To grasp the significance of what the twenty-first-century folksinger Rhiannon Giddens has been attempting, it is necessary to know about another North Carolina musician, Frank Johnson, who was born almost two hundred years before she was. He was the most important African-American musician of the nineteenth century, but he has been almost entirely forgotten. Never mind a Wikipedia page—he does not even earn a footnote in sourcebooks on early black music. And yet, after excavating the records of his career—from old newspapers, diaries, travelogues, memoirs, letters—and after reckoning with the scope of his influence, one struggles to come up with a plausible rival.
There are several possible reasons for Johnson’s astonishing obscurity. One may be that, on the few occasions when late-twentieth-century scholars mentioned him, he was almost always misidentified as a white man, despite the fact that he had dark-brown skin and was born enslaved. It may have been impossible, and forgivably so, for academics to believe that a black man could have achieved the level of fame and success in the antebellum slave-holding South that Johnson had. There was also a doppelgänger for scholars to contend with: in the North, there lived, around the same time, a musician named Francis Johnson, often called Frank, who is remembered as the first black musician to have his original compositions published. Some historians, encountering mentions of the Southern Frank, undoubtedly assumed that they were merely catching the Northern one on some unrecorded tour and turned away.
There is also the racial history of the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, where Johnson enjoyed his greatest fame. In 1898, a racial massacre in Wilmington, and a subsequent exodus of its black citizens, not only knocked loose the foundations of a rising black middle class but also came close to obliterating the deep cultural memory of what had been among the most important black towns in the country for more than a century. The people who might have remembered Johnson best, not just as a musician but as a man, were themselves violently unremembered.
A final explanation for Johnson’s absence from the historical record may be the most significant. It involves not his reputation but that of the music he played, with which he became literally synonymous—more than one generation of Southerners would refer to popular dance music simply as “old Frank Johnson music.” And yet, in the course of the twentieth century, the cluster of styles in which Johnson specialized––namely, string band, square dance, hoedown––came to be associated with the folk music of the white South and even, by a bizarre warping of American cultural memory, with white racial purity. In the nineteen-twenties, the auto magnate Henry Ford started proselytizing (successfully) for a square-dancing revival precisely because the music that accompanied it was not black. Had he known the deeper history of square dancing, he might have fainted.
As a travelling “Negro fiddler,” Johnson epitomized the one musical figure in American history who can truly be called “ur.” Black fiddlers are the trilobites of American musical history. A legal record from the mid-seventeenth century details a dispute between Virginia households competing for the services of an enslaved man who had played the fiddle all night for a party on the Eastern Shore. After that, for more than two hundred years, black fiddlers are everywhere in the written sources. Then, around the start of the twentieth century, they fade, abruptly and almost completely.
Johnson was born in the late eighteenth century, most likely on a plantation owned by a family named Hawkins, in North Carolina, near the Virginia border. Early on, he was recognized as a prodigy who could master almost any instrument, but his specialty was the fiddle—the instrument most desired for dances. His owners started hiring him out for parties and dividing the earnings with him, a common practice. Sometime in the eighteen-thirties or forties, he became free. The only attempt at a biographical treatment of him, an article written around 1900 by the Virginia newspaperman Frank S. Woodson, says that he bought his own freedom “on a credit,” using money that he had made playing music. He then, according to Woodson, purchased the freedom of his wife, a seamstress named Amelia. His former master “threw in the five or six children, all boys, for good measure.” The boys became his band. Johnson and his wife tended to produce talented sons.
What did they sound like? It is a profound frustration, for a person interested in early African-American music, not to be able to hear them. Johnson died ten years before the recording era began, and by then his influence had grown diffuse. But a defining quality of his band’s sound is how much mixing it involved—how many styles and instrumental arrangements. There were brass instruments and wind instruments. Johnson’s sons played horns of all kinds. Frank, Jr., played a snare drum. There was a bass drum. Cymbals. In 1853, a kettledrum was introduced. But there were also the instruments we associate more closely with a “minstrel” band—fiddles and banjos. A fife-and-drum sound is mentioned in a Wilmington Daily Journal article published in 1858. Johnson’s band played everything at once, moving across a range of stylistic attacks, all geared for dancing. It seems impossible that its sound would not have approached, at times, proto-jazz.
It is a genuine challenge to describe how prevalent Johnson was, how dominant. According to one source, he had “for half a century ruled with absolute autocracy the aristocratic ball-rooms of the South.” By any calculus, he was one of the first black celebrities in the South. I have never come across an ostensibly “lost” figure who, once you know to look for him, turns out to have left behind such an obvious trail. Johnson went from being hard to find to being impossible to escape. Researching him was like writing a history of baseball and “rediscovering” a hitter named Babe Ruth. His music was so woven into the social life of the South that it would not be an exaggeration to describe it as a kind of ever-present soundtrack. Plantation balls, picnics, barbecues, sporting events, Renaissance-style “tilting” tournaments (they were big for a while), random town ceremonies (think cornerstone-layings), university commencements (for many years, he performed at Chapel Hill, and for at least some years at Wake Forest), state fairs, agricultural fairs, firemen’s balls, military “muster days,” moonlight excursions on trains and boats, extended summer bookings at resort hotels, society weddings, holiday parties (including an annual Christmas party in Wilmington, where his band performed for mixed audiences, “thereby creating a warmer fellowship between the races,” according to the Wilmington Star), funeral processions, and political rallies. In 1840, “when the new Capitol building was completed in Raleigh,” according to an item in an 1873 issue of the Hillsboro Recorder, there were “two successive nights” of dancing, with “the well-known Frank Johnson . . . furnishing the music.” During the Civil War, his band often marched at the head of regiments and was called in to play at recruitment parties. According to a story recounted by Woodson, Johnson accompanied a Confederate brigade into battle, but turned around when the shooting started.
