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Triad product Rhiannon Giddens seeks more black fans

Photo by Timothy Cox; Rhiannon Giddens, right, is joined by tap dancer Robyn Watson.

Triad product Rhiannon Giddens seeks more black fans
September 07
05:00 2017

By Timothy Cox, Special to The Chronicle

NEWPORT, Rhode Island – Musician Rhiannon Giddens, a native of Greensboro, achieved international acclaim in 2010 with a Grammy Award – yet she remains somewhat miffed as to why her music has yet to catch-on with more African-Americans.

Along with her quartet, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the self-described “string band” actually formed on the premise of espousing the fact that African-Americans were the original purveyors of indigenous American music styles known as bluegrass and folk.

On New Year’s Eve 2016, she returned to the Triad in Winston-Salem for a sold-out, solo concert with the Winston-Salem Orchestra.

Now, she has been nominated for a Country Music Association (CMA) award for Musical Event Of The Year for “Kill A Word” by Eric Church and featuring her. Church grew up in Granite Falls, N.C. (“The 51st Annual CMA Awards” airs live Wednesday, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. on ABC-TV.)

Her 2017 album, “Freedom Highway,” features songs based on slave narratives from the 1800s, African-American experiences of the last century, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. One song is called “At The Purchaser’s Option.”

At the recently held Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, Giddens, one of the fest’s headliners, performed the Aretha Franklin classic, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”

Her racially diverse audience was quietly spellbound with the young singer’s effortless rendition of one of the “Queen of Soul’s” classics recording during her 1960s heyday with Atlantic Records.

Ironically, during a recent interview, Giddens revealed that during her live tours, her audiences are typically void of African-Americans.

“It’s true. My fan base is mostly white. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, but I don’t get much love from the black press,” she revealed. “I’ve been trying to break in, but it has been very difficult.”

Having attended the historically relevant, Greensboro-based James B. Dudley High School, a school named for the historically black North Carolina A&T State University former president, Giddens in no way has to prove her blackness. Perhaps, it’s her proclivity to play more unique musical instruments like the fiddle, violin and banjo that shies more blacks away from her style of soul.

After two years at mostly black Dudley High, she matriculated to North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics High School and eventually graduated with a music degree from Oberlin University (Ohio) as an opera major.

In a CBS interview, she explained that she would eventually forgo the opera career, after being exposed to so many various musical styles.

After meeting her eventual Chocolate Drops and Sankofa Strings bandmates at a string festival in Boone, N.C., Giddens and company began researching black cultural connections to folk music in North Carolina. Her road led to Joe Thompson, a Nevan, N.C., fiddler whose family roots were tied to pre-slavery folk and blues. Giddens and her musician mates realized the unique opportunity to absorb from the elderly gent and “sat at his feet to learn the roots music” until Thompson’s death in 2012. He was 93.

In addition to Thompson, Giddens’ influences also include the folk, politically inspired stylings of the “Queen of Civil Rights” Odetta Gordon; Bob Dylan; and North Carolina native Nina Simone.

In describing her own very unique vocal style, she puts it simply: “A cross between Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton.”

In April 2015, she was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama to help celebrate the American Gospel music legacy. There, she shared stages with Aretha, legendary producer T-Bone Burnett, Bishop Rance Allen, Lyle Lovett, Tom Jones, Tamela Mann, Emmylou Harris, Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child fame and Durham native Pastor Shirley Caesar.

These days, Giddens continues to tour nationally, and her background in Celtic music has garnered a fan base in Ireland, her husband’s native country. The couple are parents of a daughter and a son.

Like her 1960s idols Odetta, Nina and Dylan, Giddens is an avid supporter of Americans who need assistance. She personally supports the Rev. William Barber’s N.C. NAACP-led “Moral Mondays” civil rights movement in North Carolina, and has performed for some of his events.

While she’s hopeful about an eventual increase in black support, she fondly recalls an interview with PBS-TV personality Tavis Smiley.

“I’ve been on Tavis Smiley’s show. It’s up and down. Of course, I’d like to see more blacks at my shows, especially since [my music] is part of the black culture. It’s a Creole base – a mixture of banjos, fiddlers, country music, Jimmie Rogers [the yodeler] all these American genres are a Creole – a mixture with a black foundation,” she explained.

Find Rhiannon Giddens’ music through her website www.rhiannongiddens.com, which points to her performances on YouTube and music through iTunes. Go to her Facebook page at RhiannonGiddensMusic.

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