Why These Four Banjo-Playing Women Resurrected the Songs of the Enslaved
The new Folkways album “Songs of Our Native Daughters” draws spiritually from slave narratives and other pre-19th-century sources
Music producer and composer Dirk Powell pointed to the back of the control room. I was filming him at Cypress House, his studio in Louisiana.
“Rhiannon was sitting right there on that green Naugahyde couch, and I was in that little room playing the guitar, and she had the talkback mic.”
Powell was talking about the day before, when he and musician Rhiannon Giddens, who teamed up for the recording of Folkways’ new release Songs of Our Native Daughters, were laying down a “guide track” for a song they would later name “Barbados.” As Powell stressed, a guide track isn’t meant to be saved. Musicians mine the track for its tempo and feel, layering their instruments over the top, before the guide instruments or vocals are redone. It’s a first step in recording a song.
Giddens—a native of North Carolina and the lead singer and a founding member of the GRAMMY award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops—researched the songs and haunting narratives of enslaved Africans. Native Daughters is a collaboration with three other African-American songwriters whose work interrogates history and, as Giddens writes in the album notes, shines “new light” on stories of “struggle, resistence and hope.”
“Rhiannon had brought in this handwritten music from the 1700s, the first slave melody ever annotated in the New World, and we started working on it, adding chords to it,” Powell says. “She was very close to the mic, and her voice was so unselfconscious and unassuming, her intention so pure, and things got very intense emotionally. We just had to keep it.”
Later that morning, they turned to the song again. Powell set up microphones with percussionist Jamie Dick.
“Jamie started adding drums, and I asked, ‘What do you hear?’” Powell says. “He said, ‘Well, I can add a few toms.’ The minute he started hitting them, it sounded like drums on a ship. Slave ship drums—you know? Rhiannon just started crying, just curled up in a ball and started crying.” He paused before continuing. “You know, slavery is such a recent thing in this country. People think it’s ancient history.”
Giddens reflected on the episode a couple days later. We were in a whitewashed gazebo on the rounded banks of Bayou Teche, where Cypress House sits.
“Listening to Jamie putting the drums on, that was pretty tough. I’m emotional, but I don’t cry a lot.” Her words slowed. “I just felt a kind of ancestral thing I haven’t felt in that particular way.”
She looked toward the trees edging the still water, and then smiled with an openness one could only perceive as profound appreciation for the song and where its first singers had guided her.
Cypress House sits on a gravel switchback off the main road a few miles south of the old city of Breaux Bridge. We’re surrounded by grassy fields and water.
Powell says the history of the land has influenced his recording work.
“Literally, this spot on the bayou is where the Acadians first landed in 1765 after they were deported from Nova Scotia. There was quite a mix that doesn’t exist anywhere else—all the African influence, the big influx from Haiti after the revolution there, and obviously the native people and the Louisiana Spanish,” he says.
Powell built the studio as a personal workspace for the film scores he composed for a host of award-winning directors like Anthony Minghella, Ang Lee, Victor Nuñez and Spike Lee, but it ripened into much more. It was home to Giddens’ second solo album, the influential Freedom Highway from 2017, as well as for other recording artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez and James McMurtry.
“I don’t know the exact history of the building,” Powell says. “It was an old Creole cabin, built before the end of slave times. There’s several things I’ve recorded in the room with Rhiannon, and I’ve felt these voices coming out of the walls—these stories. It feels like some of the voices are from people who maybe lived some of these things, but who ultimately triumphed. There were people who suffered so much.”
Giddens, thinking back to the day’s recording, agrees. “Cajun country is where these different cultures came together. There’s a lot of pain, a lot of violence,” she says, “but there’s also a lot of beautiful music and culture. It’s a real deep place you can sink into. I think it’s sympathetic to these songs.
“I know Freedom Highway wouldn’t have been made anywhere else—not the record we made. This place is part of it,” she adds. “And it’s a part of this record too. I believe in that—you know—that organic material absorbs the energy that’s around.”
Giddens says her writing partners on Native Daughters formed a team that came together as one. “We’ve all gotten along so well. It’s like we’ve always been here—we’ve been here for years doing this. They’re all beautiful, amazing people. There are a ton of great players out there, but how many great players are there with whom the vibe is good? The hang is good? That’s a much smaller number,” she says.
Giddens has known Canadian-American musician-songwriter Allison Russell (Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago) the longest, though Leyla McCalla had joined her GRAMMY-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops on tour. Giddens first heard Amythyst Kiah (Amythyst Kiah & Her Chest of Glass) when a friend passed her a video.
Veteran musicians Jamie Dick of Nashville and Jason Sypher (Nikitov) from Brooklyn play percussion and standup bass, respectively. They have partnered with Giddens for years.
“It’s all been so easy, which is what you want, really,” Giddons says. “People think art comes out of strife. No, art comes out of love, and it comes out of freedom, and it comes out of feeling safe, and it comes out of feeling embraced by the vibe and by the energy. That’s when you can make your best stuff. Strife, you’re making art in spite of it. Love, you’re making art because of it.”
Giddens hasn’t done a lot of recording projects that involve multiple songwriters. She says the last was probably Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, based on newly unearthed Bob Dylan lyrics.
“I can’t think of anything further away from this—I mean, old dudes, using Dylan’s lyrics in the nicest studio on the planet,” she says while gesturing down the bank towards Cypress House. “But I’d much rather do this here than at Capitol. That was amazing to do, but this place soothes my soul. This is a lot closer to my heart.” To her, Powell is a major part of the deal. “We both feel so similarly about how the music comes in and how to best nurture that. When we first met, it was like kindred spirits, like ‘Oh, where have you been?’”
