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Photos by Mary Andrews
Giddens publicity portrait
A New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival interview with Rhiannon Giddens
May 16, 2016
Rhiannon Giddens the lead singer, violinist and banjo player for the Carolina Chocolate Drops has had a big year as a solo performer. She was selected by T-Bone Burnett to participate in The New Basement Tapes, released a solo album and EP produced by T-Bone Burnett. It was announced that Ms. Giddens will replace Audra McDonald in the new Broadway show Shuffle in late July 2016. The 39-year old singer studied opera for eight years at Oberlin Conservatory. She has since embraced folk, bluegrass, country, Americana, jazz, and R&B genre of music. She started her busy appearance at Jazz Fest with a 40-minute, very informative interview with Nick Spitzer. The interview was joined in progress.
NS: Tell me a little bit about your grandmother.
RG: She taught me about the community being an urban community. North Carolina is my home state. We were the people who still lived in the country. My grandmother lived out in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina. She still had up-to-date jazz and blues records, furniture from Europe. You know she was a part of the club where if you had skin lighter than a paper bag well I don't want to say she had a lot of pretensions, but in her mind that was where her culture was. But she also watched Hee-Haw every Saturday night. That was the weird juxtaposition I grew up with. She wanted my sister and I to be in Alpha Kappa Alpha, but at the same time she said 'don't get in front of me and my Hee-Haw.' It's an interesting way to grow up.
NS: South Louisiana has a bit of that going on too. What about your parents? I know you had little bit to say about them too.
RG: Well, yeah they got married in 1970. That was in the first three years when that was legal because they are a mixed couple. They couldn't get married in Greensboro so they had to go to another town to get a license. My dad came from the other side of the country. My dad's grandma and my mom's grandma were all country. They were just kind of the opposite side of Greensboro. So, my parents both came from Greensboro, out in the country and that whole culture. They decided they weren't looking back. They weren't going back.
NS: So, what were they into?
RG: My mom was into a little bit of everything. So I would have heard Andre Segovia on guitar to Sweet Honey In the Rock to just about anything. What ever is on the radio at the time. I heard bluegrass and old country. I heard a little bit of everything growing up.
NS: We've talked about this before, but the Piedmont region is very different than the city Delta. There is a cultural overlap. The social aspect provides a kind of sharing.
RG: It's like Charleston and Richmond. Virginia and South Carolina were the rich states. North Carolina was that space in between. We had a whole bunch of plantations. It wasn't as strong of a part of the culture. We were all there together. That doesn't mean there was no prejudice and there was horrible things happening like in 1980, the Greensboro massacre with the KKK. Stuff happens. We also had the first sit-ins in the country. We sat down at the lunch counters there. A lot of important things happened in that part of the country. It's an interesting area. There's a lot of activism and 'lets support the status quo.'
NS: The region seems the perfect area to deal with sharing and support for the blues, the banjo, ragtime and country. When did you become conscience of the regional music as opposed to the music on radio, television etc.?
RG: I think really I grew up when they had the folk revival, Peter, Paul, and Mary. My dad was really into that stuff, the seventies, Donovan, all that kind of sound. I really didn't get into what they were pulling from until I got to college. And then I came back home. I got my head unstuck from the classical stuff and fell in love with the old time stuff. I got into the history of it.
NS: Tell us about your college and the classical music.
RG: I went to Overland and studied opera. I did a lot of opera and did some post grad work in Greensboro. I got pretty burned out because I didn't have any music then. I thought they just sang all the time. Oh, cool. I got there and I thought OMG, full tilt for the next seven years in that world. I got out of there and thought I needed to do something else! I started old time music in Piedmont. So I started playing the banjo and I didn't have to sneak around to these festivals and feel like I'm an interloper. It's actually my music too. Cool.
NS: How did you find the banjo? How did it come to you?
RG: I just heard it and instantly, I heard bluegrass banjo. I was never interested before. But I heard claw hammer banjo and that was it. I got to Africa and studied Ugandan, studied pre-American type of instruments and banjo-type instruments. It has just always called to me. The big thing that happened to me after I got into this music, is, I went to the Black Banjo Gathering in 2005 at New Appalachians University. There were all these other people, but only a handful of banjo players. But there were so many enthusiasts. The old style of playing, we gotta do it all ourselves. This was about partnerships. It's about all these wonderful scholars who have been working on this like Dena Epstein. I'm like, we need to work with each other. All the knowledge is there to be gained. This was a beautiful coming together of people of color who were either playing or interested in this stuff. Who want to get the truth out into the world. That was the way to kick start, well that was the way the Chocolate Drops was born. It was a great way to get into the music and that spirit of sharing.
NS: How did you get the name Carolina Chocolate Drops?
RG: We were watching this movie with Robert Armstrong and he was in the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. He was killing us. He was so good. He was just amazing. So I said we should be the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
NS: I know some of the New Orleans jazz players had gone to see Don Babby. How does it come to pass that you go see Joe Thompson? Who goes to see Joe Thompson? Is it individually or as a group?
