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American Routes Shortcuts: Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens
American Routes

Each week, American Routes brings you Shortcuts, a sneak peek at our upcoming show. The Carolina Chocolate Drop began as a seminal African American group that revived the old time string band tradition of the Piedmont where black performers were formative from the 19th century onward. The Chocolate Drops started out as the Sankofa Strings, after meeting at the black banjo gathering in Boone, North Carolina, 2005. They evolved over the next decade. Rhiannon Giddens, trained formally in opera, played banjo and fiddle and sang with her band mates to growing audiences.

RG: I mean, I have memories of like my grandmother, she had a collection of like jazz and blues records and singing along with the radio, and you know, always on that sat of things, but then you know, we watched Hee-Haw every Saturday night. You know? So I always considered myself kind of a hybrid. You have this urbane, African American woman that is now living still in the country, but has all of these you know, furniture from Europe and all of these records, and then still gotta watch Hee-Haw every week.

The reality of the Southern experience is that it’s far more complicated and far more mixed in what people listen to and what people played.

NS: Well, when you talk about the mix, I mean we think about the Piedmont I think as a place where there’s always been African American farmers and town folk and mingling, and so it seems to me this exchange is amazing.

RG: Yeah, I mean it’s not a utopia, I mean there’s definitely racial tension like all over the places where whites and blacks wouldn’t mingle and all that kind of stuff, but there were places where they would. And also, being a mixed person, you know, myself, you know even enhances that more because I really spent as much time with each family. You know, with my black family and my white family, so I really, I really don’t feel like one or the other really. You know, I really feel Southern and I feel Piedmontese and North Caronlinian. Those are what I think of to describe myself rather than black or white or colored or mixed or whatever because really it’s the culture and the culture goes across those lines.

NS: When do you get aware of the Piedmont soundscape in terms that Sankofa Strings and then Chocolate Drops start doing?

RG: I learned like folk revival stuff with my parents, like Peter, Paul and Mary…

NS: They were into that stuff?
RG: Oh yeah, they were hippies. They were super hippies. Absolutley. I mean why they would’ve even been open to marrying each other, him being white and her being black, them both being from the country side, you know? And so when I came home after Oberlin, there was a couple of things that happened, you know? I started contra dancing, a heard a lot of old time bands going to those dances, and you know really started to fall in love with the banjo.

NS: So you end up at this gathering for African American banjo, where’s that in Boone?

RG: It was in Boone, called the Black Banjo Gathering, 2005. And when I went there, of course that’s where I met Dom Flemmons and that’s where I met Justin Robinson 

NS: The original Chocolate Drops with you

RG: The original Chocolate Drops, yeah. I joined the Black Banjo Players, Then and Now listserv which served as a place to go without getting harassed so you could talk about the black origins of the banjo. Cause when you went to the regular listserv, it was very difficult to talk about, you know African American roots of the banjo without getting flamed.

NS: On the other side of the leger, you know, in African American intellectual circles for many years, the banjo was not too cool.

RG: Oh man, tell me about it! I mean, our very first TV appearance was on the Tavis Smiley Show. And so we got on the stage and he was like, “So, you play fiddle and banjo music, you’re kinda like the Ebony Hillbillies!” I was so annoyed with that. And then, that’s the only black coverage we ever got. But like, here’s our own music, our own history, and nobody’s giving it the time of day.

NS: In the sort of, the small string band setting, there is singing of course, but there isn’t the kind of “I will now step forward and sing the big song kind of thing.” How does that feel for you in terms of just, be in the band, playing the dance tunes, I mean that seems like a different kind of way of relating to what you’re doing.

RG: It is, and I’m really grateful for the time that I’ve done that. Um, I think as a singer, the most valuable thing that I have done is become an instrumentalist and become a band members. You know, for so long when it wasn’t about me and my pipes it was about what we were doing working together. And I’m always gonna be a collaborator. I’m always gonna be, you know, someone who’s never gonna wanna be on stage by myself ever.