Johnson fell on hard times after the war, and, in the end, according to a 1901 piece written by someone with the initials A.M.W., he “moved about a pathetic figure—a sort of melancholy reminder of departed joys.” His death, in 1871, was reported all over—in Cincinnati, in Chicago. One newspaper in Wilmington described the turnout for his funeral as “the largest, we think, that has ever occurred in this city, it being estimated that there were at least two thousand persons in the procession, including the colored fire companies in uniform, with standards draped in mourning, the colored Masonic fraternity in regalia, etc., the whole preceded by a brass band.” Pine Forest Cemetery, where he was buried, is down the street from my house; I’ve spent countless days looking in vain for his grave.
Johnson’s flame never quite flickered out. Other fiddlers followed in his nimble footsteps. Some of them had played with him; all of them had heard his band. Pomp Long, a fiddler whose owner, according to the Richmond Leader, had “placed him under Frank Johnson when he recognized his natural talent,” was briefly considered a rival to Johnson in ability. Then came Cripple Dick Foster, Uncle Baldy, Dick Jumper, Blind Lige, Emp Wright—each with his moment on the mountain.
Wright, who seems to have been active in the years just before 1900, was one of the last pure products of the Frank Johnson school. He knew how to make fiddles. There is some confusion over whether he was black or white. He supposedly lived for a time in a “mulatto community” called Little Texas, near Greensboro, North Carolina. One of the few things we know about him is that he mentored, and passed his internal songbook on to, a man named John Arch Thompson, who lived in various rural pockets of the Piedmont: Cedar Grove and Cheeks (both in Orange County) and, finally, in Mebane (pronounced “meh-bun”), north of Greensboro.
Thompson had a son named Joe, and Thompson’s brother had a son, Odell. The first cousins played the fiddle and the banjo, respectively, for small house parties. A folklorist named Kip Lornell got turned on to them in the nineteen-seventies, and other researchers published interviews with them and recorded them playing. The Thompson cousins performed at some folk festivals. Then Odell died, and only Joe was left. He was the last of the old line, the rag end of whatever Johnson started. Or he would have been. Something happened fourteen years ago, in Boone, North Carolina, to change the story.
In 2005, a festival called the Black Banjo Then & Now Gathering took place at Appalachian State University, in Boone. Joe Thompson was an honored guest and a featured performer. Many of the attendees had come expressly to see him. Among the scholars and the players and the scholar-players were three passionate young revivalists, black musicians who had been getting lost in the old stuff. Two of them were multi-instrumentalists: Justin Robinson, from the mill town of Gastonia, North Carolina, had studied the violin since childhood, and Dom Flemons, at the time still living in his native Arizona, had already begun turning himself into an old-fashioned songster. They were walking around and, for the first time, seeing people with faces like theirs who were digging, and making, the kind of music they loved.
The third musician, a twenty-eight-year-old singer from Greensboro, was starting to experiment with stringed instruments. She was Rhiannon Giddens(pronounced “ree-ann-un,” like in the Fleetwood Mac song, after which she was, surprisingly, not named). She had recently graduated from the OberlinConservatory of Music, where she focussed on opera, and had only begun wading into the muddier waters of what the cultural critic Greil Marcus calls “the old weird America.” Her background was in youth choir and art song, but, since college, she had become increasingly interested in her home ground. She was picking up new instruments. Thanks to a job as a hostess at a Macaroni Grill, where her duties included singing old Italian arias, she earned enough to buy a ninety-nine-dollar Chinese fiddle and her first banjo, a Deering Goodtime. She had read “African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia,” by Cecelia (Cece) Conway, and was corresponding with the author. Conway told her that Joe Thompson was still playing and that he would be performing in Boone.
“And I went, ‘What?’ ” Giddens recalled, not long ago. “I was just starting to understand the history, and here was the man, practically in my back yard. It was proof of what I’d been reading about, living proof that this stuff had a place in my community.”
I first met Giddens one afternoon in the spring of 2015, in the kitchen of a cozy Greensboro ranch house she’d recently bought. It was the first of many meetings and conversations throughout the past four years, a running discussion about the origins of the music she draws from, a style that she transforms in her playing, and which has been an obsession of mine for twenty-five years. That day, I started by asking her to describe Thompson.
“Joe?” Giddens said, and gave a characteristic sideways glance, drawing in her cheek and seeming to conjure him in her mind. “He always wore a button-up shirt, and dark pants and a hat—always a hat, like a trucker’s hat of some kind.” He was “formal and friendly all at once—very Southern that way.” She’d immediately noticed “how assured he was,” she said. “Like a rock, secure in his place in the world and in his purpose.” His purpose? “To play fiddle,” she said.
