Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Rhiannon Giddens’ American Tunes

The musician and writer wants to change how we think about our nation’s music—and its history.

January 24, 2023

Jeff Hagan ’86

Giddens sings emotively.
Rhiannon Giddens in concert at Finney Chapel in October 2022.
Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

A Rhiannon Giddens concert is part old-time string band music, part opera recital, part blues jam, and part seminar. Her set list is as carefully curated as the songs are meticulously crafted. And while she is not content to be merely an entertainer, she held a sold-out crowd at Finney Chapel completely rapt on a recent autumn afternoon, even—or perhaps especially—during a spirited, bluesy solo … on kazoo.

A 2000 graduate of Oberlin, Giddens was trained as an opera singer under Marlene Rosen, and so the opera part is easy to understand. But it was after she returned home to North Carolina that she took a deep dive into traditional folk idioms. When she discovered that the banjo is an instrument derived from Africa, everything changed.

In 2017, Giddens delivered the keynote address to the International Bluegrass Music Association about diversity in the genre, a speech that still gets talked about in and out of bluegrass circles. “The question shouldn’t be how do we get diversity into bluegrass,” she told her audience, “but how do we get diversity back in bluegrass.” It positioned Giddens as the advocate for and practitioner of an approach to music history as an approach to history through music, one that attempts to recover the Black musical heritage that was appropriated, interpreted, exploited, and transformed, mostly by white performers and entrepreneurs, mostly for white audiences.

While the speech was pivotal in the public perception of Giddens, the impulse to acknowledge the racism and white supremacy behind that appropriation was apparent early on. Even the name of the band she formed in 2005—the Carolina Chocolate Drops—and the title of its Grammy-winning third album, Genuine Negro Jig, evoked and poked at the history and legacy of minstrelsy, a complicated story Giddens continues to tease out in her work and on stage. She resists any claim of expertise about the history and insists she’s learning along with her audience, and that makes her a particularly effective teacher.

In her research, Giddens came across a 1932 song originally called “Under the Harlem Moon,” a minstrel tune satirizing the transformation of Black backwoods Southerners to fancy New Yorkers. “They don’t live in cabins like the old folks do,” went the song. “Their cabin is a penthouse up on Lenox Avenue.” But then Giddens heard a version of the song by the Black performer Ethel Waters, who had renamed it “Under Our Harlem Moon,” reclaimed the song from its minstrel roots, and recast it as a celebration of Black attainment and arrival. “Once we wore bandanas, now we wear Parisian hats,” Waters sang. “Once we were barefoot, now we wear shoes and spats.” It was this interpretation Giddens sang, followed by explanations of some of the lines and their significance to American history, musical history, and her own.

Giddens herself has certainly arrived.

She has won multiple Grammy Awards—including Best Folk Album for They’re Calling Me Home, with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi—and garners nominations with alarming frequency. She’s the artistic director of Silkroad, the nonprofit founded by Yo-Yo Ma that is dedicated to cross-cultural collaboration. She hosts an acclaimed opera podcast, Aria Code, co-presented by the Metropolitan Opera. She’s an actress (including past roles on TV’s Nashville and Parenthood); a sought-after speaker on topics ranging from gender and racial equity to global warming; a writer of celebrated children’s books; and a composer for opera and ballet—and even a video game (that’s her “Mountain Hymn” in Red Dead Redemption 2). In 2017, Giddens became Oberlin’s 12th graduate to earn a MacArthur Fellowship, a sizable, no-strings-attached prize awarded to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.

Rhiannon on banjo with a bassist and percussionist.
Rehearsal in Finney Chapel. Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

Backstage before her October show in Oberlin, for which she was joined by Turrisi and bassist Jason Sypher, Giddens was briefly startled to learn her picture would be taken (“You need to tell a girl!”). But she acquiesced easily, explaining that she’s already dressed for her performance anyway. By her own description and obvious example, she is “anti-diva,” but she projects power nonetheless with her voice: as a singer, a spokesperson, an interpreter, and an activist—another word she uses to describe herself. She has reached a point where her talent is the only signifier she needs. When she steps onto the stage in Finney, she is at home, comfortable but commanding, and barefoot.

