Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Being a Southern Artist -- Rhiannon Giddens

I'm going to step outside the discipline of photography for one blog entry to explore a question that I get a lot. The question is, what, in my opinion, makes someone a Southern photographer? 

I tend to take a broad view of this question, chiefly because pretty much any answer one comes up with is based on a set of presuppositions, and whatever set of presuppositions one starts with, it turns out that as a result of those presuppositions some folks get included in the definition, and some folks get left out.

And this is not necessarily because of anything about the quality or the character of the work being done, or the achievements of the artists being included or excluded, but because of the presuppositions with which one starts.

I therefore start off with the premise that a Southern photographer is a photographer born in, or educated as a photographer in, or making a practice of photography in, the American South.  I think people deserve wide latitude in coming to terms with the legacy of this place, so pretty much any way they find to do that is OK by me. 

I start with the premise that anyone who uses a camera to make art and who has spent a significant amount of time Around Here will be dealing in his or her work with the kinds of issues that are distinctively Southern issues, issues of history, or memory, or race, or gender, or class, or family, or community, or person hood.

One may deal with those issues in a multitude of ways, engaging them directly or obliquely, or evading them. But these issues are there in the work, one way or the other.

One hopes that, through the technical skill, artistic vision, or depth of understanding the artist brings to the work,  meaning is made out of the artist's engagement with those issues, and perhaps, sometimes, the work not only makes meaning out of the Southern experience but perhaps achieves something redemptive for our history, our experience, our  time in the South.

Those who are, as we say, Not From Around Here, but have engaged seriously in their work with these kinds of issues, regardless of the place in which the work was made, are worthy of  being considered  Honorary Southern Photographers, because their work makes meaning of these issues, and can, at times, engage with them redemptively. 

I use the word "redemptively" deliberately, because it is a word with religious overtones, appropriate, I think, in what the writer Susan Ketchin calls the South's "Christ-Haunted Landscape."

Promoting redemption, for a Southern artist, I think, is about making meaning through art of, and out of, the tangled web of Southern history in a way that does not deny the past, or the ways in which the legacy of our past lives on in the issues of our day, nor does it stop with mere acceptance, but helps us find a way to honor that past by using it to help us find a way forward, with integrity, and honesty, and respect for the dignity of every human being.

All that said, I come to the subject of this blog entry, Rhiannon Giddens, born in Greensboro, NC, educated at Oberlin College, and a Grammy-Award winning musician. 

Rhiannon Giddens is an artist who, on her own, and with her colleagues, is engaging, through her art, with the question of Southernness, and the legacy of Southern history and culture, in ways that I think are exciting, as well as redemptive, and also exemplary for the question of what makes someone a Southern artist. 

Giddens began her musical career as an opera singer. You can hear her drawing on her opera background in the work on the CD Because I Knew You as part, with Cheryse McLeod Lewis, of the duo Extravaganza.

Later she got involved in Celtic music, drawing on her native North Carolina's history as the home of the largest settlement of Highland Scots in North America, and the site of a flourishing Gaelic language culture in the years leading up to the Civil War. 

You can hear Giddens performing in a Celtic music context on this recording she made with the Scottish band the Chieftans.

And here, singing in Scots Gaelic --

After embarking on a professional career as a Celtic musician, performing as a singer and fiddle player, Giddens began to explore another side of her personal and artistic legacy as a Southerner, taking up the banjo and exploring the tradition of African-American string band music. 

Together with musicians Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, Giddens began in 2005 to meet regularly with long-time North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson, from whom they learned the history of African-American string-band music, as well as its tunes, styles, and performance techniques.

Performing as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the band recorded its debut album in 2010 -- entitled Genuine Negro Jig -- which earned the band a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy award. 

As their website puts it, the Carolina Chocolate Drops "have proved that the old-time, fiddle and banjo-based music they’d so scrupulously researched and passionately performed could be a living, breathing, ever-evolving sound" and demonstrated "the central role African-Americans played in shaping our nation’s popular music from its beginnings more than a century ago."

The Carolina Chocolate Drops have gone through a personnel change recently, as Flemons and Robinson have moved on and Giddens has been joined by Hubby Jenkins, Rowan Corbett (who shares Giddens' love of Celtic music), and and Malcolm Parson. 

The band's concerts, wrote a reviewer for the The New York Times, are “an end-to-end display of excellence... They dip into styles of southern black music from the 1920s and ’30s—string- band music, jug-band music, fife and drum, early jazz—and beam their curiosity outward. They make short work of their instructive mission and spend their energy on things that require it: flatfoot dancing, jug playing, shouting.”

One mission taken on by Giddens and other members of the band is to teach us that the banjo is an African instrument, as are the bones and the kazoo, all instruments that are now part of traditional, bluegrass, and Celtic music. 

The Bitter Southerner has a wonderful story about Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, here. 

Jenna Strucko, who wrote the piece, says of her conversations with Giddens and other band members,  that  "this project may have affected me more deeply than any other I've had the chance to work on." 

"The quartet's insights into the greater narrative of the banjo and what it means for all of us demonstrated real wisdom, punctuated with intentionality and passion. 

"The Drops synthesized vast information about the banjo's lineage into a comprehensible body of knowledge, and then conveyed it to me with tact, emotion, poise and honesty. I actually left that stage with a new outlook on the world and my place in it. 

"I felt more aware and challenged than ever, but also exhilarated and inspired. My hope is now to "get to the roots of things," as Hubby put it — to seek a similar level honesty and truth in all that I do."

Or, as Strucko puts it, "we owe the banjo's modern presence in America to Africans who were brought here against their will. Thus has the banjo become like okra, an undeserved gift to all parts of Southern culture, but one that came only from the people our ancestors enslaved."

Strucko's response suggests that with Giddens and her colleagues, the complexities of Southern history and the tortured legacy of of our past, with all its painful ironies, can in the right hands be transformative in the present and point the way toward a future based on respect, honor, and humility. 

The Carolina Chocolate Drops continue to tour and to record; their latest album is Leaving Eden, here. 

Giddens' career continues to develop. She just released her first solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, and set out on a solo tour. 

On this album, Giddens continues to expand her knowledge of Southern musical heritage, linking up here with the western North Carolina living treasure Sheila Kay Adams and her version of "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," growing out of the oral tradition of Scottish and Irish popular ballads Adams learned from her grandmother in the mountains of North Carolina.

The New York Times did a story on this turn in Giddens' career. You might want to hear her if she comes your way (tour dates here)

The Times quotes Giddens, thus:

“What’s really interesting to me,” Ms. Giddens added, “is to have a connection to what was going on in the past, but to make it a living thing. For me, the trick is to present the music and to present the history, to present all that. I can’t forget that I’m in there, because I’m an important part of it, and people are coming to see my interpretation of these things, and I get that. But, still, I just want to present the music and use my voice to do that.”

Giddens, in her own personal history as well as in her artistic practice is engaging Southern musical -- and social and personal -- history at its deepest and darkest and most tangled, yet finding within it signs of courage, creativity, and the making of meaning, bringing to us undeserved gifts, enabling us to honor the gifts of those who came here against their will, enabling their gifts to continue to live, to continue their influence on our lives and our culture. 

That's redemptive music- and meaning-making. That's honoring those who have gone before. That's respecting their creativity and their capacity to make meaning out of our conflicted and painful legacies as Southerners. That's helping us make meaning today of  our own legacies, and to envision and work toward a future where dreams of justice are fulfilled.

That's what it means to be a Southern artist. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking with it.

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