EVEN THE MOST eclectic musician looks monochromatic next to Rhiannon Giddens. The North Carolina native became famous playing Appalachian and Piedmont fiddle-and-banjo music — and restoring its overlooked black roots — with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. But she’s also studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory, played fiddle in a Gaelic style (she’s performed with Celtic band Gaelwynd and is married to an Irish musician), and was part of The New Basement Tapes project, dedicated to lost songs of Bob Dylan and helmed by T-Bone Burnett. Giddens has recorded with everyone from Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam to cellist Yo-Yo Ma to mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis.
Giddens’s latest album, Freedom Highway, was released on February 24, 2017, to much acclaim. She’s been touring behind it relentlessly, and comes to Walt Disney Concert Hall in October. Giddens spoke to me from New York City.
SCOTT TIMBERG: Let’s start by talking about your songwriting — on the new record, and going back as far as you want. I expect that, as a songwriter, you’re drawing from a lot of different sources. From your own life, from the blues, from old-time music, from other songwriters, maybe Dylan. But how important are writers — poets, novelists, short story writers, essayists — to what you do as a musician?
RHIANNON GIDDENS: Oh, I think they’re very important. You know, it’s like, if you want to be a writer you’ve got to read, right?
So if you want to be a songwriter, you’ve got to listen … and read. You know, I’ve always been drawn to the word — I’m a voracious reader — and I’ve always been drawn to lyrics in particular. I mean, I love tunes and everything, but I was a big fan of Tom Lehrer and Stephen Sondheim, and I loved Sting’s early stuff — very poetic songwriting. You know, I’m one of those weirdos and I never listened to Dylan …
Never really got into him?
It’s not even that I never really got into him, I never listened to him, other than the famous songs that everyone knows — “Blowin’ in the Wind” and whatever. I’ve never listened to a Dylan record in my life. I’ll be honest with you — I never have. What I ended up doing was kind of skipping Dylan and going straight to the stuff Dylan listened to, you know what I mean?
And the people that I listened to from the folk revival were all mostly interpreters — like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. So, I didn’t really get into that kind of folk writing.
Right, singers and not songwriters for the most part.
Yeah, yeah, so the songwriters that I was really into were, a lot of them, performing for the stage — kind of quirky stuff, like They Might Be Giants. Stuff like that. And I loved, I do love people’s writing styles — I’ve made a study, in my own little way, of words. It shouldn’t have surprised me too much that I ended up writing songs, you know? When I look back on it, I’m writing all these lyrics and looking and just appreciating — I really love clever, intelligent writing. I don’t necessarily write like that, but I appreciate it.
Now, when you were a kid, which writers or which books were you rally geeking out over?
I mean, I was a big nerd, so sci-fi/fantasy for sure. The writing style of Robin McKinley — I love her writing style, and when I write short stories it’s kind of similar to what she does.
And what’s her stuff like?
She’s a fantasy — like, a magical fantasy writer. There’s just a beautiful flow to her writing. It was a lot of her earlier stuff that I read, and I just remember kind of clasping onto these things, like phrases and how words are put together, and how sentences are put together. And I was kind of an obsessive booklet reader — CD booklets … Because I have a hard time understanding lyrics fully … And I don’t have that — like, I don’t listen to rap because I don’t understand what they’re saying, ever. And there’s people who can pick it out and they figure it out, but I can’t do that, so I always pick up the booklet and look at the words. And that’s why I post all my CDs.
Like buying a book of short stories or something, right?
Well, I don’t know about that for these lyrics, but I just remember that viscerally: taking the booklet out, and there are all the words. [I remember] following and memorizing old CDs that way. And I’d say the first lyricist that I really, really got into was Sting. His early stuff, like —
The Dream of the Blue Turtles, right?
Yep, The Dream of the Blue Turtles and Bring on the Night, and I loved the one after The Dream of the Blue Turtles — …Nothing Like the Sun.
Yeah. Named after the first line in that Shakespeare sonnet, and I think it has a Hendrix cover. “Little Wing,” or “Castles Made of Sand,” or something like that.
