Past Event On May 21, 2022

Rhiannon Giddens

Digging for Musical Roots

Rhiannon Giddens

“A hundred years before rock and roll, the main American musical cultural export that spread across the English-speaking world was minstrelsy. It was the beginning of America’s commercial music industry. ”

Rhiannon Giddens



On Saturday, May 21, the 2022 Big Return of The Richmond Forum ended on a high note with Grammy Award winner Rhiannon Giddens. As an acclaimed musician, Giddens embraces the historical background of the Americana genre to create new music that shines a light on elements that went unseen in the past.

“It’s hard to talk about music, it’s like singing about dance.”

Giddens began the evening admitting that although she is no historian, she has used her musical prowess to investigate the past and strung together an evolving understanding of Americana music, starting with the banjo.

The symbol and sound of the banjo have been used in American music since its origins, but when Giddens discovered that the banjo had African roots, it opened up a new understanding of musical universalism. “I love to know more. I love to know I didn’t quite have something right, but now I do.”

Her investigation led her to find that the banjo was a key player in creating music that “could create a sense of family and community” for enslaved people by uniting themes of family, unity, and resistance in song.

“When you look for African-American history, you have to look for details in unexpected places.”

“The more I learn about the past, the more the present makes sense. And the more hopeful and scared I get for the future, it’s funny, at the same time.”

– Rhiannon Giddens

Rhiannon Giddens on the banjo and the enslaved person

Because of the lack of historical documentation from enslaved people, Giddens focused much of her research on slave advertisements, including those for runaway fiddlers who played in popular string bands in ballrooms in Virginia and the Carolinas. In her research, she discovered an ad from the 1800s for an enslaved woman, with her 9-month-old child listed alongside her “at the purchaser’s option.”

She presented her original song, inspired by this discovery, to the Forum audience with the refrain, “You can take my body, but not my soul.” Giddens confessed, “If I leave nothing else behind in this world, if it’s this one song, I feel like it was a life well lived. It is our responsibility to make sure that the voices of the people who came before us who didn’t have opportunities to be heard to do whatever we can to make them heard.”

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Rhiannon Giddens explained her journey of falling in love with the banjo and working as a caller for square dancers. She turned that love into her work after her time at the renowned Oberlin Conservatory of Music. This authentic exploration made the audience fall in love with Giddens’ breezy presence, despite the difficult subjects confronted in her talk like minstrelsy and blackface. She acknowledged that these unpleasant aspects of history are precisely why their importance is brushed under the rug.

Despite today’s apt distaste for the negative aspects of minstrelsy, African-American string band players had a true impact on American – and thereafter worldwide – musical history. An artist, creator, and critical thinker, Giddens ended her evening with The Forum by challenging the audience, when confronted with new information, to ask themselves, “Why don’t I know that?”

This closing question ends another season of The Richmond Forum by embodying its key objectives: learning new information, taking in profound perspectives, and asking yourself big questions.

In the question and answer portion of the program moderated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, Sydney and Francis Lewis Family Curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Rhiannon Giddens noted:

  • She believes music brings people together throughout history because it allows us to tap into our spirituality and become the best that we can be.
  • Giddens sees her music as an act of resistance within itself. She remarked that every time the Carolina Chocolate Drops played, it was an act of resistance. “A black person playing a banjo in front of your face can do more than ten books.” As she embarked on her solo career, she chose to use the banjo as one of her main instruments as a tool to confront misconceptions.
  • For the next germination of black string players, Giddens is excited to see more people of color and women picking up the banjo. Many of those who are in this space draw inspiration from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and she looks toward the day when there’s “the next big black string band.”
  • Giddens moved to Ireland with her children so they had the opportunity to learn in Gaelic (their father’s linguistic lineage) since Giddens doesn’t have the privilege of knowing her own. She takes residence in Limerick, Ireland, the same town as Richmond Forum Host Patron Chris Little, CEO of Singlestone. Her children do study music, but Giddens wants them to have the opportunity to explore their own musical interests and she hasn’t necessarily tried to steer them toward the banjo.
  • Giddens ended the question and answer segment by remarking on her excitement for the premiere of the opera she composed, Omar, at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. Giddens is moved by the story of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim slave who struggled with his faith in contrast with Christianity.

Rhiannon Giddens on the perceptive mystique of the banjo’s origins

“Never has a speaker so captivated and enthralled me, and made me want to immerse myself in her world. This might just be one of the best Forum’s I have ever seen…both because of my personal connection to the banjo, and because of her commitment to giving a voice to enslaved women.”

– Subscriber Comment

About Rhiannon Giddens

A MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Rhiannon Giddens co-founded the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops and has been nominated for seven additional Grammys for her work as a soloist and collaborator. Giddens’ latest album, They’re Calling Me Home, recorded with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi in Ireland during the COVID-19 lockdown, received the Grammy for Best Folk Album in 2022.

Giddens’s lifelong mission is to lift up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been erased and to work toward a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins. Pitchfork has said of her work, “Few artists are so fearless and so ravenous in their exploration,” and Smithsonian Magazine calls her “an electrifying artist who brings alive the memories of forgotten predecessors, white and black.”

Among her many diverse career highlights, Giddens has performed for the Obamas at the White House, served as a Carnegie Hall Perspectives curator, and received an inaugural Legacy of Americana Award from Nashville’s National Museum of African American History in partnership with the Americana Music Association. Her critical acclaim includes in-depth profiles by CBS Sunday MorningThe New York TimesThe New Yorker, and NPR’s Fresh Air, among many others.

Giddens is featured in Ken Burns’s Country Music series, which aired on PBS in 2019, where she speaks about the African-American origins of country music. She is also a member of the band Our Native Daughters with three other black female banjo players, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Amythyst Kiah, and co-produced their debut album Songs of Our Native Daughters (2019), which tells stories of historic black womanhood and survival.

Named Artistic Director of Silkroad in 2020, Giddens is developing a number of new programs for the organization, including one inspired by the history of the American transcontinental railroad and the cultures and music of its builders. She recently wrote the music for an original ballet, Lucy Negro Redux, for Nashville Ballet (premiered in 2019), and the libretto and music for an original opera, Omar, based on the autobiography of the enslaved man Omar Ibn Said for the Spoleto USA Festival (premiered in 2022).

Who Else has spoken at The Forum?

More than 240 distinguished speakers have participated in The Forum since its inception in 1987. Our list of alumni includes past U.S. presidents, sitting heads of state, and leaders from the sciences, arts, business, and more.

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