Listening to Rhiannon Giddens

by Elouise

Have you met Rhiannon Giddens? She was recently chosen to become a MacArthur Fellow which includes receiving a MacArthur Genius Grant. You can see a list of all recipients since 1981 at the link above.

So why was Ms. Giddens chosen? Not for anything she had already accomplished, but as an investment in her originality, insight, and potential as a musician. The award has been given out every year since 1981, always to a group of persons with potential in a range of areas. A committee chooses the recipients; there is no application process.

Ms. Giddens is the daughter of a White father and a Black mother. They met and married in North Carolina in the 1970s, just three years after the USA legalized interracial marriage. The song above, accompanied by Ms. Giddens on her banjo, uses two voices. Julie is a Black servant; Mistress is her White mistress. Each verse is in a different voice. This is Ms. Giddens’ way of drawing on her bi-racial identity. Particularly given the history of North Carolina that led to the brutal massacre of 1898.

The song takes us back to 1898 and the moments leading up to the arrival of White men intent on killing as many Black men, women and children as possible. In the last stanzas we learn the truth about Julie and her Mistress.

Lectures and books about our current racial issues are important. Yet they don’t move me or give me as much insight into the tangled mess we’ve inherited than do music, poetry or stories of this depth from artists such as Ms. Giddens.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 24 April 2018
Video found on YouTube