Thompson’s father had grown up playing music at “wood choppings” in rural Orange County. When Giddens and Thompson met, at the festival, Giddens mentioned that her grandmother Armintha (Mint) Morrow, who helped raise her, came from Mebane, too. From then on, Giddens said, “I was Miss Morrow.”
The trio called themselves the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In 2005, they started making trips to Mebane, to sit at Thompson’s feet. The formation of the band was inseparable from these pilgrimages. In playing with Thompson, they were learning to play with one another, and in reading his human songbook they established their own repertoire. Thompson had suffered a stroke in 2001, Giddens said, “but he was still pretty good for a while, and he played till he died.” There were barbecues at his house, and people from the town came, some to join in the playing, most to listen. Giddens watched his hands. Many of the songs he taught her, like “Old Mollie Hare” and “Polly Put the Kettle On,” were those we find in the handful of preserved Frank Johnson playlists.
When I arrived at Giddens’s house, she had been making some sort of healthy broccoli dish for her children, who were passing in and out of the kitchen, followed closely by her husband at the time, Michael Laffan, a gentle, soft-spoken Irish-born piano technician with a quiet wit, who is still her good friend and parenting partner. Their children have thick dark hair, rosy cheeks, and lyrical, hard-to-spell Celtic names: Aoife (pronounced “ee-fa”) and Caoimhin (“kwi-veen”).
I asked what Thompson had been like as a teacher. Would he demonstrate licks?
“Nah,” she said. “We just played. That’s how it always was with Joe.” There wasn’t a banjo player in the group at that time, and, although Giddens had initially hoped to learn the fiddle from Thompson, she volunteered to play banjo because he didn’t really play without one. “That’s what we ladies do—what needs to be done,” she said. She had learned from Thompson what she called “the feel, the energy, the flow.” “The notes themselves,” she said, “were unimportant. It was, How did he engage with them?” She described his bowing as “magical, something you can’t break down. You just have to absorb. Sometimes I am playing and I hear him come out when I’m not thinking too hard.”
I asked her to tell me about Greensboro. I have spent a lot of time in the city—my in-laws live there—and its vagueness has always struck me as compelling. Regionally speaking, it does not signify, even for people who are otherwise somewhat familiar, at a distance, with North Carolina. Charlotte folks sort of know it. Their brains go, “Banks . . . insurance . . . Nascar.” The so-called Triangle of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill is the cultured part of the state. Wilmington is the beach. Asheville is the mountains. Winston-Salem is cigarettes and the Moravians. What is Greensboro?
“I don’t know,” Giddens said, with precision. I was prepared to leave it there, but she continued, “It’s such an interesting place. It has a lot to do with who I am. Because of the cultural mix here.” She pointed out that Greensboro has a significant Jewish population, a Baha’i population, universities—including two historically black colleges—and a general Piedmont weirdness that keeps people guessing. “The beginning of the sit-in movement was here”—at the Woolworth’s counter, downtown, now a civil-rights museum. “There’s just a lot of interesting agitation,” she said. “I kind of grew up with all of that around me.”
Whenever Giddens and I have talked about Greensboro, she has, with a surprising frequency, mentioned the K&W Cafeteria there. She loves it. K&W is a popular regional chain restaurant, a buffet-style eatery, that got started in Winston-Salem, and the one at Friendly Center in Greensboro has been there for more than fifty years. “When you walk into that place, everybody’s there,” she said. “You’ve got your folks off work, you have all of the working class there, white and black, country folk who are in the city, city folk who have been there all the time. It’s my family. Both sides of my family would go to K&W. The food is unpretentious and Southern. It represents Greensboro, blacks and whites together. It’s hard to explain the feeling I get.”
Giddens’s father, David, who is white, taught music and then worked in computer software for most of his career. “As a teacher, he got all of the hardened kids,” she said, meaning behaviorally challenged students. He met Rhiannon’s mother, Deborah Jamieson, when they were both students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Theirs was a rare interracial marriage in a city where, cultural diversity aside, the Klan murdered five civil-rights activists in 1979. Rhiannon’s parents divorced when she was a baby, around the time that her mother came out as a lesbian.
The years after the divorce were complicated enough that Giddens spent the first eight years of her life in the country, in Gibsonville, North Carolina, with her maternal grandparents and her older sister, Lalenja. Her grandmother Armintha and grandfather Eugene “grew corn and tomatoes and all sorts of stuff.” Armintha religiously watched “Hee Haw.” Her favorite banjo player was Roy Clark, Giddens said. When Giddens saw Clark one time in the flesh, at the Grand Ole Opry, she “almost freaked out.”
Giddens talks about her “black granny” and her “white granny.” At one point, her black grandfather and her white grandmother were both working at the Lorillard Tobacco factory in Greensboro. Once, when her white granny needed help with her taxes, she went to Giddens’s black grandfather to get it. But Giddens dismissed the idea that her life was defined by a two-sidedness. “It’s the South, isn’t it?” she said. “The point is that they are different—but the same.”