RG: I went to see him first. I actually met him before the thing (the first Black Banjo Gathering). Some of the guys who played with him organized it. I played with him. It was great and then he had a stroke. After he recovered from that and he recovered a lot. He came to that and I met him again. Justin Robinson, another member of the Chocolate Drops, didn't play banjo at the time. Dom played the banjo. I wanted to go on fiddle, but I play banjo. Joe needed a banjo player. So, I said, "Alright, I guess I'm the banjo player."
NS: Maybe we could hear a banjo tune from you?
RG: Yeah, I brought a banjo that is an exact replica of a banjo from 1858. It has a different sound from the standard banjo. In the day, this was the commercial banjo. This was the very first commercial style banjo. Before this came along, there were just homemade plantation instruments. They would be known only as Black instruments. It was only in the 1840s and 50s, white entertainers started to pick them up and this became the wooden rim?? This would have been the commercial style when you walked into the store maker and buy this, not a homemade gourd instrument. Not the fifth string. Many people think that was added by Joel Sweeney. There so many West African instruments that had that drone string.
Rhiannon played a tune from 1855 ("I wouldn't want to go back to then.") on the banjo.
RG: The syncopation came from minstrel music. The minstrel music came from the Black music that these entertainers are learning. Every white banjo player learned from a Black banjo player. I think it is really important because, for me, everybody says 'lets talk about spirituals and work songs' then it juts forth to blues, jazz and boom, boom, boom. This stuff is at the heart of so many movements. Once I got into it, we played this stuff in the show. I'm playing it just as it is written down. I'm playing the unadulterated tune just as it was written down, unadulterated as notated. Of course, there have been lots of changes and all that stuff . It's what I've got. And then the band just falls in. I've done a lot of research in it. Now we need to take the music back. It's part of the language and a part of the minstrel scene which was the most popular part of entertainment for over 80 years. We need to talk about this. We need to rescue the music.
NS: The book "I Wish I Was in Dixie" by the Snowden Brothers, African Americans, created the tune "Dixie" has to be one of the great ironies. It really reveals that history. On the flip side here in New Orleans, minstrel entrepreneurs observed the Congo Square. It was amazing how much of that parcel was going on changing whether it was exotic or stereotypical. Nonetheless, it moved forward.
RG: It was an incredible interchange. The African American community synchronized of bringing in, there was already a mixture of cultures with people from all different countries. It wasn't just the African culture. There were all these different languages, dances, and music within Africa. So it was already happening. People from the outside taking that, changing it and changing it back.
NS: There was no tape-recorders at that point. Lets bring it up to a more recent issue for the moment. Old time music and the banjo list serve. You talk about getting flames on list serves.
RG: The whole reason there was a Black Banjo Gathering was that it came out that black banjo players which Tony Thomas started, everyone wanted to talk about black banjo players. All of a sudden he got flamed because no one wanted to say it, especially back then. Nowadays, there is a lot more acceptance of that. I can't tell you how many times I've been told, "it's Irish, that's not black." It makes me sad. I know people have cherished notions. They think it's a part of their heritage. Is it really a part of your heritage if it's not true?
NS: We talk about the flip side of that situation where many years, because of minstrelsy and later ideas, the banjo wasn't cool in the black community.
RG: Business wasn't business. We're working on it.
NS: There is a great scene in the movie "American Creole" where after Katrina Don Vappie goes to New York to talk to Wynton Marsalis about coming back for a reunion and Wynton encourages him to stay away from the banjo. Don is so crest fallen.
RG: Unfortunately we have been fed a narrative. We have allowed that to happen. We need to challenge it. It's not just us. It's a much more interesting history when we know the history. It just shows you how much of a mˇlange this country really is. When you learn the heart of this instrument. Yes, it came from Africa. The more I learn about the actual history and not what I learned in school, the more I understand what is happening now. This didn't just start happening last year. The roots go back hundreds of years. I'm a musician, not a researcher other than I like to read a lot. I'm a musician and for me the music of the time talks about this stuff. It shows the history. It reveals the history in ways that are more emotionally potent than just reading a chapter. Our job as musicians is to continue that forth.
NS: What was it like the first time you played the Grand Ole Opry?
RG: It was referred to as a healing moment. I'm not sure who it was healing for. We were happy to be there. We were very excited. It was like a huge deal for us. I'm a huge country fan. I've been a Dolly Parton fan for many years. So I was very happy to be there. I heard we were the first all Black string band to play the Grand Old Opry and it was a big deal. What we loved the most, we came back multiple times after that. What we loved the most was not the color thing, but we came back for all the old timers of the Opry. They loved what we do. We'd talked to Little Jimmy Dickens, "I remember this when I was little." We loved that. We took away that we are connecting the old and the new.
NS: We've always had string bands, of course DeFord Bailey and later Charlie Pride. How about a little later when you did the recent recording of Tomorrow Is My Turn, you did a burning version of the Patsy Cline, Hank Cochran tune, "She's Got You."