When asked if there’s ever been a project like Songs of Our Native Daughters, Giddens pushed herself up in her seat and laughed.
“Four black female banjo players writing historically based songs? I don’t think so. People are going to be like, ‘Are there even that many black female banjo players?’ Yes. There’s more than us,” she says with a nod of assurance.
The previous morning, I had filmed her playing her favorite banjo as the group recorded Bob Marley’s “Slave Driver.” Right away, I noticed the lack of frets on its extended neck.
The “minstrel banjo” is an elder within the banjo family, its fretless state perhaps describes the instrument’s far-ranging, troubled trajectory. Enslaved West Africans first brought the ancestors of the minstrel banjo to America in the 1600s: spike-lute instruments such as the ngoni and the akonting. Improvements were made by black musicians and innovators. Until the early 1800s, the banjo was only played by African-Americans. After that, white musicians appropriated, built-out and commercialized the instrument. Now musicians like Giddens and her partners have reclaimed it as their own: the banjo’s rhythm, syncopation and melodic versatility is the musical heart’s blood of the album.
“The opportunity to have black female voices using America’s instrument—the truest American instrument there is, with African ancestry, African-American innovation, European innovation—to have a platform for these ladies to say some things that they’re not always able to say is special,” Giddens says.
She wrote in the album notes: “We are culturally conditioned to avoid talking about America’s history of slavery, racism and misogyny.” Understanding that the banjo was appropriated by white players and, in a very real sense, used against its creators is key to understanding why she plays.
“To learn the history of the banjo is to recover the actual history of America,” Giddens says. “We’re spoonfed this lie. That’s why art is so important, because we can force these conversations. ‘Why am I playing this banjo? Let me tell you why. Let me tell you the history of this banjo because it totally changes what you think you know about this country.’”
Blackface minstrels smeared burnt cork or boot-black on their faces and took to stages across the United States and Europe, enacting cruel parodies while co-opting or stealing the melodies of the enslaved. As a consequence, most African-Americans today show little regard for the instrument, seeing it as a symbol of poverty and abuse. But over the years, black musicians like those partnering with Giddens to record Our Native Daughters have worked to reclaim the banjo. They hear their brethren in those early tunes and want to guide others toward their discoveries.
Listening to Giddens talk history, one can imagine another way to read the minstrel banjo. No frets mean that a musician isn’t trapped by any normal set of scales—major or minor, flats or sharps—but can play any tones in between. There seems to be a musical freedom in that.
“In a lot of ways,” says Powell, “the banjo was the vehicle where by African music came to America, and African music is the most defining ingredient in American music. I think we’re at a time with the banjo where we’re asking, ‘How do we choose what’s good, what sustains us?’ That’s an important part of this record. Young African-American women choosing the banjo is a huge moment for them. That’s saying, ‘No. We embrace the triumphs. This is part of our heritage.’”
For Giddens, the banjo has given her a way of seeing beneath history’s murkiness, a tool for discovering people whose stories may have been lost. Songwriting became a strategy to lift those voices up, to bring them to audiences.
“African-American history is American history,” she said. “It’s important to know who the Founding Fathers were, and it’s also important to know who built the White House and who built the railroads. It’s important to know the nameless people. They’re the ones who get left out, but they’re the ones who did all the work. You see statues of Jefferson and other slave owners all over the place, but nothing to the actual enslaved people who made Monticello possible,” she says.
“There are people who have incredible stories that we don’t talk about. People who did amazing things, men and women who faced incredible odds, and there’s nothing wrong with them being heroes for once, you know?
“We were just talking about watching a Drunk History episode about Harriet Tubman and how she was a spy for the army. These are the things we have to address, because even when they find a story like Harriet Tubman and they say, ‘Well, here’s one black person who we’ll talk about,’ they still censor it. They say, ‘Well, it’s okay that she helped with the underground railroad, but we’re not going to talk about this daring raid she planned and executed, torching multiple plantations and freeing hundreds of slaves in one evening. Let’s not talk about that because that’s too close to heroism,’” she says.
The recording session wasn’t always so serious. There were plenty of lighter moments. Musicians, producers and visitors raided the refrigerator at Powell’s mother’s house just down the gravel road. His mom would make lunch—the butteriest of grilled cheeses. Powell urged Giddens to record one of her karaoke go-tos: a Fresh Prince rap. I filmed their “epic” croquet match, a custom they practice on tour. It was pretty competitive stuff, actually.
Through the joviality, the camaraderie and the painful recounting of history, the musicians of Songs of Our Native Daughters have made a sonorous, uplifting album. The spirits of the past inhabit the songs with lasting effect. At times, the emotional terrain is difficult, even perilous. Some songs are chilling, like “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” the story of a woman who kills an overseer who has repeatedly raped her.
“That was a moment when I felt the spirits with me,” Giddens says of recording the song. “That’s important to me, you know? It’s important to feel connected in that way, because the woman in that song, she’s who we’re doing it for: untold people who don’t get this chance. It’s important for us to remember that.”
A version of this article appeared in the online magazine of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah will be performing from their recent album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings: July 23 - Westport, Connecticutt, Levitt Pavilion of the Performing Arts; July 24 - Washington, D.C., Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture; July 25 - Chautauqua, New York, Chautauqua Institute; July 26 - Albany, New York, The Egg; July 27 - Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, Great Waters Festival; July 28 - Newport, Rhode Island, Newport Folk Festival. Purchase tickets for their performance at the Smithsonian here.
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