The first week of Black History Month is drawing to a close, and I can already say I’ve learnt some really cool tidbits. My personal favourite: a Black man, Alfred L. Cralle, invented the ice cream scoop, after noticing how inefficient regular spoons are at removing the treat neatly from its tub. Personally, whenever I use a spoon to retrieve ice cream, I have to stab and scrape at the cream until my spoon has acquired a severe case of scoliosis. So thank you, Alfred L. Cralle. You are a true-blue American ice cream hero (and really, is there a better kind of hero to be?)
Today, in honour of Black History Month, I want to talk about a musician, a Black woman who weaves history together with her beautiful music: Rhiannon Giddens.
When I was a sophomore, I took a course on the cultural history of the American South. My professor would start each lecture by playing an audio clip for two minutes – a song, a bit of Southern music which bore some relevance to that day’s topic. It’s an unusual thing for a history teacher to do, and I loved it. Listening to his songs with my eyes closed felt like stepping into a time machine. Music is a way to convey an emotional legacy – voices and memories from a hundred, or two hundred, or four hundred years ago, captured and passed down through generations.
His class was the first place I heard Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, which still sends a shiver down my spine despite the number of times I’ve played it on repeat. And his class introduced me to the multitalented Rhiannon Giddens.
Her band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, has a unique draw: they not only write their own jigs and songs in the style of 19th-century folk music, but they also recreate modern pop songs in that manner. The song my professor chose to play in class falls under the latter category: a rendition of the 80s R&B song “Hit ‘Em Up Style”, performed with a fiddle and tambourine. “Hit ‘Em Up Style” is about a breakup, told from the point of view of a woman who is frustrated at being cheated on. I had never heard the original song before, so I was initially under the impression that it was traditional folk before I listened closely to the lyrics and caught references to modernity. When I learnt that it was, in fact, composed over a hundred years after I’d thought, my mind was blown.
I loved it so much that I immediately looked up the rest of the CCD’s work – and then found Rhiannon Gidden’s solo album, Freedom Highway. It’s classic folk, nothing which would sound too out of place in a Civil War documentary. And yet it is wholly unique: many songs within Freedom Highway were written by Giddens herself, based on historical artefacts and anecdotes. As such, Giddens had the knowledge to tell stories from voices which have often been buried and silenced. Quite a lot of the 19th century folk songs which are popular today were written by white men. Even songs which were purportedly from the viewpoint of enslaved Black people, such as “Kingdom Coming”, were written as crude racist caricatures by white musicians. There are certainly a number of Black songs from the era which remain popular, but very few folk songs tell the stories of Black women, a problem which Gidden tackles in her album.
“At the Purchaser’s Option”, inspired by a heartbreaking clipping from an antebellum newspaper, is from the point of view of a young enslaved woman who is desperate to ensure that she is not separated from her baby if she is to be sold. “Julie” destroys the racist myth of the enslaved Black woman who lives only to serve her white mistress. “Come Love Come” tells the story of a woman who was born into slavery but lived to see the 13th Amendment passed. “Following the North Star” is an instrumental variation on “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, once sung by enslaved people to describe the path to freedom.
There are books on the experiences of Black women during the antebellum era, and after the Civil War had ended. I own some of these books, and the stories told are heartbreaking. But Giddens adds a different dimension to them, breathes audible life into the women in these stories. That is history retold in a truly accessible way.
Images of the disturbing clipping which gave “At the Purchaser’s Option” its title are easy to dig up. The emotions of the woman this horrifying for-sale ad references are never spared a thought: she is framed as an object, a passive and intangible piece of history.
Image Description: Gruesome advert for an enslaved Black woman – the inspiration for Giddens’ song.
But Rhiannon Giddens refuses to let this unnamed woman stay in the background of her own tragedy. Giddens’ lyrics are fierce. She gives this woman the voice she was denied in life, breaks the silence enforced on her and millions of other Black women who suffered separations and heartbreaks from the cruelties of slavery. The person she paints, the determined mother who will fight to protect her child, reminds us that as historians we cannot dispassionately view old newspaper ads and diary entries as mere relics. They are lives: entire existences compressed into snippets of paper.
I made my mother listen to Giddens’ album. She’s a first-generation Indian immigrant with little more than a passing interest in history, but she stopped what she was doing and listened intently to the lyrics of “At the Purchaser’s Option”. She may not have seen the ad which inspired it. She may not have read from my collection of history books. But she is a mother, and she felt the core emotions of this song, of its narrator – exactly the way Giddens intended.
Thank you, Rhiannon Giddens, for your incredible work. Thank you, Professor B, for opening my eyes to a new way of viewing history. I hope more teachers follow in your footsteps. Perhaps if we are taught from the beginning to see history as the story of people who share our own feelings and desires, rather than a distant and impersonal set of artefacts, we would be less likely to replay its darkest periods.