It does, it does. “Little Wing,” and it’s got “They Dance Alone,” which is talking about the women in South America — I can’t remember where, I think Chile — who would dance with the photos of the men who had disappeared — as protest, you know?
So like that — writing from a protest point of view, writing from a poetic point of view, writing from a historical … He worked in shit like Scylla and Charybdis from Greek mythology —
Yeah, that’s the first time I ever heard that phrase — I think that’s from “Wrapped Around Your Finger.” It’s from the Odyssey?
Yeah, it’s from the Odyssey. And of course I’d already read that by the time I heard the song and I was like, “Ah, man this is cool! This dude has all this stuff.” And his later stuff — not so much.
Let’s go back to your reading for a second. You said you were really drawn to science fiction and fantasy, which literally give kids a key to other worlds. What drew you to that stuff, and what did you get from it?
Oh, you know it was its basis — there are so many different worlds and it’s kind of like history … but like history where women have more power, or where there are dragons, you know? It’s so connected to my love of history, but in this weird, kind of shifty way — this fantasy stuff. And then the sci-fi reached for the limits — and they weren’t even the limits anymore. I was a very introspective kid. I was overweight, I had low self-esteem, and so I just kind of lived in these worlds. I read a lot.
It’s funny that it would come out of your love of history, because a lot of the best science fiction is like a future history. The Asimov Foundation books were kind of a rewriting of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Dune was written like a history … You went to Oberlin and studied opera, and you’ve recorded as a classical singer. With Lieder, you’re singing poetry. Has any of that stuff spoken to you?
Oh, yeah. I fell in love with Lieder in particular. I mean, the operatic stuff is fine, but it’s all, “Oh, I’m dying of love for you — don’t leave me!” and all that shit. It’s fine to act, but when you look at the poetry … I mean, with exceptions of course, because there are beautiful moments in opera: the Da Ponte libretti, the Mozart operas are genius — there are these things. But as a general rule, you’re there for the emotional content. But Lieder, you know, art songs — particularly the German Lieder, more than the French — really drew me. And through the poetry — that’s where German is beautiful.
It’s Goethe’s words set to Schubert’s melodies. You can’t beat that … Elevating the words to something else. You know, I did full concerts in German Lieder —
Oh, really — you sung whole concerts of Schubert and so on?
Yeah, I won an art song competition with a full concert of German Lieder. A lot of memorization there. But I loved it and I love it today.
Have you heard much [Hugo] Wolf? I love Schubert’s stuff, and you’re right, his melodies are incredible, but when you get to Wolf, it’s like the melody is subservient to the setting. You know, I think his stuff is just … stunning. Yeah, I highly recommend him.
Let’s talk about a whole other side of things — country, Appalachian music, which comes from Scotland and Ireland, and the string and pipe music of the Celts. I know you have a personal and musical connection to that tradition — I wonder if literature from that part of the world —
We’ve got to back up for a second, because it did not just come straight from Ireland, Scotland, and England. There is music that comes from there and you have musicians from Africa. It’s not just the banjo — it’s putting together the fiddle and the banjo on plantations —
And, of course, you’ve got all these ballads that do survive in the mountains, and there are obviously direct lines from Ireland and Scotland and England, but it’s very important to recognize that the string band music is a fusion. And even stuff that ends up in the mountains is coming from black players, you know what I mean?
Right, you’re emphasizing that this as an American mélange, bringing a Gaelic tradition and a West African tradition together.
Kind of. Still, the idea that there’s this sort of equal footing is not true. These European strains of music are getting syncretized, and the music becomes a new thing. There’s this exchange between blacks and whites. So when you have these rich fellas — you know, plantation owners — saying, “Learn these tunes so we can play for our dances,” we start seeing this exchange. It is eventually a back and forth, but it starts there. It’s a history. You know, I’m being pedantic about it because it’s a history that has been hidden. It’s just important to say that, because that whole idea of either purity from the old country or “the European fiddle meets the African banjo” — it’s not that simple. You know what I mean?