When Giddens was eight, she and Lalenja moved back to Greensboro, to live in a house with their mother. Giddens, who was gifted at school, describes her younger self as bookish, withdrawn, not very social or popular. She says that she was a nerd, and the details she offers in support of that leave one unable to argue. “I would make models of video-game characters,” she said. “I used to subscribe to Nintendo Power. The first issue had Mario 2, and it had all the characters rendered in clay. So I started making all of these characters out of clay.”
Her family recalls that she sang constantly. When she was three or four years old, she and her father began to make up “little fugues, cadences together—before I knew what a fugue or a cadence was,” Giddens said. In the car, they would listen to Peter, Paul and Mary. She took the harmony she had learned with her father and practiced it with Lalenja. “I was always in harmony with my sister,” she said. The two girls would sign up for talent shows, but their parents would not let them audition with their voices, so they did karate demonstrations instead. “Neither one of us was Brucette Lee,” Giddens said, recalling that, after waiting in line for hours to audition, “we’d do this sad little kata, and be shooed along. We wanted to sing Whitney Houston!” Her father wouldn’t let them take voice lessons until they were sixteen. “He said it could ruin the developing voice—and he was right,” Giddens said. “I’m very grateful.” Implicit in her words was how clearly her parents must have recognized her talent, to have taken these steps to protect it.
Greensboro boasts a first-rate youth choir, which was overseen for more than thirty years by a local music teacher named Ann Doyle. It was with the choir that Giddens had her first public experiences with performing music. “Mrs. Doyle taught me discipline, and how to not breathe with my shoulders, and sit up straight,” she said. Her first solo, a song called “They Said I Can’t Carry a Tune in a Bucket,” was given to her, she realized only later, because “it had all these crazy leaps in it, and I could sing it.”
Doyle, who recently retired, remembers Giddens as a “rather introverted child”—gifted but not marked for fame in any obvious way. “I had thirty-five to forty kids in my choir,” Doyle told me. What mattered was “that you could sing in tune, and that Mama and Daddy could get you there.” The thing about Giddens that had stood out more conspicuously, she said, was that she had been “way beyond her years developmentally, in her emotional and intellectual persona.” I asked what she meant. “I just thought, There’s something about this child that is unique, her perception.”
In the cafeteria at Kiser Middle School, Giddens hung out for half the year with the white girls and then for the other half with the black girls. “I didn’t really fit with either group,” she said. “The black girls criticized me because I was a hippie. The white girls didn’t know what to do with me. Then at the end of the year I started hanging out with the guys.” When she moved to the School of Science and Math, “black girls were my friends for the first time as a teen-ager,” she said. “Black-girl nerds.”
In high school, she became active in a group called Akwe:kon, which was dedicated to Native American culture and, more specifically, to its music and dance. There were Lumbee students at the school, “because of the way they find their students—there are always some from Lumberton,” Giddens said. She herself has Native American heritage (Lumbee, Occaneechi, and Seminole on her mother’s side). She has never tried to claim a tribal affiliation, but she grew up with people calling her Pocahontas. One of her teachers, Joe Liles, “a white dude,” was, she said, “just very supportive of Native American culture. When I go to a powwow, I know what it is. When I hear that drum, I feel very connected.”
In the summer before her senior year of high school, she started attending choral camp at Governor’s School East, in Laurinburg. “I was fired up,” she recalled. “I was sick of math and science.” Choral camp was where she first heard the songs of Stephen Sondheim. Singing with the group of forty kids, she said, gave her “that feeling of, I had found my tribe.”
About a year after the Black Banjo Gathering, the Carolina Chocolate Drops put out their first album, “Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind.” It had been a long time since something so wonderfully disruptive had happened on the Southern-folk scene. They shook things up by being black, of course, but, more important, by reminding people that the music itself was black—as black as it had ever been white, anyway—and by owning it accordingly. They remind a person of the Pogues, which made a statement about the continued relevance of traditional Irish music just by showing that it could be played by punks. In the early days, the Chocolate Drops played coffeehouses, busking on street corners. They noticed that people were initially drawn to them by the novelty of the sight but would stay for the songs.
Not long after the band’s formation, Giddens had a romantic relationship with Dom Flemons. It lasted less than a year, but their influence on each other as performers was enduring. “I learned from him to loosen up my opera-school thing,” she said. “And I think I tightened him up. He used to stop in the middle of a song to talk.” Flemons favored a more curatorial approach to the music, and was less than excited when Giddens started writing neo-slave songs and narratives. Original tunes were not his thing—he wanted to be a preservationist, almost a reënactor.
