It was near the close of the first half of the T Bone Burnett–curated, September 2013 Another Day, Another Time concert at New York City’s Town Hall—a celebration of the early ’60s folk revival that had inspired the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis—when an extraordinary star-is-born moment occurred and singer Rhiannon Giddens, best known as a member of the Grammy–winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, indisputably stole the show. Performing Odetta’s “Water Boy” with, as the New York Times later put it, “the fervor of a spiritual, the yips of a folk holler, and the sultry insinuation of the blues,” Giddens brought the celebrity-studded audience to its feet.
She followed that up with an amazing, tongue-twisting medley in Gaelic that garnered a second standing ovation. Giddens was the talk of the lobby during intermission and at the exclusive party afterwards. “Who on Earth was that,” people excitedly said to each other, “and where can we go to hear more?” Backstage, the savvy Burnett already knew the answer and was immediately moved to ask if he could produce a record with her. The stunning result of their collaboration, Tomorrow Is My Turn, which deftly incorporates folk, jazz, gospel and the blues, will be Giddens’ solo debut record in early 2015.
“It was clear the first time I heard her at rehearsal that Rhiannon is next in a long line of singers that includes Marian Anderson, Ethel Waters, Rosetta Tharp, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, and Nina Simone,” Burnett says. “We need that person in our culture. She is, in fact, that person in our culture.”
Giddens’ buzz-generating Town Hall performance has luckily been preserved in a double-disc live recording, to be released on Nonesuch Records (also in early 2015) and in a documentary that aired on Showtime last winter.
A mere two days after that star turn, Giddens was impressing the cast and crew on the set of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, playing a Brooklyn square-dance caller in a scene that would be among the most memorable of the last season. The role harkened back to Giddens’ own entry into the world of old-time music.
Enrolled at Oberlin Conservatory, studying opera, Giddens began to do contra-dance calling on the weekends. At first a playful musical detour, it prefigured the unique course her career would take.
Reviving, interpreting, and recasting traditional material from a variety of sources has been central to Giddens’ career, especially in her groundbreaking work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops (CCDs), who also routinely bring sold-out concert audiences to their feet. With their two Nonesuch albums, Genuine Negro Jig (2010, Grammy winner) and Leaving Eden (2012) the CCDs have shared the role African-American performers and songwriters played in U.S. folk-music history, while making recordings that are vital, contemporary, and exuberant.
Iconic choreographer Twyla Tharp was so entranced by their work that she created Cornbread Duet, a dance piece set to a suite of songs by Carolina Chocolate Drops that had its world premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Giddens’ journey, in a larger sense, began in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where she was raised—an area with a rich legacy of old-time music, black and white, that Giddens would explore in depth after college. She met her original CCDs band-mates at 2005’s Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC, and got schooled in the Piedmont’s traditional music by Joe Thompson, an elderly African-American fiddle player who passed on to Giddens and her cohorts many of the songs that would comprise their early repertoire.
Giddens is an American original—an artist with an unforgettable voice who culls the music of our collective past to point the way to the future, one in which her name will surely be well-known from the moment she steps on a stage.
The rebirth of the African American stringband
With their 2010 Nonesuch-label debut, Genuine Negro Jig—which garnered a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy—The Carolina Chocolate Drops proved that the old-time, fiddle and banjo-based music they’d so scrupulously researched and passionately performed could be a living, breathing, ever-evolving sound. Starting with material culled from the Piedmont region of the Carolinas, they have sought to highlight the central role African Americans have played in shaping our nation’s popular music from its beginnings. The Drops' repertoire incorporates blues, jazz and folk balladry alongside crackling string-band tunes. Though often striking out in new directions, the Drops return to familiar turf with tracks like “Riro’s House,” a traditional piece they’d learned from their late mentor, North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson. Through several changes in membership, the Drops have continued to prosper under the leadership of singer/fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, whom super-producer T-Bone Burnett recently called the most profound musician active today. Much more than simply revivalists, The Carolina Chocolate Drops have evolved into American tradition-bearers of the first order—and their show is as much fun as anybody else's in the business. (via The Ark)
Produced by T Bone Burnett, Lost On The River was written and performed in creative collaboration by Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons). The artists and Burnett gathered in Capitol Studios in March 2014 to write and create music for a treasure trove of recently discovered lyrics handwritten by Bob Dylan in 1967 during the period that generated the recording of the legendary Basement Tapes.
To learn more about The New Basement Tapes, please click here.