AmericanaFest 2019: Legacy Support

At Wednesday’s Americana Music Honors and Awards ceremony, Rhiannon Giddens will receive one of two inaugural Legacy of Americana Awards. The newly established honor was created in partnership with the National Museum of African American Music (which is set to open in Nashville in 2020), and recognizes “an artist, writer, producer or educator who has either made a lasting impression through music or inspired art to recognize the legacy of Americana music traditions.”

Giddens’ fellow honoree is the late Frank Johnson, a black folk musician who was born enslaved in North Carolina, rose to prominence in the 19th century and was largely forgotten until John Jeremiah Sullivan researched and told his story in The New Yorker. Sullivan traces the connection points between Johnson and Giddens, the latter of whose work as both a musician and a scholar celebrates the vast contributions of African American string bands and players to the broader American music canon. 

The Scene caught up with Giddens to discuss the award, Johnson’s legacy and her thoughts on representation in country and Americana music. Our conversation also touched on her two newest recorded projects: her excellent collaboration with Francesco Turrisi, there is no Other, as well as Songs of Our Native Daughters, the debut album from Our Native Daughters, Giddens’ band with three other black women who play roots music — Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla.

What does it mean to you to be the first recipient of the Legacy of Americana Award?

It’s wonderful that they want to recognize the work I’ve been doing. I really appreciate it, because you know it’s not easy trying to do what I do in a sort of commercial industry. It’s not been the easiest thing in the world. I really appreciate them nodding to a historical figure. The only thing that has really taken me aback a little bit was the quickness with which Frank Johnson was taken into the history of American music. 

Which is amazing, but there’s been absolutely no mention of the man who single-handedly uncovered him, John Jeremiah Sullivan, who wrote that article. Nobody knew about him before Sullivan discovered him, basically. So that’s been sort of a distressing thing for me, because what I do relies so much on people like Sullivan, who have combed through newspaper notices and painstakingly put together this portrait of this man, Frank Johnson. … I just think that’s really important to acknowledge, because what I do is very much in line with what these writers are doing. I’m just doing it through music.

So, to your knowledge, Sullivan is not involved in the awards process?

Well, I’ve brought him into the Americana Association. We’re doing a panel now. I don’t think there was a malicious intention. This is just how these things happen — and it’s how people disappear. It’s as easy as that, you know what I mean? So it’s worth saying. And I do believe [the Americana Music Association] has reached out to [Sullivan], so it’s totally fine. But that’s my job, as well, to make note of these things and make sure that everybody is being highlighted.

I was struck by how Sullivan was able to unearth and piece together a story that had so far gone untold. When you first encountered it, what did you experience? And what, since then, have you connected to in Johnson’s work?

It didn’t surprise me, because I’ve been doing work of my own. Knowing that [Johnson] is part of this long tradition of string-band music — to have a name, and somebody who is so influential, that’s important. … 

In the pre-recording era, you have this nameless, faceless mass of black musicians who helped form the core of what is now known as American music. And it’s so nice to have a name and so nice to have this knowledge that he was so well-respected, that his funeral was so large, that he had such an impact even beyond the black string-band tradition that he belonged to. That is a very special thing, to have a personality to hold up, to give an award to. Because there are so many anonymous musicians that we’ll never know.

In recent years, especially, there have been a lot of conversations about diversity both at AmericanaFest itself and, more broadly, in the country and Americana communities. You appear in Ken Burns’ new film Country Music, speaking about African American musicians and their place in country music history. When you consider where those conversations are now, particularly acknowledging these musicians whose legacies have been erased, what progress do you hope to see made?

Oh, there’s so much progress that needs to be made. That’s just the way it is. People forget that there were hundreds of years of ignoring these things, hundreds of years of influences and things going into the music but being completely disregarded, and history being written to reflect that. There’s a lot to be righted, so you can’t do it all at once, and not one person can do it all. 

You have to do it piece by piece by piece. I haven’t seen the whole thing. I’m only in the first episode. I’m sure there’s loads I’ll wish were in the miniseries. But [Burns] is telling it the way he sees it, and he has made it very clear that [race] is a strand he wants to highlight. I think that’s huge progress right there, that he’s in the mix talking about that. I was the last interview for the project, and I’m grateful he included my voice. It’s moving slowly, but it’s moving. I definitely can see that now.

You recently wrapped up a run of dates with Our Native Daughters. What has it been like for the four of you to come together and share a stage?

It’s great. I think everybody pulled a lot of strength from that. We’re each of us in our own world, sort of pushing the boulder up the hill and trying to talk about some of these things. So to come together and have a united front for a minute was really powerful. Those moments are really important. I saw an article where some guy was like: “What’s with all these supergroups? I don’t get it.” I’m like: “Yeah, you’re a white dude, you probably wouldn’t get why coming together as black women means something.” It doesn’t have to mean anything to him, but it meant something for us and for the people who came and saw us.

It also hasn’t been long since there is no Other came out. A few weeks ago, I saw a tweet from you talking about how you got to bring the minstrel banjo and the daf drum to The Today Show, which is such a cool thing to say. How does it feel to be able to bring this music to audiences who may not be familiar with it?

It was kind of weird. They read the New Yorker article and said, “Let’s hire her!” But it was cool. These kind of shows, I don’t know what particular rings that stone dropped in the pond makes, but it was cool to bring it to a prime-time show. It was cool to see them react to it. Those guys have seen a lot of stuff over the years, and it felt like a genuine [reaction]: “Wow, this is cool and different. We like this.” It was fun. Surreal, but fun. I’m talking to Al Roker with my banjo on.

Amythyst Kiah Paints a Full Picture of Herself on Wary + Strange

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