In September of 2013, as the band was “going through a transition,” as Giddens delicately described its dissolution, the über-producer and roots aficionado T Bone Burnett invited Giddens to participate in a concert titled “Another Day, Another Time,” at Town Hall in Manhattan. It was meant to be a kind of celebration and exploration of sixties music, put on in conjunction with the Coen brothers’ movie “Inside Llewyn Davis.” (I wrote the liner notes for the film’s soundtrack, which does not include Giddens.) Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Gillian Welch, and Jack White performed, but in the days after the show it seemed that everyone was talking about an unforgettable performance by a woman from North Carolina, who had come onstage in a sleeveless scarlet dress and sung “Waterboy,” an old convict song from Georgia made famous by Odetta. “There ain’t no hammer / That’s on a’-this mountain / That ring like mine, boy, / That ring like mine.” People had probably assumed that they more or less knew what to expect that night—what “folk music” meant. That they would be drinking from the bucket. This was something else. This was the well. After Giddens finished, there was silence, and then a standing ovation. Within a few months, she was in L.A., making her first solo album, “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” for Nonesuch Records, with Burnett at the board.
Giddens’s multicultural background has presented particular challenges of self-definition. She is an artist of color who plays and records what she describes as “black non-black music” for mainly white audiences. It’s interesting to note that, on her first two major solo releases, “Tomorrow Is My Turn” and “Factory Girl” (both from 2015), the strongest cuts were a couple of country songs: a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” and a wicked original track titled “Moonshiner’s Daughter.” What did that suggest about the future of her career? Was she a female Charley Pride—a black artist who had succeeded at “white” styles?
A couple of years ago, I had lunch with Giddens in New York, shortly after she had returned from doing a concert for the prisoners at Sing Sing. Telling me about it, she broke down in tears—in part because of the fact that the prison concert was the first time she’d played to a majority-black crowd. “It was so many beautiful brown faces all together, listening to my music, and responding to it in a cultural way I don’t get to experience—talk-back, movement,” she recalled. “They called me Rhi-Rhi.”
Giddens told me that, on principle, she has no problem performing for mostly white audiences. “Half my family is white, you know?” she said. “But I would like to see more people from my other community at the shows and in the know.” A few years ago, she tried to bring a tour to H.B.C.U.s (historically black colleges and universities), but interest seemed to be lacking. “It’s hard,” she said. “I don’t feel black enough, sometimes, to be bothered with. I know it’s childhood stuff, but it’s hard to shake.” She recently helped to form the band Our Native Daughters, which comprises four female musicians of color, all of whom play the banjo in the group. When I asked if she had been excited for black people to hear the band’s music and experience it as their own, she responded, with characteristic bluntness, by jumping from hypothetical scenarios to material realities. The band’s record, she said, had been released by Smithsonian Folkways. “It won’t be covered by any black press,” she said. “We took the platform that was offered.” She told me recently that the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem, had turned down the Native Daughters’ offer to play a show. The reasons were unclear, but, Giddens said, rejections like that make her wonder, “Am I truly that out of the black cultural Zeitgeist, or are the gatekeepers just that narrow-minded?”
The prospect of gaining a wider, and blacker, audience is, one imagines, always an option for Giddens, who could, if she really wanted to, cut a pop record and presumably ascend to a higher sales bracket. But she has been unwilling to compromise her quest, which is, in part, to remind people that the music she plays is black music. In 2017, she received a MacArthur “genius” grant, a validation that has reinforced her tendency to stick to her instincts. “You do what you’re given,” she told me on the phone recently. “I’m not gonna force something or fake something to try to get more black people at my shows. I’m not gonna do some big hip-hop crossover.” She paused, and remembered that she is about to do a hip-hop crossover, with her nephew Justin, a.k.a. Demeanor, a rapper who also plays the banjo. “Well,” she said, laughing, “not unless I can find a way to make it authentic.” She told me that she does not really like hip-hop. This threw me into the comical position of trying to sell her on the genre. “The stuff I like is the protest music,” she said. “I like Queen Latifah. But the over-all doesn’t speak to me. I’m not an urban black person. I’m a country black person.”
A curious case of the cultural static that sometimes buzzes around Giddens’s work is the guest-starring role she played a couple of years ago on the CMT series “Nashville.” The role was undoubtedly good for her career, in that it exposed wide audiences to her music. When I have been walking around with her, a lot of the people who have recognized her have asked not if she was that famous singer of old Southern music but if she was “that girl from ‘Nashville.’ ” Or, actually, more often, they’d say, “Do people tell you you look just like that girl from ‘Nashville’?” I should add that it has mostly been white people who have said these things. She remarked to me recently that, in the mainstream black entertainment community, “nobody gave a shit I was on ‘Nashville.’ ”
On a rainy evening in 2016, I visited Giddens on the set of the show, in an industrial-looking studio building on a remote road at the edge of Nashville. Earlier in the year, the show, which was originally broadcast on ABC, had been cancelled, but, after an outcry on the Internet, CMT picked it up. The show’s plot centers on the lives of two successful female country singers, played by Connie Britton, of “Friday Night Lights” greatness, and Hayden Panettiere, who is best known for having starred on the show “Heroes.” At the time, Panettiere was engaged to a Ukrainian boxer almost twice her size. They FaceTimed while I was on set, and she held up the phone, saying, “Say hi to Wlad, everybody!” Wlad said nothing.
