The song came to the Grammy award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens a few years ago. It sounded like a nursery rhyme sung from the unquestioning perspective of a child. “Mama’s cryin’ long,” it began. “Mama’s hands are shaking.” A tale unfurled from this point about an enslaved woman, forced to lie down “again and again” by the “boss’s man”. One night, she kills him, then the story’s denouement plays out. “Mama’s in the tree,” Giddens sings. “And she can’t come down,” a chorus of voices reply.
Those other voices are traditional roots musicians Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and the Haitian-American Leyla McCalla. Over 12 intense days in Louisiana in January 2018, they came together with Giddens to make Songs of Our Native Daughters, forming a supergroup of sorts, trying to do something new with traditional music. It shouldn’t have felt new: the project’s source material was old, taking in overlooked slave narratives (Mama’s Cryin’ Long was inspired by one of them) and neglected female characters in folk songs. But the collective aim of these artists was to do something that hadn’t been done before: to tell forgotten stories of the African diaspora in North America, with its women upfront.
The fact that their album is being released on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings – the nonprofit label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the US – is also significant. The label has recently started signing contemporary musicians again for the first time in 30 years, with its director, Huib Schippers, saying this is to “show folk music as a living, changing tradition, informed by the past, but relevant to the present, and with an eye to the future”. Giddens agrees with this in her liner notes: “I see this album as a part of a larger movement to reclaim the black female history of this country.”
This mission has a contemporary weight for her, too. Her notes also detail how modern protest movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter were started by women of colour, who are often told to “put their intersectionality on hold” [ie put issues of race aside]. “Black women have historically had the most to lose,” she writes, “and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice.” In the music wrapped up in her words, that spirit roars.
The ambition of this project will be unsurprising to anyone who already knows of Giddens. A gifted Oberlin Conservatory opera student who fell in love with traditional music in the early 2000s, she quickly became a brilliant banjo player, songwriter and folk singer. Awards rushed in: a Grammy in 2011 for her old-time band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, a BBC Radio 2 folk award for best singer in 2016 (the only time an American has won it) and, soon after, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, a five-year national artistic endowment for her future career. Giddens has mastered other fields too, joining the cast of the US musical drama series Nashville for two seasons in 2017, and writing a ballet, Lucy Negro Redux, about the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which had its world premiere earlier this month in Nashville.
Giddens explains, warmly, how The Songs of Our Native Daughters project sprung from two sources: a poem she read with her young daughter at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and a scene from the 2016 Nate Parker film, Birth of a Nation. The poem was Pity for Poor Africans from 1788, by English satirical poet and abolitionist William Cowper. “Although I didn’t know it was satirical at first,” she says, half-laughing. Then she reads it: “‘I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves… but I must be mum, for how could we do without sugar or rum?’ I texted Dirk [Powell, her regular co-producer] straight away. ‘Oh my God! This has to be a song!’”
The poem’s sentiment also made Giddens think about things people see as necessities in modern life, such as smartphones and TVs, which require people to work in terrible conditions to make them. “I mean, people say things Cowper did in his poem today, without irony. People want to get on with ordinary life. And ignoring the way people are treated – that’s how holocausts begin.” This experience turned into a track on the album, Barbados, fitted around a haunting minor-key melody, the first to be notated by westerners from new world enslaved music.
The scene in Birth of a Nation that provoked Giddens showed a black woman being raped, then the camera ignoring her as her attacker left, but instead focusing on her husband as the wronged party. “It made me so mad. So many stories and perspectives just get pushed to one side.” Her ire extends to how often musicians of colour in folk music are often ignored, too. She talks passionately about how the banjo was originally the “banjer” or “banza”, an instrument that came over from Africa to the Caribbean in the 17th to 18th centuries. It became claimed by white musicians as their own, and was played often in blackface minstrel shows in the mid 19th-century US. Giddens includes some minstrel banjo tunes on this record, pointedly reclaiming their roots.
Giddens knew she wanted other female musicians to join her on this project, so she began, as she calls it, “casting the room”. McCalla had been a fellow musician in the Carolina Chocolate Drops; she’d known Russell for years on the traditional gig circuit. Kiah, a southern gothic blues player, was someone she’d first seen singing Trouble So Hard on YouTube, the song best known for its remix by Moby, featuring the vocals of Alabama singer Vera Hall.
One of Kiah’s songs, Black Myself, starts the album brilliantly; it reflects how black girls start getting treated differently when they mature into women. “When I was a girl growing up in a predominantly white, religiously conservative middle-class community, I was seen as harmless,” she tells me. “Then I was suddenly treated differently by people that I had played with for years.” Her lyrics reflect experiences that have sadly travelled through time (“You look in my eyes, but you don’t see me/ ’Cause I’m black myself”), but it ends with a hope for the future, as many of these songs do, albeit with a twist in the tail. “I’ve washed away my blood and tears/ I’ve been born brand new/ There’s no more workhorses/ But still some work to do.”
Recorded in Dirk Powell’s studio on the banks of a bayou outside Breaux Bridge in Louisiana, the 12 days making the album were full-on, says Russell, on the phone from Nashville. “But there’s this beautiful pressure that comes with needing to hit a deadline,” she says. “Every day we could have talked for 24 hours, but we had to just get on with it. Get our stories out as they felt.”
On the first day, Giddens, Kiah and Russell wrote Moon Meets the Sun, proposing a delicious message of strength in the face of adversity (“ah you put the shackles on our feet/ But we’re dancing”). McCalla joined the gang a day later, heavily pregnant with twins. The experience focused Russell’s mind on the connections between past and future generations of black women. “We kept thinking of our foremothers, and our kids, and seeing that line of strength and resilience in those songs,” she says.
In this setting, giving bigger stories to female characters mentioned in passing in folk songs also felt right. The song Polly Ann’s Hammer takes the “little wife” mentioned briefly in the folk ballad John Henry, who handles “steel like a man” while her husband is sick, and gives her her dues. He dies from the effects of his work, but she survives. “The supposedly weaker sex survives… raises the babies, and perhaps lives long enough to see their children campaign for civil rights and true freedom,” Russell says.
It is a song about one of Russell’s Ghanaian ancestors that tells perhaps the album’s most powerful story. Quasheba, Quasheba came to Russell late at night near the end of recording. She herself was fostered young, then endured years of abuse at the hands of a white adoptive father before meeting her biological father at 30, and delving into her family history. She then discovered Quasheba, sold into slavery from Africa, crossing the Atlantic in the hold of a ship, doing backbreaking work in the cane fields, suffering multiple rapes and sales, and having her children taken away.
“And she survived too,” Russell says. “To find out I am here, that my child is here, because of this woman, and to know her name…” The album’s goal burns in her words. “I wanted to sing for her.” And she does, pushing towards the future, the chorus of other Daughters fittingly rallying around her: “How far your spirit’s flown/ Blood of your blood/ Bone of your bone/ By the grace of your strength… we are home.”
Songs of Our Native Daughters is out now on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings