>> A musical journey and its revelations, this week on "Firing Line."
♪♪ A child of a multiracial family in North Carolina, she wrestled with her own identity before finding a home in music.
Rhiannon Giddens' first love was opera until she picked up the banjo... ♪♪ ...and uncovered its true roots.
Giddens honored the Black string-band tradition when she co-founded The Carolina Chocolate Drops and won a Grammy.
Now she's using the power of song to embrace America's full history... >> ♪ Julie, oh, Julie ♪ ♪ Can't you see ♪ >> ...from slavery... >> ♪ Them devils have come to take you far from me ♪ >> ...to the Civil Rights Movement... >> ♪ March ♪ ♪ Down freedom highway ♪ >> ...to police brutality.
>> ♪ Young man was a good man ♪ ♪ Never played the fool ♪ >> So can music help strum together our shared story?
>> ♪ Never had your drama ♪ >> What does Rhiannon Giddens say now?
>> ♪ Took care of his mama ♪ >> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... >> Rhiannon Giddens, welcome to "Firing Line."
Thank you for having me.
>> Your music has been described as folk, bluegrass, country, and even as blues and R&B.
And I've also heard you talk about your disdain for genres.
How do you describe your own music?
>> I do hate genres because I think what American music is great at is crossing -- crossing barriers, you know?
These days, I just say I play American music.
You know, I play acoustic music, I play roots music.
Basically, it kind of pulls from all the different roots of American culture.
I know there's no bin for that, but that's -- that's kind of how I explain it.
>> Well, you grew up in North Carolina.
Your father is white of European descent, and your mother is of Black and Native American heritage.
And you describe your experience growing up in the United States as "confusing."
If you are speaking to your childhood self now, what would you tell her?
>> You know, I would say, "Just chill out.
You're gonna figure it out," you know?
[ Laughs ] And I just -- yeah.
I would just tell her, "Just hold on and and don't try to -- don't try to fit yourself in anybody's box because you're going to find your own."
>> So you first discovered opera at a choral camp when you were a teenager, and you went on to train as a soprano at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.
In the audio memoir that you published in July, "To Balance on Bridges," you said, quote... How was that adjustment?
>> It's one of those things where I look back on it, and I go, "Wow, that was a lot going on."
But when I was in it, I was just kind of doing what you do, which is you sort of put your head down and you -- you know, and you do what's in front of you, which, for me, was learning everything there was to know about classical music, which, you know, I didn't know how to read music, I didn't know the history, I didn't know so many things that people all around me already knew.
It kind of makes me proud of myself at 18, 19, 20 that I kind of didn't -- I just -- You know, I just focused on what I was there to do, you know?
And there's moments -- there was definitely moments, you know, you get mistaken for the other brown girl, you know, in your class, but you just kind of keep -- you just -- I was there to work, and I was there to learn.
>> At your senior recital at Oberlin, you performed a traditional Black spiritual, dating back to the end of slavery.
>> ♪ Sometimes I feel like a motherless child ♪ >> You say in your memoir... Was that your turning point in your musical journey?
>> You know, it wasn't, but it was a preparatory.
It was kind of like, obviously the roots of what turned into my life's work, you know, when I -- when I discovered the banjo, were already planted at that time.
And so I think that all those seeds kind of started to bloom.
And it was just the tool that I decided to use changed.
>> So you'd been told your whole life the banjo and folk music were the inheritance of white people and white America.
And in 2005, you met Joe Thompson, a fiddle player who is one of the last living performers carrying on Black string-band traditions.
He was 86 at the time, and you were only 28.
And you call his influence "foundational to your identity as an artist."
What'd you learn from him?
>> Oh, some things that I can put into words and some things that I probably won't ever be able to put into words.
To have an actual living proponent of a tradition, an elder, is just...
It's an unbelievable stroke of providence, luck, God, whatever -- whatever your belief system is.
We were just extraordinarily fortunate to have that experience with Joe.
We learned how to play his music the way that we play it, but we learned, you know, from him.
We learned, you know, the idea of being a service musician.
You know, like Joe was a community musician.
That's how we grew up, which meant that he was in service to his community.
And so the idea of music as service, I think, was a really massive thing that The Carolina Chocolate Drops, all three of us -- me, Justin Robinson, and Dom Flemons -- got by sitting at his knee, you know?
And so the Carolina Chocolate Drops, we were never, like, interested in fame or, you know, being super rich or -- you know, hitting it big.
It was more like, "How can we be of service with this music?"