OAM: What was the first music that you remember responding to?

RG: I’d have to say my family’s music: my dad, my sister, my mom. We used to sing a lot of folk revival stuff, you know, like ’60s. I remember that.

OAM: What did you listen to as a teenager?

RG: Weirdo stuff. I was a They Might Be Giants fan. I’m completely explained by what I listened to as a teenager. They Might Be Giants, the Police and early Sting, Tom Lehrer. I started getting into Sondheim when I was 17, and Disney soundtracks, a lot of bits and pieces, you know, pop music and whatever. Take Six for example. I had one classical CD of Yo-Yo Ma playing a Hayden cello concerto, and Dvořák, which I could sing by heart. And country music, I started listening to country music. So yeah, it was just a complete odd box.

OAM: What ended up drawing you to opera?

RG: I watched an opera on TV. Literally, I’d never seen an opera. I bought an opera compilation CD with Domingo and people like that on it, and that’s all I knew of opera. I just knew they sang all the time, and in musical theater they had to talk on stage. And I was, like I hate speaking in public, so I’m gonna go with opera. Like literally, this is what I knew.

I did not know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t know how to read music. The whole nine yards. My teacher that I’d been studying with in [high school] said, “If you get into Oberlin, you should study with Marlene Rosen.” And then Marlene Rosen reached out to me after I did my audition and said that she wanted me to be in her studio, and I was like That’s obviously a sign.

OAM: I’m gonna take a little side note here. You talked about not really wanting to do the talking part, but you’re now known for a good amount of talking.

RG: The irony does not escape me. If you’d have told me then that I’d be making speeches now, I’d be like you’re crazy. But, you know, here we are.

OAM: I think of opera as something that people must have grown up with in order to actually perform later because it’s so alien to me. So to have someone who’s just sort of listening on a random CD or seeing opera on TV and then getting into Oberlin—it’s kind of an interesting path.

RG: It’s a little odd, but I feel like it’s really allowed me to do what I do because I approached it as someone who was taken by it and not someone who was kind of inculcated or just surrounded by it and just like Well, of course I’m gonna do this.

Rhiannon Giddens in operatic costume (black and white photo).
A student of Marlene Rosen, Giddens was a standout on the opera stage at Oberlin. Photo credit: John Seyfried

I chose it. So when I got here as a freshman, it was simultaneously terrifying and overwhelming. I have very clear memories—I talked to Ms. Rosen about this a few years ago—of going into her studio crying because I couldn’t learn the music that she had assigned me because I didn’t know how to play the piano, I didn’t know how to read music. And I didn’t really know how to access the library yet to listen to the recordings, because how I learn is by ear. And she made a tape for me of the songs. She sang them for me so that I could learn them. It’s amazing. It was such a completely new thing.

I was so happy that I didn’t have to do math or science. All they do is music. I remember, I was in with a bunch of second-years in the music history class. They’re all sitting in the back, a lot of ’em know a lot of that stuff. And I’m in the front row, with my computer, so eager to learn everything. And I remember it was [Professor Sylvan] Suskin—he’s gone now, he passed some years ago—Mr. Suskin was so happy to see this shiny happy freshman in the first row, you know? I was in love with it. All I had to do was learn about music. I was like What’s wrong with y’all? Why are y’all like so jaded? I was like This is amazing, you know?

But then I’m in my theory class dying because I’m in remedial theory. Everybody else who is in remedial theory only missed the cutoff by like two points. And I like, got zero, you know, and I’m like Hey, wait, slow down, slow down. What’s a parallel fifth? I didn’t know what a parallel fifth was for a long time, so it was definitely a wow experience.

OAM: How did you get to the music that you ended up playing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops?

RG: Well, it’s interesting because when I was here I was pretty elite, hardcore opera. I did a bunch of operas while I was here, which is not common. There’s only so many roles for women in opera. I was kind of lucky enough to be one of the folks who got cast. So I had a lot of experience seeing opera, even though I came to it at the last minute, and I loved it. I loved it so much. But then I remember at the end of my time here going like What am I gonna really add to opera that like a million other people can’t already do better than me? I’m like this baby singer.

