I had the opportunity to interview Rhiannon Giddens, last original member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and an extremely talented person with a bright future ahead of her. She’s the only non-white-male taking part in The New Basement Tapes project, which takes unfinished early Bob Dylan songs and brings them to completion — Elvis Costello is also part of that band. Giddens also has a solo album coming, produced by T-Bone Burnett.
She’s always working with the Chocolate Drops in an all-new line-up since Dom Flemmons left last year. You can read my interview with Dom here to fill in some history of the Chocolate Drops, and I did speak extensively with Rhiannon about all of her musical projects.
But I did want to offer up this portion of the interview separate from all others, since I think it has particular relevance now — though, it always does, really, because it talks about race and history and the current perception of both of those in regard to the other. If you know anything about Giddens and the Chocolate Drops, other than the fact that they are a bluegrass band, the other thing you might be aware of is their devotion to reclaiming banjo and minstrel songs from their racist connotations, and telling the stories behind the music they perform with bold honesty, staring history in the eye rather than wishing it had never happened.
This is but one way the Chocolate Drops are a brave and intelligent band, and the fact they accomplish these things with charm, wit, and superior musicianship makes them all the more wonderful.
So what follows is the very portion of the conversation that we spoke about racism and history, and what to do about them in some very specific cases where the issue has come to a head in the entertainment world in the last few months.
J7: You enjoy speaking about the history of the music in your concerts.
RG: It’s a very fine line that you walk, and I really feel strongly about it, but I continue to do it because of the feedback we get from our audiences. I listen to what people tell me. When we’re around after a show, a lot of people say, ‘We really like knowing the history, we really like knowing that,’ and that tells me what I need to know, that people are responding to it. The challenge is to keep it in a way that keeps the forward momentum of the show and doesn’t detract too much. And you want to figure out how to say things that people can take away the nugget and not miss the whole thing. So there’s a lot that goes into it, there’s a lot that I think about, and I’m always consciously honing that because I don’t want to trespass too much on people’s patience. They’re there to see music, but if I can slip in a little nugget of information for those who want to hear it, I’m going to do it. It’s not so much that I want to make them know this information, it’s just I feel like their understanding of the music enhances the experience, that the more you know about it, the more you can enjoy it. I just want them to enjoy the show as much as they can, so if I can tell a little tiny story that enhances the experience, I’m going to do it. I think because there’s not a lot of people who do that, I think people really appreciate it, particularly if you can keep it in a very entertaining way.
And we’re able to breach things on stage that are difficult to do in a conversation or other venues. We walk the fine line of being light-hearted about it, but also going, ‘this is serious stuff.’ We’re singing songs about slavery, we’re singing songs coming out of minstrelsy, we’re singing songs coming out of incredible hardship, and I really think that if you just ignore all that stuff, you’re not doing the music any favors and you’re also underestimating the audience. The audience can really get more than you think. It’s just all about the way that it’s delivered and what it’s surrounded by, and we’ve cultivated an audience that appreciates that. But we want to bring in people who are just seeing us for the first time because they saw a YouTube clip of ‘Hit Em Up Style,’ we want to bring them into the fold, too.
J7: Did you pay attention to the recent news about Harry C. Brown?
RG: The ice cream truck! I saw the headline and just didn’t click on it, because I know pretty well how entrenched and how representative minstrel songs are in American culture without being known. These songs you grow up singing, so many of them are Stephen Foster songs or minstrel songs, and it’s just common knowledge to me. It’s good that a story is being done about it, but I get to the point where I’m like, without a larger context, I don’t know how useful that information is. Without a larger conversation about minstrelsy, what it means, the effect that it has on our culture today, which are very strong, how it has shaped our entertainment, the way we consume entertainment, the way we look at race. As part of a larger context, I think these conversations about, ‘oh, he used the n-word’ – well, in and of itself, that means nothing. What does it mean in the larger conversation? That’s where we’re still working on that, I think, as a culture. The context and what did it mean, what do we do with it?
J7: You probably know about the BBC dee-jay who played the song with the n-word in it, then.
RG: Oh, I heard about this from Clive Davis, I did an interview with him for the Sunday Times. I am so upset about that, I think it’s ridiculous. As far as I know the story, I haven’t read all the backstory, but from what Clive told me, I think it’s ridiculous that they fired some old dee-jay who’s been playing old music for years because the song has an offensive word in it. It’s a historical song. That’s the kind of stuff that really irritates me, because I feel like it obscures what really needs to be talked about. It really, totally obscures it, and then people go, ‘oh, PC has won again and racism loses.’ Actually, no, you just fired somebody instead of talking about the song and going, ‘this is blah blah blah, there’s a whole context to the song, we could all learn from this.’ Instead you just fire a dude and not really talk about it, not have a substantive discussion about what it means. It’s a knee-jerk kind of, ‘oh, he said niggardly, let’s get rid of him,’ even though that word has nothing to do with the n-word. Whereas the guy from that show about the cars, Top Gear –
J7: Jeremy Clarkson!
RG: Yes! That guy has gotten away with murder. It’s this low level poking at this racial stuff for years, and it’s just like, aw man, how’s that – ahh, anyway. Don’t get me started. It’s so frustrating.