Giddens’s character on “Nashville” is one of the most perfect examples on film of what Spike Lee has called the “magical Negro”—the black character whose role in a white film is to be full of wisdom, to save the white characters’ souls, and then to disappear or cease to matter to the story. Giddens, who is very professionally gracious, never used that term, but, unless she’d recently undergone a temporary reversible lobotomy on the sly, she was aware of the reality. The way her character gets introduced is amazing. Panettiere’s character is in a plane crash. She survives—her seat seems to have popped out of the airplane and landed in a field, and her legs are broken, but she’s alive. Giddens’s character sort of walks up out of the field, through a cold mist. In a cotton dress. I’m telling you, it’s amazing. She squats down by the broken Panettiere and tells her that everything is going to be O.K. She also goes ahead and sings her some things about Jesus—because Giddens’s character is also a preacher of some kind, and deeply spiritual. Just . . . magical as hell.
On set, I got to peek in on a scene in which Giddens and Panettiere were sitting in a restaurant discussing life, and Giddens’s character was laying down major—I mean bone-crushing—wisdom across an Applebee’s-style table. I also watched a church scene. That was very interesting. Black church, pews full of African-American faces. Panettiere was standing in front of them, delivering an apology speech. Apparently, she had come to them at some point in the show’s arc to learn about their music but had then gone and used the music in a self-serving way, not really respecting the tradition. Luckily for her, the people in that room had hearts full of magic, so there was a sort of spontaneous group vote or instant decision to forgive her. Followed by choral singing.
A few days after I visited Giddens on set, she went to a low-key recording session in the basement of a suburban house in East Nashville that belonged to Chance McCoy, a multi-instrumentalist with the band Old Crow Medicine Show, who was just starting to be known as a songwriter, a film composer, and a producer. McCoy had been hired to create a soundtrack for a short informational film about President Andrew Jackson, which would play on a loop, presumably for years, at the Hermitage, the house where Jackson lived, east of the city. The film included information about Jackson’s life and legacy, about the generations of slaves who lived on the plantation, and about the Cherokee people whom he fought beside in frontier battles and later helped to massacre and displace.
Giddens ate some Chinese food and drank a hard cider. Then she moved to a chair, picked up her old minstrel banjo, and sat quite upright, tuning it. The banjo: an instrument whose origins are so contested—is it African? European? or a “cross-bred instrument,” as one scholar has called it?—that it expresses the messiness of American history before a person has played a note. The record that Giddens had just finished making, in Louisiana, with the musician and producer Dirk Powell, “Freedom Highway,” is built on the sound of the minstrel banjo, which represents a mid-nineteenth-century phase in the instrument’s evolution. It has no frets and is tuned differently. The sound is lower and plunkier. The lyrics of a handful of songs on that record are based on slave-era stories from the South, and this banjo exerted the real presence. “It’s my axe,” Giddens said.
McCoy sat at his computer, recording and letting her riff. The film was running on a screen, and the voice of Jon Meacham, the Tennessee-born editor and biographer of Jackson, among other Presidents, was narrating Jackson’s life in his distinctive drone. Images of the house and the grounds flashed by, pausing for Ken Burns-style zooms and pans. Giddens bowed her head and started to play. She was doing runs on the fretboard, and she was moaning melodically, with them and against them. The job, I suppose, was to create something simultaneously Southern white (i.e., Appalachian), early African-American, and Cherokee. There was no one on the planet more suited to the moment. Giddens strummed, channelling. She could have been sitting in a pub in Cork; on a street corner in Dakar or in Temple, Texas; or by a campfire on the old Southern frontier.
The exercise was also a musical articulation of a set of ideas that Giddens has been developing for the past four or five years. This past September, in the keynote address at the three-day AmericanaFest conference, in London, she told the audience, “Nobody owns an instrument. No culture gets to put the lockdown on anything. Say the word ‘bagpipes,’ and, if you are anything like the me of a few years ago, it conjures up the image of a kilted Highlander and the land of moors and heather—but now I know it should also bring to mind an old man in a doorway in Sicily, the smartly uniformed military band in Iraq, or a modern young woman from Galicia.” She then referred to the thirty-year-old book “Origins of the Popular Style,” by the South African scholar and librarian Peter Van der Merwe. It has become a cult classic. She used it to illustrate her point that the instruments that we typically “think of in modern music—the guitar, the banjo, bagpipes, violins, the list goes on—have been in constant movement and constant change since the time of the ancient world.”
In the book, Van der Merwe attempts to address why the popular music of the twentieth century sounds the way it does. He notes that many different folk-music traditions tend to contain a particular kind of melody or set of notes, “neutral intervals,” between major and minor. In America, we call them “blue notes”—flatted thirds and sevenths and fifths. They can suggest moaning and dissonance. The cord that binds the various global sub-styles of folk in which these notes occur is what the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax termed the “Old High Culture” of Eurasia, which stretched back to Mesopotamia. Strangely, perhaps, given that we are talking about twentieth-century popular music, it was often Islamic song traditions that acted as the conveyor for these deep strains in world music. Van der Merwe shows how the “gliding chromaticism” characteristic of the blues spread via Islamic influence into West Africa (in particular the Senegambia region) and, via Spain, into Ireland and the “Celtic fringe.” From those places, these styles and sounds rode farther west, to North America, on slave ships and immigrant ships. In the American South, the Celtic and the African musical traditions met. It was an odd family reunion. Each culture had its own songs, but the idioms understood one another. The result was American music.