I loved opera, but I didn’t like the world of opera. I didn’t like the elitism of it. I didn’t like having to wear high heels and makeup and all this shit. I was at my happiest when I was in a role in a costume, acting and singing. That was when I was happiest. All the rest of it was just torture for me. I mean, you see me: I don’t wear makeup. I just was not that person—I just want to sing and perform. I don’t wanna have to send off audition tapes and beg people for a job.

I went back home to North Carolina and started contra dancing, which I had discovered up here [in Oberlin] actually. They were trying to recruit students. There was the contra dance weekends here for many years called the Dandelion Romp, which I actually never went to, oddly enough. But I got into contra dancing here because they put a flyer up and I thought it was Jane Austen English Country dancing.

I fell in love with it. That’s literally how the whole trajectory of my life changed, because I fell in love with old-time banjo. That’s where I started hearing old-time music. Not bluegrass, but old-time, which is the earlier stuff, like when the banjo is a very much more rhythmical thing. And I started dancing. I learned how to call dances, and then I wanted to play, so I got fiddle and banjo and …was mostly self-taught. I had a few people to kind of guide me a little bit, and then I just sort of banged my head against the wall with the fiddle and the banjo.

And then I learned that the banjo was an African American instrument. That was it. I was like Here is my purpose. I met Joe Thompson, an 86-year-old African American fiddler, the last person in his family to play the music. One of the last traditional Black fiddlers left alive. That’s where the Chocolate Drops formed, around playing with him.

And so that was kind of like Don’t turn back. But opera, classical music, still stayed with me.

OAM: You weren’t just playing music though. Your approach seemed to have almost a sociological or anthropological aspect to it.

RG: Yeah, for sure. I’ve always been interested in history. It was one of the things I liked about opera. Whenever I got a role, I would go research why they wrote the opera, the story that the opera’s based on, the time period.

Like I remember when I did [the Massenet opera] Manon here, I was reading about the time period that she came out of, [wondering] why is she thinking this way? And that was really interesting to me for preparation for roles. And so that kind of extended when I learned about the banjo, and I was just so shocked that it was 100 percent opposite from something I’ve been told my whole life.

I started going, What else have they been lying about? Right? What other stories are not true that we’ve been fed with our Wheaties?

So that really got me kind of in an activist frame of mind too. Then you start studying. When you study the banjo and the history of the banjo as a natural progression, you have to study slavery.

So that’s what got me into studying. I’m not really interested in music history. I’m interested in the history of music, I guess. It’s different—the history that surrounds the music that’s being made and affects the music that’s being made. So I just started getting books and kind of going, Oh my God, this is really incredible. This is really important stuff. And then it started creeping its way in. I wasn’t a songwriter or anything. I was just an interpreter. And through studying that music, I started writing songs from those perspectives of history.

OAM: There’s a lot of weight in what you choose to perform, sing, and write. Do you feel that that’s a responsibility? A burden? A gift?

RG: All three? Totally. And there’s times when one of them wins out. It’s a lot. Yeah. It’s a lot. And what I realized is that I can’t do it forever. ’Cause it takes a toll, you know?

I did Porgy and Bess in January, and that’s something that has a lot of weight to it. Regardless of how you feel about the Gershwins, the story is heavy and it’s coming out of a very heavy time. But portraying Bess was amazing because then you take the dress off and you put it down, and you walk away and then you’re yourself again. Whereas with the music that I do every night in my shows, it’s a lot harder to do that, because I’m not putting a character on; I’m channeling a certain thing or a vibe or ancestral spirit. I’m trying to learn how to not carry so much of that weight.

How do you talk about minstrelsy? How do you talk about slavery? How do you talk about rape? How do you talk about all of these things, and then sing a song? I think I’m good at it, but it does take its toll, and so I am tired.

Because it is difficult, and I’m talking about things in a way to mostly white people, trying to explain things in a way that doesn’t drive people away. It’s really hard to do it in a way that’s authentic and it’s not pandering, but is also not denying what it is, you know?

