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Black History and the Creative Arts of Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens, credit John Peets

Rhiannon Giddens. (Credit John Peets)

Blending traditional folk music with Black musical traditions, Grammy-award winning Rhiannon Giddens has made Black history more audible to diverse audiences. 

As a co-founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens contributed her knowledge of banjo, fiddle, viola, and traditional styles of mouth music and flat-footing dance to their songs. Most of the songs on their third studio album, Genuine Negro Jig, celebrated the music of Black people from the North Carolina piedmont and mountains. These songs earned the Carolina Chocolate Drops a Grammy for best traditional folk album. 

Carolina Chocolate Drops plays more traditional music in “Snowden’s Jig”

Even so, the album also included Giddens’s rendition of a recent R&B song, Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” By using recent Black musical traditions as inspiration, Giddens introduced new Hip Hop generation audiences to Black traditional music and showed how a more modern can inform a past one synergistically.  

Blu Cantrell sings “Hit ‘Em Up Style”

Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops play their version of “Hit ‘Em Up Style”

Giddens has leaned into Black history as the source of her music. On her 2017 Freedom Highway studio album, Giddens drew on a nineteenth-century newspaper advertisement describing a young Black mother with her nine-month old child, offered for sale as slaves. Moving beyond the dehumanizing nature of slavery and the slave auction block, Giddens instead thought about the mother at the center of the advertisement and how she might have convinced a potential buyer in keeping the family intact. Giddens kept “thinking about her, and how she had to maintain her humanity against horrific odds.” She took the song title, “At Purchaser’s Option,” from the last sentence of the ad: “She has with her a 9-month-old baby, who is at the purchaser’s option.”

Punctuating the verses, the song’s chorus reclaimed the mother’s humanity from the violent institution. “You can take my body/You can take my bones/You can take my blood,” Giddens croons before reminding listeners, “But not my soul.” The stripped-down music video has Giddens sitting barefoot in a chair in the middle of a field, motionless. At the song’s start, the advertisement floats above her head in the blue sky. Throughout the video, images of dancing black women suggest that Giddens is imagining the woman’s escape. The last line—“I’ve got a babe, but shall I keep him?” reveals the pain of the enslaved mother and her love for her child. Giddens leaves listeners to wonder whether the young mother proved successful—or whether her purchaser separated this family, as was the case with many families in the American domestic slave trade.

Rhiannon Giddens, music video for “At Purchaser’s Option”

Giddens also has made contributions to children’s literature. The history of Juneteenth inspired both the song and children’s picture book, Build A House. The American Civil War did not end with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. It took weeks and the arrival of the U.S. military to announce the end of the war and emancipation to enslaved African Americans. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 and proclaimed freedom to African Americans in Galveston, Texas. Beginning in 1866, African Americans celebrated the emancipation holiday annually throughout the state and eventually throughout the South. During the 1970s, Juneteenth became a popular celebration among Black communities nationally. 

Giddens composed “Build A House” for the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. The song lyrics tell the story of an enslaved family’s resilience. The last line serves a bold declaration of the family’s determination to stay and build new lives after emancipation. Giddens’s voice defiantly exclaims: “No, I will not be moved. No, I will not be, I will not be, I will not be moved.” Overcoming the challenges posed by COVID-19 lockdowns, Giddens performed the song with internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma from their respective homes. 

Rhiannon Giddens and Yo-Yo Ma perform “Build a House” from their homes during the COVID-19 lockdown.

This performance and creation of the Juneteenth federal holiday encouraged Giddens and illustrator Monica Mikai to create a children’s book version of the song. The resulting book teaches young readers the history of African Americans in the United States under slavery and in the early days of freedom. The illustrations, age-appropriate text, and accompanying music video demonstrate how everyday African Americans overcame adversity.

Animated music video for “Build a House”

In 2017, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Giddens with a prestigious fellowship. The organization recognized her work of “reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present.” Giddens continues to bring new understanding to the rich tapestry of African American history and musical traditions. Her musical genius and creative storytelling have truly inspired new audiences to listen, learn, and appreciate traditional African American musical and storytelling.

Hilary Green

Hilary Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham University Press, 2016) as well as several essays and book chapters, public history publications, and scholarly blogs. Learn more…

Learn more about this topic
Rhiannon Giddens holding banjo

Justin Davidson, Rhiannon Giddens’ 21st Century Sound Has a Long Tradition,” Smithsonian Magazine (March 2019) 

Rhiannon Giddens playing banjo

Angela Romero, “Artist Profiles: Rhiannon Giddens,” World Music Central, July 4, 2019

Association for the Study of African American Life and History

Shenette Garrett-Scott, “Why Juneteenth Matters,” ASALH News, 2020