The title of Giddens’s newest record, “there is no Other,” released this month, plays on a kind of double entendre between the romantic phrase that it initially calls to mind and the intellectual assertion that it reveals on second reading. To my ears, the album is the first true Rhiannon Giddens record. Joe Henry produced it, beautifully, by getting as far out of the way as possible. The arrangements are stark. The engineering and the mike placement are direct and intimate. It’s the sonic equivalent of a long still shot in natural light.
Giddens’s collaborator on the record, and one of the only other people who plays on it, is the forty-one-year-old Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, who is now also Giddens’s romantic partner. When I asked how they met, she said, “He saw an article about me in a magazine seven or eight years ago—and, as he has taught the history of jazz as a course, he went, ‘Aha! The missing link—black string-band music.’ ” The cellist Kate Ellis connected them. Giddens and Turrisi recently finished composing the music for a ballet, staged in Nashville, titled “Lucy Negro Redux,” about Black Luce, the Afro-British brothel keeper who some scholars think may have been the inspiration for the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Turrisi trained at the Hague Conservatory, in the Netherlands, where he worked with early-music ensembles, which exposed him to the traditional drums of southern Italy and the Mediterranean. He has since become an expert on drums from all over the world—frame drums, mainly, the stem cells of human percussion, of which almost every culture has some version. Ireland’s is the bodhran, and others include the tamburello (Italy), the bendir (North Africa), the pandeiro (Brazil), and the tambourine. There are hundreds, and Turrisi is expert at half of them.
The album that Giddens and Turrisi have made together functions as a kind of proof of Van der Merwe’s musicological thesis. Styles blow through the record like winds through a shack. The blues, Appalachia, American art song, and music from Italy, Africa, Brazil, Scotland, and Ireland. Perhaps the most powerful song on the record is a version of “Little Margaret,” a ballad that can be traced back to fourteenth-century England. The song is a ghost story. A girl named Margaret is combing her hair, sitting “in her high hall chair,” and she sees her lover ride by with another girl, his “new-made bride.” Her heart dies. She throws down her comb and declares that she will visit him one last time, then never again. She appears at the foot of his bed in the night, “all dressed in white.” She asks how he likes his sheets and pillow, how he likes his fair young maid. He answers that he likes them fine, but not as much as he loves her. He realizes that he must have her:
He called the servant man to go,
Saddled the dappled roan,
And he rode to her father’s house that night,
Knocked on the door alone.
Saying, “Is little Margaret in her room?
Or is she in the hall?”
“Little Margaret’s in her cold black coffin,
With her face turned toward the wall.”
The North Carolina balladeer Sheila Kay Adams, whom Giddens calls “a tradition-bearer,” taught her the song at a conference many years ago. “When you hear a good ballad singer, they disappear, and the story lives, and you kind of trance out listening to it,” Giddens said. The American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax recorded Adams performing the song in 1982. In January of last year, at Turrisi’s apartment in Dublin, Turrisi, who had worked with an Irish singer who sang sean-nós, unaccompanied ballads, asked Giddens if she knew any. She didn’t, but she knew what she called “American sean-nós, the Appalachian ballads.” She sang “Little Margaret” for him. “We just put it together,” she said. Turrisi was using the daf, an Iranian frame drum with metal rings in the back, which is used a lot in Sufi music.
In the album version of the song, the daf pounds furiously behind Giddens’s vocals. You can hear the sound of someone running away in the drumming, a tantivy of hooves, death approaching. Little Margaret dies. Her lover kisses her in the coffin, then he dies. It seems doubtful that his new bride lives much longer. The result is an authentically frightening piece of music. It puts me in mind of the song “Jackie,” from Sinéad O’Connor’s first record, about a woman who refuses to believe that her man has died at sea and who walks the beach for the rest of her life, watching for him. “This is the cornerstone of what we do and what we’re doing,” Giddens told me. “Here’s a song from the mountains of America, and here’s a drum from halfway across the world, and they’re speaking the same language.”
In the eighteen-nineties, a new political movement calling itself the Fusion Party—a multiracial group made up of white populists and radical Republicans, many of whom were black—was gaining power in North Carolina. Although much of the state was controlled by white supremacists, Wilmington had become a stronghold of Fusionist power. The wharves there had created work opportunities for free black people. After the Civil War, African-Americans in the city began to start businesses, own property, and win political office. In 1898, a local black newspaper editor, Alex Manly, published an editorial arguing that, as often as not, interracial relationships in the South were consensual. Democratic editors reprinted it over and over, for months, in newspapers friendly to the white-supremacist cause, deliberately fomenting a readiness for violent action among a large part of the state’s white citizenry.
On October 27th, Alfred Moore Waddell, a onetime Confederate colonel and a former U.S. congressman, whose career was in decline, gave a speech to hundreds of white supremacists from the stage at Thalian Hall, a big theatre downtown, advocating for a violent takeover. He declared that the whites of Wilmington would “have no more of the intolerable conditions under which we live,” and that they were “resolved to change them, if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses.” Two weeks later, on November 10th, Waddell went on to lead the takeover, marching at the front of a white-supremacist mob with a rifle over his shoulder. An unknown number of black people were murdered in daylight, and the progressive Republican city and county governments were overthrown. Some historians consider it the only successful political coup in American history.
