Rhiannon Giddens. The Gaillard, during Spoleto Festival USA, 2017, could almost hold her voice, almost. In the sampler of work she performed with her exceptionally accomplished band, she brought the sold-out crowd a jaw-dropping and gut wrenching smorgasboard of the beating heart of Giddens’ choice of message and musical skills.
A fine-tuned instrument, Giddens’ voice spread itself from chest to head without a break in vocal quality and control, and was pitched to float us as well as ground us. From the driving beats behind For the Love of Spanish Mary (lyrics by Bob Dylan) opener through the groove of The Love We Almost Had, the footstep fall of the folk song Jack of Diamonds, Creole fiddle dance tunes, her swoonable rendition of Patsy Cline’s She’s Got You, or the take-me-to-church of Go Where I Send Thee, Giddens told stories with her words, her vocal resonance, her body language, and with a variety of instruments played with both ease and intensity.
One of the most telling stories of the night was about the unique, 1800s replica banjo, a minstrel banjo based on the African akonting, played to both popular songs and slave narratives. It’s depth of sound and passage from Africa to America, through brown and white hands clearly called to her, gave her another voice to speak in, and to tell the stories from her most recent album, “Freedom Highway.” As the often too sedate audiences of Charleston listened and sometimes clapped with enthusiasm to up-tunes, they also sat silently and seemed to listen intently to the stories of those spoken from a history held in the cobblestones and constructed memorials here too.
The Purchaser’s Option, (spoken from the slave’s point of view) tells of the selling of a female slave with the purchaser’s ability to buy her baby or not too. Giddens’ blending of words and notes echoes both the heartbeat and the wailing to hold the listener in that time and place. I could almost imagine the straight-ahead look on Giddens’ face to be the same as the one of the young slave woman, the chorus sung over and over “you can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul.”
Told in simple straight-forward dialogue, Julie, a song based on a slave narrative, gave the audience a chance to eavesdrop on a plantation mistress begging her slave to stay as Union Troops came down the road. Gidden’s remarks as slave in the song and as the songwriter/performer spoke to the institutional relationship of racism’s hurt of everyone when she said “To de-humanize another you must first de-humanize yourself.”
Giddens ended the night on an up-note of hope, hope and solidarity with the Staple Singers’ Walk Down the Freedom Highway. But not before she reminded us of the toll hate holds on to in today’s world too. Better Get It Right the First Time brought not only her sister (who’d been back-up for several songs already) but also her nephew on stage to sing/rap about the numerous police shootings of young black men. In Giddens’ rendition of Joan Baez’s Birmingham Sunday, the story of the bombing death of four innocent children at the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist church in Alabama, she almost seemed to want to say something, here in Charleston about its’ correlation to the deaths at Mother Emmanuel, but she just let it sit for us, in our own minds and hearts. The tears I wept at We Could Fly, from earlier in the show, let themselves sink in my throat on this song and I could not help but wonder how she could sing through all these stories and then remembered, how can you keep from singing?
Rhiannon Gidden’s voice and musical dexterities, in their many exceptional guises as songwriter, instrumentalist, vocalist brought the full house at the Galliard to its feet more than once. I hope hearts, other than mine, were brought to our knees too.