It’s a sunny spring morning and Rhiannon Giddens is giving me a history lesson. “There was a town in England called Eyam in medieval times,” she tells me over Zoom from her kitchen in Ireland. “And they were plague-free. But something brought the plague to the town. So you know what they did? They locked themselves down for 14 months. Half the population of the town died – one woman buried six of her children and her husband.”
She pauses, then laughs: “And we’re complaining because we can’t sit in a pub.”
There can be few more qualified people in the music industry to give an improvised Time Team lecture than Giddens. Over the last two decades, she has used traditional music forms – bluegrass, roots, country and folk – to dig deep into America’s tortured and tangled past. As a mixed-race woman, the 44-year-old singer and banjo player has been truly path-breaking; her music recovers and celebrates a rich legacy of black experience and music making. She might just be the closest thing country music has to a conscience. Plus she picks a mean banjo.
Her latest album, They’re Calling Me Home, a collaboration with her partner, Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, was made speedily. But it has clearly benefited from a long gestation. As with musicians the world over, the pandemic poleaxed Giddens’s plans. Last February, she was locked down in Ireland; she hasn't seen her family back in North Carolina for over a year. They’re Calling Me Home was recorded in Dublin last year during a six-day window snatched between lockdowns.
“These songs are precisely the music I connect to during times like these, really big human moments, global experiences,” she explains. “Sometimes songs just suggest themselves, they want to be played.”
There’s a lived-in intimacy to its 12 songs. Often they just feature Giddens’s voice, sometimes accompanied by Turrisi, other times by Giddens herself on the viola or banjo. And they range from delicate Italian instrumental filigrees to full-throated, wash-bucket-thumping Carolina Blues.
Achieving a sense of live performance was crucial, says Giddens. “The idea is you take a performance of that moment and put it on tape. There wasn’t a lot of editing, sometimes we got it in one take. These songs need to be played from beginning to end – you get these small imperfections but it feels like a story being told.”
The title track, a sepulchral interpretation of an Alice Gerrard elegy, is shiveringly beautiful. “My body’s bound but my soul will fly/ My little light shining from the sky,” it runs. “Oh, they’re calling me home.” It’s an old song, but one which speaks very clearly to the present.
“Our lives are unimaginably privileged in terms of most of human history,” Giddens explains why she led with it. “War, famine and death don’t tend to touch most of our lives, so when something like this comes along, it’s a wakeup call. The downside of our cushioned lives is we are so numb.
“There’s a lot of artificiality around death, especially in Covid times. [But this song] reminds us, whatever our religious affiliation, that we’re in this great cycle. And whatever you leave on this earth will still be there: your children, the people you affected, the art you made.”
A conversation with Giddens is like crossing a river: as with her music, it’s full of swift rushing thoughts and sudden, unexpected deepenings. In fact, there is something a little shamanistic about her ability to conjure the past and give it such vivid expression. Is she religious?
“I consider myself a very spiritual person,” she ponders. “I feel like things move through me sometimes. There’s been so many terrible things done in the name of organised religion, but the spirit at the centre of them is beautiful.”
Before we wade too vigorously towards the esoteric, I ask about the development of her career. She trained as an opera singer, but achieved recognition with the old-time string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, who formed after the first Black Banjo Gathering in 2005. Their 2010 album, Geniune Negro Jig, won best traditional folk album at that year’s Grammy’s. As black artists, they stood out in a genre which is still troublesomely caught up in Southern, Segregationist politics.
“I had a lot of doors open to me as a singer,” Giddens recalls. “But my great weakness was working out what I wanted to do. So when the Chocolate Drops took off, I knew I’d found a mission and, growing up as a mixed-raced person in North Carolina, it helped me discover my identity. Through them, I found Joe Thompson and the last remnants of the black string band movement which was a huge building block of American music.”
How does it feel to be seen as a trailblazer?
She pauses: “We’re all on somebody’s shoulders. It’s important to acknowledge where we’re coming from and to be a stepping stone for those who come after us. It used to be I knew everyone who was black and played the banjo – now there’s loads I don’t. It kept me going, because it felt like I was making a difference.”
The Chocolate Drops’s music was unabashedly engaged with America’s racist past. So, too, was Gidden’s more recent solo music. At the Purchaser’s Option, a single from her 2017 album Freedom Highway, gives voice to a “young negro woman, 22-years-old” who was put up for sale in a 1830s slave advert. Her baby, the advert records, was "at the purchaser’s option”.
“The image of black people playing fiddles, we knew that was a radical act,” she reflects of the Chocolate Drops. “[It was] representation as protest. None of us were doing it because we wanted to be Beyoncé. And that meant, even when it was difficult, we told the truth about the music and where it came from. But we wanted to do it in ways which educated, rather than alienated people.”
Taking on this accumulated history and sadnesses does feel like a “burden” sometimes, she admits. “But now, it’s about far more than me. It’s a movement. And the more it becomes mainstream, that takes some of the weight off. We’re someone else's footnote now, which is great.”
Footnote or not, Giddens has been garlanded for beating out her own way. In 2017, she was named a MacArthur “Genius” fellow; since then, she has been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, and she was the female black woman to be recognised with the prestigious Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
Her more recent music, though, is less hard-edged. Collaborations with the musical collective The Silk Road Ensemble have allowed her to stretch her legs, breathing a little more deeply away from the particularised pain of American history.
“I feel like I’ve had to do a lot of explaining,” she says. “But the palette is so much bigger. There’s probably 14 lifetimes of work, but what fascinates me is how we come together in ways which are under the radar, not recorded in the history books.”
She points out that Chinese immigrants, shipped to the US to work on the transcontinental railroad in the mid-1800s, often intermarried with black communities. “What’s that household like? What music is being played around the table there?" she wonders with evident relish.
Yet it’s painfully clear that country music's reckoning with race is far from over. In February, a recording of Americana star Morgan Wallen using a racist epithet emerged. It prompted much hand-wringing – and equally vocal support from Wallen's fans. What does Giddens think of the saga?
A long pause, then a sigh: “It’s very complicated. People are ignorant of the multicultural history of country music because what they’ve been told is a lie. But, yes, there’s still a big problem with country music and race because the image crafted of it is false. The rest of it, the racism, is just window dressing and making a lot of money.”
Has she found it difficult watching America’s tumultuous year from across the Atlantic?
She laughs: “Look, it’s been a tumultuous 400 years. Sometimes it’s very obvious and sometimes less so. It’s hard to watch, but I’m not surprised by any of it. The history is plain. I’m pessimistic in the way historians are pessimistic ultimately, we’ll be fighting over water in 40 years. But who knows what's going to happen tomorrow, so why not do the best we can by each other today?"
And, as her album attests, there’s a power in remembering – and keeping going.
“Look at these lives we say are so terrible,” she says. “As we emerge from the pandemic, can’t we wake up a bit and find what we can do to become a more communal society? The least of us is the future of all of us. I hope people find the same comfort from these songs as we did, and they give them a moment of connection to humanity. This was the music that got us through."
They’re Calling Me Home is out now via Nonesuch Records. Giddens and Turrisi will be performing at the digital festival Voices of Hope on 29 April