Curiously, Waddell was “A.M.W.,” who, as the reader may recall, had remembered Frank Johnson in the musician’s decline and dotage. In fact, Waddell left us some of the most vivid portraits of Johnson, having seen him play at numerous balls in the eighteen-fifties. The fiddler, Waddell recalled in one essay, “usually wore a stovepipe hat, a stock of the old style, instead of a cravat, and a spike tail coat with brass buttons.” At a ball one night, while Waddell and a pretty girl were dancing together near the center of the dance floor, Johnson stepped down from the stand where he had been playing and walked up beside them and fiddled to them, for them. As Waddell recalled, Johnson, with the violin “still under his chin,” cried out, “That’s the thing! Please God, it reminds me of when I was young.”
One night a few months ago, Giddens was scheduled to do a performance in Wilmington, at Thalian Hall, to commemorate the hundred-and-twentieth anniversary of the 1898 race massacre, which casts a perpetual shadow over the town. The night before the show, Giddens flew in for the rehearsal from Ireland, where she lives much of the time. She was dressed in a windbreaker and jeans. At the event, I was to interview her onstage, and she would play songs related to 1898. “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” for instance, had been a hit that year, and was also a phrase trotted out by sarcastic white newspaper reporters to describe the killings. We had planned to do an informal run-through in my kitchen. The room was set up for the rehearsal with instruments and sheet music, notebooks, laptops, and a portable piano. The North Carolina writer Clyde Edgerton, who happens to be a crack piano player, would be providing accompaniment. Giddens passed on the hard cider, asked for black tea. There was work to be done. Giddens’s tone became quick and matter-of-fact, almost curt—the outward sign of an internal focussing.
In front of her, on the table, lay the original sheet music, yellow and brittle, for a piece published in 1898 and titled “Negro Love Song.” It was written by the Englishman Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, one of the first great black composers of classical music. The piece has never been recorded, so far as I have been able to determine, and seems not to have been performed in a century. Like Frank Johnson, it was effaced by a doppelgänger: another song titled “Negro Love Song,” by another early black composer, Will Marion Cook, became more famous and nudged it out of the popular repertoire. Coleridge-Taylor’s song, however, is often cited by musicologists, who identify it as the first appearance of true blue notes in a piece of surviving sheet music.
The piece has a little-known Wilmington connection. It was composed shortly after Coleridge-Taylor heard the famous Fisk Jubilee Choir perform in London, in 1897. That year, the lead soprano was Carrie Sadgewar, a Wilmington girl and the beloved daughter of a free black family there, who went on to marry Alex Manly, the editor of the Wilmington Daily Record. After Coleridge-Taylor heard her sing, he wrote “Negro Love Song.” I have owned the sheet music for a long time, and I have often looked in fascination at the notes I knew were blue, but I cannot read music well enough to play it and had never actually heard the piece. Giddens picked up her violin and pulled it to her chin. The music started sobbing out. When she was finished, she immediately began to make fun of her playing, how she wasn’t really up to it, how she couldn’t play beyond first position; she was a folk fiddler, not a real violinist.
The next night, at Thalian Hall, she played it again. Giddens is something of a favorite daughter of North Carolina, and 1898 is an increasingly relevant-seeming topic, as awareness grows that many of the legal roots of the state’s current political dystopia reach back to the violence of that year. The audience was huge, but, as Giddens talked and played, there was throughout the house an unnerving silence. She was sitting in the chair and playing her banjo when, suddenly, she stood up. Edgerton and I were watching her, uncertain. She walked to the front of the stage, away from the mikes. She was playing, picking. She looked up and addressed the crowd. “I just want you to notice this,” she said. “You people in back—can you hear this?” A few people shouted that they could. “The acoustics in this place are amazing,” she said. She explained to the audience that we were in a mid-nineteenth-century theatre, meant to function without amplification. And it did so function. The banjo had carried.
The night ended at the town’s memorial to the victims of 1898. We had all marched there together. People were holding candles. It was cold. A young writer named Griffin Limerick had spent a year compiling the names of the known victims, by scouring sources, collating lists, and crawling around in the cemetery (the one where Frank Johnson was buried). In the end, he’d found eighteen names. We knew that this number represented a mere fraction of the total killed. Giddens stood in front of the crowd and read the names into a microphone. At the end of the list, the word “Unknown” was written over and over. Her plan, she told me later, had been to repeat this word as many times as she could manage—twenty times, thirty—but, in the moment, her voice broke after four or five. Watching her, I was reminded of the time when, in the basement in Nashville, she had been sitting and improvising that music—black, white, Native American, and American—in that she seemed, in some more than figurative way, to have been born for it, for the moment. I think she knew it.
[John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the southern editor of The Paris Review. His forthcoming book is "The Prime Minister of Paradise." He writes for GQ, Harper's Magazine, and Oxford American, and is the author of Blood Horses and Pulphead. Sullivan lives in Wilmington, North Carolina.]
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