And I really think that playing with Joe and learning from Joe was a big part of why that was our part of our identity.
>> Your banjo is a replica of one from 1858, and it has some unique characteristics that have their roots in Black history.
Can you show me your instrument and walk me through those distinctive features?
>> Yes, I'm delighted to.
I have -- I have actually with me three banjos, because the one that I have here is kind of an in-between banjo.
So this is -- this is the replica from 1858, and this is my -- my ax, as I like to say.
People are often very surprised at the sound of this banjo because they -- they expect to hear this.
This is actually a turn-of-the-century -- an actual turn-of-the-century banjo -- it's not a replica.
[ Banjo strums ] People expect to hear something more like this.
♪♪ But my banjo, the replica from 1858, which was the moment where Blacks and whites are all playing the banjo -- It is a massive, very -- very popular American instrument.
But it sounded like this.
[ Banjo plays ] And people are shocked because they're just like, "Whoa," you know?
I was shocked when I first heard this, and this is one of my turning points.
When I first heard this, the thing that struck me was the warmth of it, you know?
And, also, it's fretless.
So there's blue notes everywhere.
[ Chord plays ] >> So, Joe Thompson taught you how to play "Lights in the Valley," which was a traditional Black spiritual.
>> Would you be able to play a little bit of that song for us?
>> Oh, yeah.
I play that a lot because it is one of those memories I have of Joe, you know?
We'd sit in either at his house or at a -- at a show, and he'd say, "You know, you got to let them know you go to church every once in a while."
He'd always say it just like that, you know?
♪♪ ♪♪ ♪ Lights in the valley, outshine the sun ♪ ♪ Lights in the valley, outshine the sun ♪ ♪ Lights in the valley, outshine the sun ♪ ♪ Way beyond the blue ♪ ♪ Singing in the valley, outshine the sun ♪ ♪ Singing in the valley, outshine the sun ♪ ♪ Singing in the valley, outshine the sun ♪ ♪ Way beyond the blue ♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪ Lights in the valley, outshine the sun ♪ ♪ Lights in the valley, outshine the sun ♪ ♪ Lights in the valley, outshine the sun ♪ ♪ Way beyond the blue ♪ ♪ Way beyond the blue ♪ ♪ Way beyond the blue ♪ ♪♪ [ Song ends ] >> We're all clapping.
We're all clapping.
>> Thank you.
That was extraordinary.
So let me ask you.
I know that you have become vocal about sort of the warped narrative surrounding the history of American folk music and the banjo.
>> And you even told the Smithsonian magazine, "There was such hostility to the idea of a banjo being a Black instrument."
What is the origin of the banjo, and why is there a complicated history around it?
>> Well, I'll try to be -- [ Chuckles ] I'll try to be brief.
The banjo is an American invention, and it is specifically an African-American invention, because it comes out of the different -- all the different African cultures that are forced to, you know, be together in the Caribbean first, right?
So the culture already starts right there, starts on the ships coming over.
People are already having to communicate with fellow Africans, which can be quite a wide -- You know, it's a continent.
It's huge, right?
And so they create an instrument that became known as the banjo, had a lot of different names that sound kind of like banjo.
And it was kind of a completely Black instrument for like the first hundred years of its existence.
And it moves up with people from the Caribbean into the United States and becomes very well known as a Black instrument.
But the problem is that, you know, you fast-forward to like the 1900s, the early 1900s, and there's this desire to really create an ethnic -- sort of an ethnic narrative for the culture of, like, the Appalachian Mountains being sort of the -- what white people have contributed to American music, right?
And so there was this -- this idea that mountain music in the Appalachians was kind of the sort of Anglo -- it was direct line from, like, England and Scotland and Wales and whatever, and that it had survived in the mountains and that the banjo was a mountain instrument invented by white people.
But there was this interest in supporting the white-nationalist movement at this time, and it became kind of part of how we tell the story of American music.
Then you have stuff like "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Deliverance," and, you know, all of this also going into a very simplistic version of what mountain culture is, you know, and that becomes a stereotype.
>> Everywhere is a mixture.
It's just, when it's a simple -- when it's a simple story, it's usually wrong.
You know what I mean?
>> And that's why American music's so amazing.
You know what I mean?
This is the thing.
The thing that, you know, people try to sort of strip out of the narrative is actually the thing that makes American music great.
>> You have been described as a performing historian.
You've written and performed songs based on slave narratives, songs about civil-rights activists in the 1960s, and songs about police brutality.