J7: It does seem like people get prickly about things that they didn’t get prickly about 30 years ago. A good portion of my childhood was in the South, and sometimes I see people, especially young people, get outraged about things that, to me, was crap my grandmother would say and I would roll my eyes about and understand at the time was stupid and know that we were moving away from it. But now, it seems like the younger generation is still saddled with the remnants of that culture and they don’t quite know what to do with it other than rage.
RG: It’s a focus on the surface and leaving the big stuff alone, and that’s why it’s out of whack. People think talking about that means we’re talking about race and it doesn’t. It means we’re talking about semantics, we’re talking about language, but we’re not talking about the underlying issue. People who don’t really understand what’s going on get annoyed with these things. ‘Why does it always have to be about race?’ And it’s just like, actually it’s never about race. It’s always about how can we deflect from actually talking about race. So people think stuff is getting done, but it’s not, and they get irritated when you bring up an actual real question.
We do an Ask The Band Friday on our Facebook, and somebody asked, ‘If you had a time machine, when would you go?’ Hubby posted, ‘Black people don’t mess around with time machines.’ It’s a funny joke that hints to, yeah, there’s not many times in this country’s history where being black is hunky dory, but instead of saying that, he made a joke, and you have to bring your own knowledge to the table to get the joke. Most everybody got it, and then there was this one guy who was like, ‘Why does it always have to be about race? I’m never buying any of your albums or going to any of your shows again.’
I was just like, first of all, you’re talking to a group called the Carolina Chocolate Drops, right? We talk about race is what we do. It was an eye opener for me. That kind of stuff frustrates me, because I’m just like, you’re really missing the point entirely — and that’s the point! I think we’ve gotten off fairly easy when it comes to people calling us out or trying to call us out or thinking they’re calling us out. And I think we’ve gotten off because we back everything up with historical basis. We’re not calling ourselves the Carolina Chocolate Drops because we think it’s a fun name. Marketing-wise, it is a great name, but we’re called that because it’s an homage to an earlier band called the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. There’s always a story and there’s always a reason, and I think we continue that tradition. We’re not going to just say that it’s called Genuine Negro Jig because of xyz. That’s what it was called and people put all sorts of ulterior reasons why we call things what we do, and always breaks down to, well, that’s what it was called, and it’s a great way to highlight that, it’s a great way to highlight the story behind that tune, and to give this family, the Snowdens, their day in court. There’s always a reason behind any of the racial stuff, any of this stuff, and I think that’s the way to go, because you can’t argue with that. And we don’t really want to cause any controversy, we just want to highlight the music that deserves to be highlighted, and the history that deserves to be known.
J7: It’s history. Some of it is uncomfortable, but it’s history, it happened.
RG: It did, and you know what it’s like? I take the approach of, ‘We don’t blame you; we’re all affected by this.’ Everybody lost with this history. The history of slavery, the history of all that stuff, everybody loses. When one person loses, everybody loses. The system that slavery created, the system that we’re still trying to fight our way out of, the aftermath of that, it’s a cultural trauma. If we can’t talk about that in a supportive way together, how do we all fix this? How do we all move forward? We’re never going to get anywhere. That’s how I approach it. If I do a song from slavery, it’s from an actual story and it’s presented as a way to experience, even a little bit, a story from this time period. Nobody alive had anything to do with slavery, but we are all dealing with the effects of it.
Here’s the way that art can change the paradigm. This is a song about a story that actually happened and I remove myself from the equation, and I remove you from the equation, and you get what happened to this person. That is a way of experiencing it and going, ‘oh, my gosh, this is something that we should uncover a little bit more.’ That is the way I think is a good way forward, because it’s inviting rather than being combative. I believe that we need to address these things, but in a way that presents it in the sort of way that everybody can come to the table and have a piece of it.
J7: Speaking as a white southerner, it can be hard because it’s so close. I mentioned my grandmother. I grew up with her griping about Martin Luther King coming to town and stirring up trouble, and plenty of other racism. But she was also my grandmother who raised me and who, of course, I loved. So that’s part of my extended present. My sons who are now 18 couldn’t be further removed from that. I think we’re in this transitory stage.
RG: Yes, and I think that’s why it’s important to tell stories, to educate. I just read Janis Ian’s autobiography, which was just unbelievable. What she had to go through in her life is just crazy. One of the stories that she told was that her very first song that hit, she was like 15, is a song about an interracial relationship, and she talks in the book — it’s chilling, absolutely chilling — the way she talks about going to shows and having people stand-up and chant, “Nigger lover,” and all these horrible things at her, send her death threats, death and bomb threats to the radio stations that were playing the song. I know a lot about history and I was sitting there just … that’s what we need, for people to talk about their experiences, and to go, this was the 1960s, that wasn’t that long ago.
This stuff is still resonating. Trayvon Martin, all of this stuff is connected. We have to tell our stories and we have to listen. I think that’s imperative, that we get it from personal points of view rather than, ‘Well, in the 1960s this happened.’ That means nothing. People have to tell their stories, and they can tell it through song, they can tell it through writing, whatever, it just needs to continue. You telling your story about your grandmother, that’s important. Everybody’s personal experience, that’s how you believe it. It needs to be that instead of some platitude about what happened back then.