And I think I’ve found good ways to do that. I’ve been doing it ever since the Chocolate Drops. You have to figure out how do you talk about minstrelsy? How do you talk about slavery? How do you talk about rape? How do you talk about all of these things, and then sing a song? I think I’m good at it, but it does take its toll, and so I am tired.

OAM: It does seem like a lot of people can project on you and have expectations. Do you ever feel like that’s unfair?

RG: No, I feel kind of lucky because people don’t know what the fuck to do with me.

I mean, to be honest, I’m now becoming known for like, Oh, is there something about the banjo or slavery? Talk to her. Which is fine, because I feel like I’m a good representative because I know what I don’t know. I know when to punt. I’m not there because I wanna be known as a know-it-all. I’m there because I know I’m gonna shepherd and make sure that the right people are involved. So I do feel that responsibility. And I’m happy to have it, because I feel like I know what I don’t know, and I think that’s the number-one step, you know?

OAM: Is there a throughline in all of the things that you do, or is it just what interests you?

RG: No, no, no. This is what I tell young people, because I’m starting to now go in and do workshops and mentor people. I love talking to students because I represent something that a lot of classical students now are interested in, which is somebody who crosses over in a very profound way. But what I tell people is no matter what you do, you need to have a thesis statement to your life, to your career, and sometimes you have to put one on—try one on for size—and if that’s not what you wanna do, OK. You’re always growing and you’re honing.

This is something my mom told me years ago. Whenever I was writing anything, she’d read it and she’s like But what’s your thesis statement? What is your central tenet? All the rest of everything is supporting that one thing. You should be able to say in one sentence: What is this about? And I feel that if you want a successful multiyear career that doesn’t depend on a hot single, that doesn’t depend on getting that role [or]...the review that just blows you up, if you just want a steady career, building it slowly... a 40-, 50-year career—you need a thesis statement. No matter what I do when I book shows, people come. I never play the same songs from one tour to another. Most of the time, if you get a hit or something, you’re tied to your record cycle and you have to play the song. But I just do what I do and just have faith that I’ve built slowly over the years a fan base that just shows up for what I put on.

Because my thesis statement is very clear. What I do is, I shed light on undiscovered or erased or suppressed stories. That’s what I do. I do it with the banjo. I do it with my own shows. I do it with my songwriting. I have a TV series, a PBS series is coming out next year. I have a children’s book. I’m working on an adult book. Everything that I do is tied to that central tenet, so my brand is very, very clear.

OAM: When did you develop that thesis statement?

RG: With the banjo. It’s not enough to go Oh, let’s talk about the banjo being an African American instrument. We also have to talk about Why don’t we know that? That’s the corollary. So you’ll always have to have that second part, otherwise you’re never gonna get to the truth of it. And then you never connect it to what’s going on now. All of this is because every time I dig into the history surrounding this music, today is explained. The deeper I go, the less I’m surprised.

OAM: You seem very comfortable showing flaws, showing shortcomings.

RG: Oh, yeah. I have many. I think I’m good at being uncomfortable and finding the people to work with. I think I’m good at throwing myself into a situation where I don’t know what the hell is going on, but figuring out What am I bringing to it that is special? I think that’s what I’m good at. I’m good at finding people to fill the gaps of the stuff that I don’t know. I like collaborating. I’m given stuff. I’m given talents. But I did not make those. You know what I mean? I don’t take any responsibility for the fact that I’m a really good singer. I was given a voice and I’ve worked on it, sure, but that was given to me.

There’s this quote that was from [famed soprano] Leontyne Price. She’s like Sometimes I like to drink a glass of red wine to my voice. And I love that. Some people might think that that’s arrogant. I actually think it’s putting it right where it belongs. She’s not saying ... to me. She’s saying ... to my voice, because she was given that voice. We’re all given things, you know? So I just think the more that we get into What is the thing? What are the things that I was given to do in this world?—there is a responsibility.

If I was good at anything over the years, it’s that I’ve honed the art of saying yes to that thing that I didn’t know I could do until I did it by finding the person who’s gonna help me do it.

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