How do you, as a songwriter, think about and manage the balancing of the devastation and the resilience of the stories that you tell in your lyrics?
>> Oh, yeah, that's a good question.
I mean, that's kind of how I started making sense out of all of it was writing these songs, you know?
Because when you're digging in the history, it's pretty tough.
>> You came across an advertisement of a woman who was being advertised for sale that had a child who was available at the purchaser's option.
>> And you wrote a song about it, called "At the Purchaser's Option."
Would you mind playing that song?
Yeah, it just made me really think.
I've got two kids, you know?
And I think what we take for granted.
I don't ever think about anybody taking my children from me, you know?
I mean, it's just the most basic right in life.
And to think that whole generations and generations of people did not have that dignity, you know?
So I just thought of her.
I thought of what it would take to get up in the morning with that as your reality.
[ Banjo pays ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪ I've got a babe, but shall I keep him?
♪ ♪♪ ♪ 'Twil come the day when I'll be weepin' ♪ ♪♪ ♪ But how can I love him any less ♪ ♪♪ ♪ This little babe upon my breast ♪ ♪♪ ♪ You can take my body ♪ ♪ You can take my bones ♪ ♪ You can take my blood ♪ ♪ But not my soul ♪ ♪ You can take my body ♪ ♪ You can take my bones ♪ ♪ Take my blood ♪ ♪ But not my soul ♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪ I've got a body dark and strong ♪ ♪♪ ♪ I was young, but not for long ♪ ♪♪ ♪ You took me to bed a little girl ♪ ♪♪ ♪ Left me in a woman's world ♪ ♪♪ ♪ You can take my body ♪ ♪ You can take my bones ♪ ♪ You can take my blood ♪ ♪ But not my soul ♪ ♪ You can take my body ♪ ♪ You can take my bones ♪ ♪ Take my blood ♪ ♪ But not my soul ♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪ Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, oh ♪ ♪ Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, oh oh ♪ ♪ Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, oh ♪ ♪ Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh, oh ♪ ♪ Day by day, I work the line ♪ ♪♪ ♪ Every minute overtime ♪ ♪♪ ♪ Fingers nimble, fingers quick ♪ ♪♪ ♪ My fingers bleed to make you rich ♪ ♪♪ ♪ You can take my body ♪ ♪ You can take my bones ♪ ♪ You can take my blood ♪ ♪ But not my soul ♪ ♪ You can take my body ♪ ♪ You can take my bones ♪ ♪ Take my blood ♪ ♪ But not my soul ♪ ♪ You can take my body ♪ ♪ You can take my bones ♪ ♪ You can take my blood ♪ ♪ But not my soul ♪ ♪ You can take my body ♪ ♪ Take my bones ♪ ♪ You can take my blood ♪ ♪ But not my soul ♪ ♪♪ ♪ Oh, oh oh oh, ooh ooh ♪ ♪♪ [ Song ends ] >> Thank you.
[ Breathes deeply ] Wow.
It's pretty clear that it's very important for you to become a voice for generations of women who have come before you.
Why is that?
>> I feel like this is my responsibility.
My ancestors went through what they went through so that I could sit here and talk to you about the banjo, you know, so that my daughter can maybe -- Maybe she doesn't have to think about some of this stuff so much.
I just feel like with the lives that, you know, our ancestors sacrificed for us to have, that comes with the responsibility to do something with it that adds to the conversation in a positive way.
So I'm never going to be in the music industry without that mission.
>> This program, as you know, is a renewed version of the original "Firing Line," that was hosted by William F. Buckley Jr., and in 1989, William F. Buckley Jr. welcomed Rosalyn Tureck, who is a scholar and an interpreter of Bach to the original program.
And I know you dislike paying too much attention to genres, but she actually might agree with you.
Listen to her here in this clip talk about the cross-pollination between rock, which she calls modern folk music, and classical music.
>> Are you surprised by the longevity of rock music and by its apparently unlimited hold on young people?
>> No, I'm not surprised because this is late 20th-century folk music, as I view it.
It's popular music.
There's always been folk music, which I think has been much more widespread than what we call art music.
However, the popular music that we call folk music was always a fertilizing material, nutrients for art music.
And I think that's happening today, too.
>> [ Laughs ] >> Right?
So I -- I thought that might appeal.
You know, she talks about this nourishing aspect of folk music.
Of course, all the great composers borrowed from folk melodies.
How do you see folk music being borrowed in genres today?
>> I mean, this is the thing is, cross-pollination is the strength of music, right?
