Calgary Folk Festival: Rhiannon Giddens pays tribute to women performers
While she seems to be doing her best to hide it, Rhiannon Giddens seems a little annoyed by a question about her genealogy.
It seemed a natural enough tangent to explore. After all, the singer has been open about how her experiences growing up with a white father and black and Native American mother in North Carolina led to a lifelong study of how different cultures interact. It’s the sort of intellectual curiosity that led her to immerse herself in the black string music that has become the main focus of her band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops. In high school, she played in a drum group that drew from her native heritage.
But one of her more unusual musical obsessions is Scottish mouth music, an age-old Gaelic tradition that Giddens has been enamoured with for the last couple of years. She studied the language and the history and went to Scotland to learn from the masters. An unnamed Gaelic song is now a show-stopping part of her live performances.
But when asked if there is any Scottish blood in her family, she seems to take the question as a challenge to her authenticity.
“This is one of the reasons I love doing mouth music because it always brings that up: ‘Do you have Scottish background?'” says Giddens, on the phone from her home in North Carolina. “When a white guy does blues, no one ever asks him ‘Do you have African-American in your background?’ He just does the blues. Why do I get asked if I have a reason to do this music? I like the music. It’s a part of my culture, because it’s a part of North Carolina culture. That’s all the ownership I need. I have respect for the music and I know more about Scottish history and Gaelic than people who say that they are of Scottish heritage. I think it’s a great opportunity to bring up that question, the idea of race and who has ownership of things.”
It’s the sort of question that Giddens, who will be performing Sunday at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, has spent some time pondering. Taking ownership of various musical strains, and specific songs, has defined her entire career and certainly plays into her debut solo record, Tomorrow is My Turn. By her own admission, Giddens doesn’t “do anything by halves.” She has gone from studying opera and classical music at Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory, to a decade playing string music with the Chocolate Drops, to a star-making performance at a 2013 all-star New York concert organized by T Bone Burnett to celebrate the music from the film Inside Llewyn Davis.
Through it all, the singer has been studying and crossing cultural bridges with both passion and academic vigour. Easily one of the most intriguing records so far this year, the Burnett-produced Tomorrow Is My Turn is a dazzling collection of covers — except for one original composition, the lovely Angel City — that finds Giddens paying tribute to female performers and songwriters. It’s vibrant and modern but also rife with history, both musical and social. Rolling Stone critic David Fricke described it as a “spiritual archeology of American racial and economic struggle.”
Reworking songs made popular by Nina Simone (a soaring and funky version of the traditional ballad Black is the Colour), Patsy Cline (A soulful take on Hank Cochrane’s She’s Got You) and Dolly Parton (an Americana reading of Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind) was a way of showing gratitude to the women who came before her and recognizing the “doors they had to break down.”
But Giddens admits the theme and underlying politics emerged as afterthoughts, secondary to the simple fact that she loved and wanted to reinterpret this work.
“It started off as just an organic ‘I love these songs,'” she says. “Then I noticed ‘Gosh, I’m really into the women’s experience and the women in Americana music.’ I’ve been thinking about that and having conversations with people. So when it came to adding songs to the project, that’s when I said ‘Ok, this is where this is going and I like that so let’s keep that idea.’ So all of them are either written by or definitively interpreted by women.”
Burnett approached her after the 2013 concert and asked what her dream record would be. Giddens was well-prepared. She had been keeping a list of songs she loved but felt didn’t fit the very specific style of the Chocolate Drops.
That some of the songs — including a stunning version of Odetta’s Waterboy — have political undertones that explore gender, class and race in America is hardly surprising. Those are the type of songs Giddens has always been attracted to.
“That’s just where I operate out of,” she says. “With the work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, I think about that stuff a lot. So it makes sense that those songs would draw me — the particular stories that they tell. It’s not something I set out to do, it’s something that comes out of who I am and what I’m drawn to.”
For her solo tour, Giddens will be bringing fellow Chocolate Drops Hubby J. Jenkins, Rowan Corbett and Malcolm Parson, drummer Jamie Dick and bassist Jason Sypher. It’s a fairly sizable band, but also versatile enough to touch on all aspects of Giddens’ career. That will include her contributions to Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, a Burnett-helmed album that found Giddens, Elvis Costello, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith and Marcus Mumford adding music to newly unearthed Bob Dylan lyrics. They will also be playing Chocolate Drops tunes and selections from her solo debut.
“We want to keep it going,” she says. “What the name will be for the next record, I don’t know. But I definitely want to record with this lineup. That’s my goal. We are making some amazing music and I’m really excited about it.”
Rhiannon Giddens plays Sunday at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. Visit calgaryfolkfest.com