And the vast majority of what we’re talking about happened before recording, so we’re still sort of unearthing it now. Do you know when the flat seven came in as the sort of de rigueur way you would play this stuff? Because I think of that as a compromise between a West African scale and the European major scale — you know what I mean?
Yeah, I’d say it’s coming in at this kind of un-documentable time. There are primary sources talking about the weird scale of the Caribbean music. You know, the otherworldliness of it, and the “barbarity” of it. Stuff was going on in the Caribbean, where the European form and the African forms were having their first meeting. It was also happening in Congo Square in New Orleans, and then you get this American form — string band music — happening on plantations in the South. I mean, I can’t tell you “this is where the seven comes in,” but that’s my best guess, and there’s a lot of scholarship that backs that up.
And nowadays, there’s just so much stuff coming out talking about these early years — it’s really amazing.
Right, I think all we have right now are educated guesses. But we’re probably talking the period of Reconstruction where this is happening, right? I mean the blues —
No, what I’m saying is we have guesses, but we also have a lot of primary source material, and we even have some transcriptions and stuff. And we’re talking about before the Civil War. The heart of this music goes back to the very first — we’re talking about the 1500–1600s in the Caribbean.
This is where African-American music starts — it doesn’t start in the South, it doesn’t start with Reconstruction, it doesn’t start with the Civil War. It starts when Africans are first shipped over to the Caribbean. Read Sinful Tunes and Spirituals by Dena Epstein. And, like you said, there are no recordings. All we have is writing, but if you put enough of that together, you get a picture of all this music down in the Caribbean. And that’s where people were sent to get seasoned. A lot of the people who were sent up to the South went through those ports. And they brought the banjo. The banjo first emerges in the Caribbean.
So, it’s a long way of saying there’s certainly Celtic roots to what you do. You have, I think, an Irish husband and you’ve played Irish music. So I’m wondering, does that tradition of literature, whether Scottish poetry or Irish-American novels, speak to you in any way? Have you gotten into any of those writers?
Not really, but I love Gaelic poetry. There’s some really beautiful stuff — I guess under-appreciated — when you’re talking about Scottish culture. Some of the court stuff is amazing … Gaelic culture goes back thousands of years. It was one of the first literate cultures in Western Europe. They have everything — court poetry and folk poetry, and it’s all really beautiful.
You spent some time working with fragments from Dylan’s songs from the New Basement Tapes, which he hadn’t recorded. Did Dylan’s words strike you as lyrics or poetry, or some mix of the two?
Probably a mix, I guess. Yeah, he’s a very poetic lyricist, you know. Yeah. He’s cool — it’s a cool project. I mean, I’m just not a Dylan worshipper, so I can’t speak to his whole body of work. We worked with lyrics he hadn’t set to music, so some of them are really cool, some of them are random. He’s obviously got a very poetic turn of phrase. He’s a super-talented, genius kind of guy.
I wonder if there’s a writer of any kind whose work you’re either getting into lately or have sort of come back to — someone who’s feeding your work these days.
I’m reading a lot of historical writers — you know, people writing actual history. So I’m not reading a bunch of fiction at the moment. But I’ve always been a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. His writing style’s really beautiful. Weird — a little weird, a little cool. But yeah, I’m reading people like Edward Baptist. He wrote this book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, and it’s just like — the writing in it is just killer.
Do you have a favorite historian or two besides him — a music historian, a historian of, you know, the American experience?
Yeah, Andrew Ward is great — he’s written several books. He wrote a book on the six Jubilee singers and a book of slave narratives called The Slaves’ War.
Have you learned anything from literature about artistry, that’s bigger than just inspiring song lyrics?
Yeah, I mean that’s where a bunch of my songs come from — history. Andrew Ward’s book — songs came from that. The people who make history live inspire me to write songs about it. That’s my whole thing.
It’s the larger spirit you get from reading history that makes you want to do it yourself.
Yeah, definitely, yeah.
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.