Like, all the best, what we call -- When we solidify something into a genre, it's usually come out of something that has a mixture of things, right?
Like, genre in itself isn't inherently bad.
It's when we solidify and we just sort of put cement walls in between because then it stops that -- that crossing.
And I think an excellent example of that is -- is high cla-- classical music today.
You know, it used to be a lot closer to folk music, like, if you look a couple hundred years ago.
And I think that's starting to change now.
People are realizing that, without that cross-pollination, stuff dies, you know?
And I've got the opportunity -- I'm super excited.
It's premiering this May, actually, at the Spoleto Festival, is my first opera.
>> And it is -- You know, I basically composed a lot of it on banjo, and I'm really excited about that.
I think that there's a lot of opportunity for people to -- to put those worlds closer together.
Now I think people are realizing that we need that, you know?
So we'll see what people think of it, but I'm real proud of it.
>> You've been very frank about the fact that your music appeals to white audiences.
But when you performed at Sing Sing Prison in 2017 during the Freedom Highway tour, it was the first time you had ever played for a majority-Black audience.
And you said it "broke you" to "look out at the sea of Brown faces."
Can you take us inside that performance and why it made you feel that way?
>> Yeah, that was intense.
I mean, just to be in a prison is intense, you know?
And then to see the disproportionate numbers, you know, racially speaking, and just thinking about how broken the prison industrial complex is and how run -- you know, run for money it is and how it connects in a line all the way back to slavery and all this kind of stuff.
All of those things, at the same time, as getting sort of a cultural response that I'd never really gotten before.
You know, and it's not to say that I don't enjoy playing for my white audiences, but it's, you know, how we respond to things is just different, you know?
And it was just a really intense experience for that reason, just, like, this positive aspect of that.
And then, you know, next to all of this negative kind of realization of being in a prison and what that meant and all of the history.
>> You told The Guardian that the true African-American experience isn't being taught in schools, and you point to the 1898 Wilmington Massacre as an example in history that's completely overlooked, where white supremacists overthrew a government that included Black leadership and murdered scores of citizens.
You know, teaching about race and racial history in a more holistic way has become a -- a touchstone of controversy in the United States.
And I wonder if you think that your music and the way you have approached it could translate to the classroom in a way that answers some of the tension?
>> I mean, it is why I think I do what I do.
And I have had teachers say to me, you know, "I use your music in my classes."
My whole point of writing something like "At the Purchaser's Option" is that it's an emotional -- It's like -- It's an emotional response -- right?
-- to something that happened in history, and I think that it allows people to make that shortcut.
You know, instead of reading a whole book about it, you hear a song, a three-minute song, and you immediately have that emotional connection to that that woman.
You know, we need a story.
And I'm always telling it from a, "Look, I didn't know this, either."
'Cause people can sometimes feel attacked, and I'm like, "You didn't know it.
I didn't know it.
Let's discover it together."
I'm from North Carolina.
I should've known about the only coup that ever happened on American soil, which was in Wilmington in 1898.
I should've known about that growing up.
So I'm working on an artistic piece around that, you know?
So just creating different entry points to the history because I don't know what's going to get taught in schools anymore, you know?
So I just do what I can.
>> Well, you moved to Limerick, Ireland, over a decade ago with your now ex-husband, and you're raising two children.
You mentioned you have two children.
They're in Irish-language schools, which is, you know, certainly not the norm even in Ireland, where most children attend English-language schools.
Why is it important to you to preserve the Gaelic language and culture?
>> So, I mean, the thing that's important to me is that's part of my kids' heritage, you know?
It's like I told their dad, Mike, I said, "Look, I don't know what any of my ancestors spoke other than English, because I don't know where they came from," you know?
Because for most African-Americans, you get to a certain year and you can't go further.
You know, 1873, whatever.
You can't go any further because there's no records.
So I said, "You know what your ancestors spoke."
You know what I mean?
"And why not give the kids a connection to that?"
So I just think it's important to have that piece for them.
>> Well, Rhiannon Giddens, thank you for taking the time to join me here at "Firing Line."
And if there's something else you'd like to play for us as we close, I'd welcome it.
>> I'd love to play a little piece called -- It's written down as... [ Speaking indistinctly ] ...and it was one of the earliest transcriptions of Black-made music in the New World.
Also, it starts off my opera, called "Omar."
♪♪ ♪♪ >> "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover" is made possible in part by... And by... Corporate funding is provided by... ♪♪ ♪♪ >> You're watching PBS.