Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah Explore American Racism and Slavery Via “Songs of Our Native Daughters” (Album Review)

This stunning project could be as important as any ever released in any Black History Month (or at any time for that matter). It’s meant to reverberate. Songs of Our Native Daughters are 13 tracks based on historical notions and observations of slavery written and early minstrelsy, performed by Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Leyla McCalla (Carolina Chocolate Drops), Allison Russell (Birds of Chicago), and Amythyst Kiah.  These are stories of struggle, resistance, racism, and hope – drawn from the past but in some cases, made new. The fact that it appears on the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is an indicator of its power and importance.

Co-produced by Giddens and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell (Balfa Toujours, Joan Baez), the collection portrays the often overlooked suffering and resilience of black women in the face of oppression throughout American history. Giddens first conceived of the idea for ‘Songs of Our Native Daughters’ while reading historical accounts of slavery in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. While the four women play a variety of acoustic instruments, primarily banjoes: they are accompanied by Powell on numerous instruments, with Justin Sypher on bass and Jamie Dick on percussion.

The idea was further encouraged by her observations of a more contemporary slave narrative, specifically a rape scene in the 2016 film Birth of a Nation. Following the encounter between an enslaved woman and a plantation owner’s friend, the camera shows, not the woman’s reaction, but rather the face of the “wronged” husband, who is motivated by the rape of his wife to join a slave rebellion. “As I sat in the little theater in New York City, I found myself furious,” Gidden’s explains in the album’s liner notes, “Furious at this moment in a long history of moments of the pain and suffering of black women being used to justify a man’s actions; at her own emotion and reaction being literally written out of the frame.”

Giddens, of course, is a Grammy-nominated solo artist for her brilliant 2017 Freedom Highway as well as the co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. For this project, Giddens brought together three other predominant black female roots artists to signal a larger movement to “reclaim the black female history of this country.” The music is totally acoustic, played on guitars and banjoes, just as it may have been in the 1700 and 1800s.

The album’s opening track features acclaimed Johnson, TN blues singer Amythyst Kiah’s powerful vocals with the song “Black Myself,”  inspired by the lyrics of Sid Hemphill, an acclaimed Mississippi musician and the son of a slave. Kiah interprets his verse (“I don’t like no red-black woman/Black myself, black myself) as a sentiment linked to the history of intra-racial discrimination, or “the idea that being a lighter shade of black is more desirable because it means that you look closer to being white.”  This song could easily become an anthem for a new era, with the its chorus echoed by the other three women, as they transform oppression into a song of pride. It rings like Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted, and Black” in spirit.

”Barbados” is an interesting track, wherein Gidden sings what is said to be the first western notation of New World enslaved music, between her recitation of William Cowper’s pome from 1788 and its modern response, written by Dirk Powell. Allison Russell wrote Quasheba, Quasheba” clearly a standout track, about her paternal ancestor who was sold into slavery off the coast of Ghana. Holding little back. Here are some lyrics – “Raped and beaten/Every baby taken/Starved and sold and sold again/But ain’t you a woman/Of love deservin’ /Ain’t it somethin’ you survived.” “Slave Driver,” sung by all  four women, is a tune written by the late Bob Marley about resistance to oppression. The fiddle-driven “Polly Ann’s Hammer” is about John Henry’s women and how the supposedly weaker sex survives the work that killed John Henry. “Mama’s Crying Long,” is one of the most memorable tunes as the slave woman, continually beaten by her overseer, finally kills him.

These tales of horror inevitably lead to songs based on endurance, resilience, survival and hope. On “I Knew I Could Fly,” co-written by Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell, McCalla converses on the way racism and sexism has shaped the lives of black women in America. Leyla McCalla is a multi-instrumentalist and singer of Haitian descent who released her own strong social statement last month, Capitalist Blues. “I Knew I Could Fly” was inspired by both the story and the guitar sound of Piedmont blues guitarist Etta Baker, a now renowned musician who didn’t release any music until she was in her 60s. “Etta didn’t became involved in the music industry earlier in her life because her husband didn’t want her to, and that fact continues to confound me. I simply can’t imagine living in that type of reality,” says McCalla.

Another clear highlight is “Blood and Bones,” written by Amythyst Kiah as a response to white nationalists feeling more confident about their stance after Trump’s election. It’s a rallying cry, made even more impactful by Powell’s electric guitar and thumping bass behind an infectious chorus – “Blood and bones are what we’re made of/Not enough steel to reconcile/Crying out in the darkness/One sure way to feel alive/Demon mouths lines with halos/Thinly veiled, but no surprise/Rest Assured, a welcomed surplus of systematic lies”

The enclosed 36-page booklet provides well-articulated perspectives from both Giddens and Powell as well as detailed background on the origin of each song and the accompanying lyrics. This passage from Powell is an excellent summary of the project and the stance taken by these four women – “If I had to describe the goal to which the four artists on this record so naturally and generously aspired, I would say it was simply to ring a bell that proclaimed, in strong and pure voice, we’re here! Loud and clear. All of us, from our foremothers to the current generation to future generations. Telling our stories without compromise or hesitation. Sending them ringing out into the world with a bell-like truth. Not listening for echoes. Sending them forth.”

Shedding light on the dark era of slavery and its lasting impact through contemporary times, is more important than ever in these divisive times. This groundbreaking project runs through a full gamut of emotions and will live on for years to come. It’s that important as evidenced by the fact it is part of Smithsonian Folkways African American Legacy Recordings series, co-produced with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Photo by Terri Fensel/Courtesy of the artist

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