RG: Yeah, She's Got You" Don't look at the comments on my Opry webpage. I defy you to say they would be the same if I was a white singer. On my page they are very nice. It kind of shocked me out of my own little world. I was the most nervous I have ever been. I'm singing that on the Opry stage and I'm thinking OMG they are going to come and tar and feather me. It went well and the audience there loved it.
NS: What about the professional musical side this shifting, this is collective-country dance music, storytelling in an intimate setting. You all went together as the Chocolate Drops, but when you are doing Tomorrow Is My Turn, you are really becoming a solo voice, stepping forward. Talk a little bit about that transition and those differences.
RG: It's been really interesting because it was not something I had planned on. We were working on the next Chocolate Drop record. This thing happened. It's kind of like the Black Banjo Gathering. I was in New York in 2013. It was in celebration of __bible music for this movie. I was there representing Odetta. It was me and KebMo. I said, I'm going to do my thing. T-Bone Burnett was there. He said 'lets do a solo record.' He basically pushed me off the cliff. I had to learn how to fly on the way down. I'm very grateful for it. I don't know if I would have ever done it. I'm so happy to have started it at the end after the Chocolate Drops had been going. You know I'm not getting any younger. I've had a solo record. The nice thing is that I'm not about my name or my face on the record, but it allowed me to carry the Chocolate Drops band with me. It allowed us to go places where the Chocolate Drops had not been able to go and to do some things the Chocolate Drops had not been able to do. And now I've been able to write some songs based on slave narratives. Trying to do voices on these stories. Like 'slavery was terrible.' Yes it was, but what were the individual stories? You've seen things like these movies. You've seen things in this way, but for me there is a special thing about a song, that touches you in a different way. I've been able to do this since this happened. That is what our next record will be focus on.
NS: When you've been here at jazz fest before with the Chocolate Drops, there are huge fans out in the tents. What's your lineup today?
RG: Oh, Lord. It's so much fun. There's a wonderful rhythm section. Jason and Jamie on bass and drums. I've got three current Chocolate Drops with me today: Malcomb on cello. Hubby on Mandolin and banjo. and Rowen on guitar and banjo. I'll have a couple of special guests: Chance McCoy from Old Crow Medicine Show playing electric guitar. I have Dirk Powell from Lafayette playing accordion and fiddle. It will be pretty awesome.
NS: It's an amazing lineup. Talk a little bit about the Irish in your current family regarding music and how your life goes. You mentioned going back and forth between there and North Carolina.
RG: There is a huge Gaelic settlers in North Carolina. There are Black Gaelic speakers. It's interesting history. I immerged myself in that. I went and married an Irishman. That's why I know they are not the same. We got married and had two kids, so you know. I spend a lot of time in Ireland. My daughter goes to school there learning Irish Gaelic. She's a fluent speaker.
NS: Where do you call home?
RG: I call home wherever my kids are. Pretty much wherever my kids are, either Ireland or North Carolina. My home is kind of on the road. My heart is where they are. Where I rest my head is where they are at night.
NS: You mentioned Odetta and on this record, it's named after a song Nina Simone sang. Is it a Nina Simone song it's named after?
RG: Yes, It's a Charles Aznavour song and she sang an English translation.
NS: So, how about Nina Simone? Any jazz, folk, classical, protests?
RG: Yes. . . She's awesome. I keep finding fresh inspiration from her. I stumbled over a version of 'Old Black Swan' from an opera, The Medium, she did. That's what I'm working vernacularizing them. It's just continuous. She's just amazing. Her interpretations, you just can't beat them. She, more than anyone else, could make a song that was actually hers.
NS: Would you like to do something else on the banjo or fiddle for us?
RG: Need to get depressed for a second? I'm a very spiritual person. I believe we are all put here for a reason. Some of us are lucky to find this early on and some of us are not. That's just the way it is. If you are lucky enough to find what you are put here to do, then you better do it. I feel like that is your responsibility. One of the things I am here to do is to give voice to these stories. I didn't write any of these songs. These songs were given to me. I am the instrument.
The song she performed is called "Julie." She deliberately chose this song since she was not going to perform it later in her set. (However, she did perform this song later in her set). It was a song she wrote after reading the narrative that was a conversation overheard from these two women standing by the bank watching the union army march on the plantation. The conversation was between the mistress and the woman that she thought she owned. The army is coming and they know what is going to happen. The mistress is like 'you're not going to leave me are you?' And the young woman is like, 'uh, huh.' Mistress says, we take such good care of you. We need you here. We need you to help us hide this plate. The wealth of the plantation was in the silver service ware. Often times they would hide the silver in the slave cabins. The army wouldn't bother the slave quarters. I need you to hide it and if they do find it, tell them it's yours. The woman said 'that's not a lie because you sold four of my children in order to buy the plate.' The song came out of that. History is in the details!
There was a short question and answer period following the song before the interview concluded.
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