Rhiannon Giddens – To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

When I hear Rhiannon Giddens sing, I remember Nina Simone’s song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”  Born in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone’s message to the young is:

There’s a world waiting for you.
This is a quest that’s just begun.…
To be young, gifted and black,
Is where it’s at.

No one better embodies Nina Simone’s dream than Rhiannon Giddens.

A woman tunes a banjo in a sunlit field.

A graceful ballerina of the voice, Giddens moves effortlessly from genre to genre—from old time country to classical to protest.  Faithful to her southern roots, she was inspired by Joe Thompson’s Piedmont sound of old time country and transformed it into a music for both black and white.

In the tradition of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, Giddons is a consummately modern performer.  Classically trained at the North Carolina Governor’s school and at the Oberlin Conservatory, she is equally at home with classical European music and with her southern folk roots, as she reshapes both of those sounds into exciting new forms.

Just beginning her brilliant, steadily evolving career, Giddens tonight shares with us the latest chapter of her musical identity.  We are privileged to host her concert this evening [February 28, 2016] at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a school with a long, distinguished history of protest and cultural resistance, a tradition that she affirms with her distinctive, powerful voice.

Carolina has touched Giddons in ways that have significantly shaped her career.  At the Black Banjo Gathering organized by Cece Conway (UNC PhD) in 2005, she was inspired by traditional old time country musician Joe Thompson.  At that Gathering, she also met Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, and together they launched the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Tim Duffy (UNC Folklore MA) recorded Giddens’s We Rise on his Music Maker Foundation label in 2014.

And she met T Bone Burnett at the UNC Center for Study of the American South and forged a friendship that led to Burnett’s production of her Nonesuch solo album Tomorrow is My Turn (2015).

A woman holds a violin at her hip in front of a white building.

Giddens’s father was white, and her mother African-American and Native American.  She grew up in Guilford County with family who lived in both the county and the city of Greensboro.  Giddens describes North Carolina as “a bridge state.”  Her mission as a singer is to “bridge” black and white, classical and folk, country and blues.  She does that with a flare that is unique and distinctive.  Married to Irish musician Michael Laffan, Giddons spends half the year with her family in Ireland and the other half in Greensboro.

Like a blacksmith who once told me he could “mend anything but a broken heart,” Giddens sews musical pieces into a patchwork of sound that heals each of our hearts.  Equally at home with the banjo and the guitar, her voice shifts effortlessly to match the song she sings.

Tonight [February 28, 2016] we welcome back Rhiannon Giddons to Carolina with Bhi Bhiman and Leyla McCalla for an evening of “Swimming in Dark Waters.”

William Ferris
Author of Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues
Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History
Senior Associate Director of The Center for the Study of the American South
Adjunct Professor in the Curriculum in Folklore

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