Musician Rhiannon Giddens’ ‘Freedom Highway’ runs through Breckenridge
Rhiannon Giddens is from Greensboro, North Carolina, and is one of the cofounders of Grammy award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. Since her highly acclaimed records with the Chocolate Drops, she has broken out in pursuit of a solo career. Her debut solo album “Tomorrow is My Turn” was an homage to women of the past that inspired her. Her second solo album “Freedom Highway” has 12 tracks that shed light on a century of oppression toward African-Americans. The songs span from the Civil War era to the Civil Rights movement up to current issues of police brutality towards young black men. She tells the stories of those that are no longer alive to tell them, and accompanying her in doing so are her trusty banjo and fiddle.
This year, Giddens became the fourth musician to ever perform at both the Newport Folk and the Newport Jazz festivals. She also was named keynote speaker for the World of Bluegrass Business Conference this year.
Giddens will be stopping in Breckenridge this Thursday, Aug. 17, to perform with her band as part of their Freedom Highway Tour. They will take the Riverwalk Center stage at 7:30 p.m. Earlier this week, the Summit Daily News talked to Giddens about her new album, “Freedom Highway,” her musical inspiration and events in American history, recent and old.
SD: In this latest album you bring to life stories of enslaved people, individuals alive during the Civil Rights Movement and more recently victims of racial violence and police discrimination. What motivates you to tell these people’s stories?
RG: The fact that these stories need to be told. We often focus on things that don’t take it down to the personal level, and I think that’s very important. I would like to try and tell them. That’s behind everything.
SD: In an NPR interview you mentioned traveling to Africa, where you discovered an ancestor to the banjo. Did you hear about the instrument first, or go to Africa and find the instrument there?
RG: The banjo really didn’t exist until the Caribbean. But you have lots of ancestors to it, things that would have been the inspiration that would turn into the banjo. For example, the akonting, the ngoni. There are loads of these instruments in Africa. I saw one and freaked out when I saw it played. I went over there to study the akonting specifically.
SD: The songs on “Freedom Highway” vary drastically from Civil War-era songs, to civil rights movement-themed songs, to more current issues. You seem to bring to life more than a century’s worth of racial tensions and issues.
RG: I pull from slave narratives, from reading on history. All of those songs are inspired by things I have read about. It’s all inspired by history.
SD: When you do research on enslaved people or on historical figures, how do you know that a character is ready to come to life in a song?
RG: A lot of times I have been reading or percolating and I pick up my banjo and there is a tune in there waiting to come out. And then the song, or a piece of the song, is presented to me and I then have to chase it down. I let all these things marinate. I kind of sit with the instrument and see what comes out. I see if someone needs to help me finish it. I let the inspiration strike instead of trying to force something. That’s always the way.
SD: Switching gears slightly, you’re on the CMT television show called “Nashville.” How did you begin acting and what was the transition there?
RG: They called me up and asked if I would read for this part. And I said sure. I had never done TV before, I mean I had done a couple cameos as a musician in a couple shows, but I had never been a character. I never really had to act. I love acting, and I used to be an opera student. I had never acted on TV before, but figured it was something I wanted to learn. It’s been a really cool experience.
SD: On the show, you play Hannah Lee “Hallie” Jordon, a social worker. What has that role been like?
RG: They have incorporated some of my music into her and that’s been really neat. Yeah, they totally let me bring in my music and my mission and let me work that into the script.
SD: Switching gears here, who are your idols politically and musically?
RG: I am a fan of people who do their thing and who speak their truths. … I really respect people like Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and Odetta. Black women who really had to fight through such hardship and became amazing entertainers who felt really strongly about what their responsibilities really were. Of course, Joan Baez. She protested for 50 years, performing and speaking her mind and never letting anyone stop that.
SD: I wanted to talk about enslaved Native Americans in the West. What similarities do you see between that issue and the enslavement of Civil War-era African Americans?
RG: That’s a very under-talked about and under-reported subject. I just bought a book about that a couple weeks ago called “The Other Slavery” (by Andres Resendez, National Book Award Finalist and winner of the Bancroft Prize) which shines a light on Native American slavery, which is really really important. This book reworks how people approach that history. It’s a topic that really needs to be highlighted far more, because it is huge. There is a lot to be uncovered. It’s extraordinarily shameful and infuriating. They are know as the invisible minority for a reason. It’s not in the country’s best interest to uncover that. It’s the foundation of this whole country. That’s why it’s taken so long for slavery to be talked about. We are a country based on genocide and slavery. Slavery was the economic engine that drove the progress that happened in the early United States. You wouldn’t have the United States as it is now. The world view needs to shift in order for people to talk about it.
SD: I couldn’t help but think about the recent, violent event in Charlottesville when listening to your track “Better Get It Right the First Time,” which sheds light on current racial violence in our society. What was your response to the violence in Charlottesville, and do you think you’ll ever write a song about that?
RG: It never ceases to amaze me how surprised people are about these things. I live in history, I am always reading history. When you read from the past, you see that this attitude has been around forever. These groups have been around forever. It’s up to the society that we create to shame that kind of thinking, that kind of behavior. To hold it in check. Unfortunately, there is a leader in place right now that isn’t interested in that. These people are still here with their warped sense of reality and their fake history. I’m sure something related to that will come out in a song. Or it won’t. I am still processing all of that and trying to stay positive.
SD: You said in an interview with NPR that these stories must be let out, that they must be released to be processed. We have been burying the issue of slavery, and arguably, burying racial tensions in our country. How do you hope that your music can bring these stories out?
RG: Music can often create an emotional shorcut for people. They aren’t going to read that book or go looking for those old advertisements or learn that history. But maybe they will be inspired to after they hear these songs. Even if they don’t, they will have a better understanding through one person’s story. That’s kind of the trick. Not to write a song about slavery being bad. Obviously. But, how was it bad? How was it destructive? How was it destructive to everybody? How did it affect people? That’s what we don’t talk about, outside of a few slavery-era movies. Because people did horrible things, and they were Americans, we don’t want to look at it. Sharing these stories gives an idea of the skewed system. How can you not want to fight for a more just country? How can you not want to fight for your fellow citizens to have a better chance at a better life?
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