Rhiannon Gidden on the Banjo’s Black Legacy, Explored in Wondrium Show

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There could probably be no better evangelist for anything than the immensely respected Rhiannon Giddens, and the banjo is lucky to have her. The singer and multi-instrumentalist has been spreading the gospel of that instrument generally and its roots in Black culture specifically for years, in her live performances and as a member of a banjo-driven all-star ensemble, Our Native Daughters. Now, she’s taking a much deeper dive than ever with an outstanding 10-part limited series, “The Banjo: Music, History and Heritage With Rhiannon Giddens,” which has her and some guests who are pickers and/or academics exploring the twisted, fascinating journey of what she considers the quintessential American instrument. The series covers everything from the instrument’s roots in the African diaspora to its role in slavery to its adaptation as a staple of “hillbilly” music, on up to its resurgence as a staple of the Americana music scene today — and how, in Giddens’ view, it has been a reflection of divisiveness and unification in the U.S. over a period of centuries.

On top of all that cultural significance, it doesn’t hurt that a lot of banjo-driven music has a good beat and you can dance to it, if Dick Clark standards can be applied to something that feels so ancient and earthy and lofty at the same time. The subject — and Giddens’ endless devotion to it — makes the 10-parter an ideal fit for Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses Plus), the streaming educational content platform. The series can be viewed with a free trial here. (The first episode is also embedded, below.)

Variety spoke with Giddens about her personal history with the banjo, a generation of Black performers that is re-embracing it and, briefly but not incidentally, the typically busy year that she has ahead.

You’ve done things outside of music-making before that fall on the educational side — podcasting, a children’s book, an Audible short audiobook. But this banjo project is a deeper dive — four or five hours of original content. How did you got involved with Atrium for this?

They came to me at a time that I was just starting to think about: What can I do that doesn’t need me to be on stage, or that then lives without me? How can I reach people without having to travel there? Because I can only reach so many people per show. I’m never gonna be Beyonce. I have a limited reach. It’s a good reach; it’s a good career. But in terms of trying to put this message out there… When we started talking about what it might look like, it was “This is a story about the banjo,” but not “In 18-whatever, it became a hoop instrument, and then…” Not a history of the banjo, but something that turns out into a cultural history of the banjo.

There may be a significant part of your audience that knows some of your basic premise and won’t be completely surprised by the premise. But many won’t have a clue about it — and you admit in the first episode that even you had an idea of the banjo as a hillbilly instrument, to a point in your life. So what do you think the first takeaway is that will surprise most people who haven’t explored the subject before?

Well, I always have to start here… and I’m still surprised — I don’t know why — that it’s still such an unknown thing… that Black people invented the banjo! If that’s your only takeaway, I’ve done something. But if you weren’t lucky enough to know somebody who knew the real story, why would you know that? I didn’t know that, until I was an adult. And that shifts your whole view of what we’ve been told about American music. If the very foundation of what we’ve been told is as wrong as it is, what does that mean for everything that’s built on top of it?

So I just want people to walk away questioning simple narratives that they’ve been told. I often say, if it’s a simple narrative, it’s probably wrong. Because life isn’t simple. History isn’t simple — especially American history, which is super complicated because of the way that America came to be and the amounts of different cultures that mixed and mingled, and the economic juggernaut that was slavery. The banjo is existing in this world. And I guess what I want people to understand is that you can’t talk about the banjo without talking about slavery. You have to talk about slavery, you have to talk about minstrelsy, you have to talk about the segregation of American music. Those are the three main points. And if you’re not talking about those things when you talk about the banjo, then you’re just serving a simplified narrative that’s actually doing us harm, because it’s not just simplified, it’s actually false. It’s just actually lies. [Laughs.] Which is amazing to me, how deeply rooted they are, and how powerful they are. As soon as somebody like Beyonce picks up the banjo and starts talking about the history, we’re good. But until then, I’m trying to take every opportunity that I’m given to tell the story.

At some point in the series you make a point that this is an inclusionary story, not an exclusionary one. So there’s a lot of education to be done about where it came from, but it doesn’t mean anyone’s trying to guilt white people into not playing the banjo because Blacks invented it. The different episodes go into all the ways in which the banjo has been used, like a chapter on the Irish use of the banjo, or toward the end getting into contemporary usage by groups that are actually pretty popular that have brought the banjo back after a long time of those “Deliverance” and “Beverly Hillbillies” associations. It’s very encompassing and feels like you want to celebrate all the things that the instrument has been through over the years.

Yeah. We’re in a very divisive… well, we’ve always been a divisive culture. It just was covered over for a while, and now it’s not anymore. But when you look at history, there’s always been these efforts to divide and conquer. You divide the poor working-class whites from the poor working-class Blacks so that the poor working-class whites think that they have a leg up — and so they vote against their own interests, to vote against Black people, because they’ve been told that that’s the only way that they can climb the ladder. I mean, this is very deeply rooted in how America works. And so the banjo is just a beautiful image of that, for good and for bad.

For bad, you look at how you take something that was rooted in Black culture, and that became a collaborative instrument, and then the narrative becomes: No, it’s actually a white instrument. Black people have nothing to do with it. That’s erasing hundreds of years of history, which is massive. This is not like, “Oh, well, they stopped playing it in 1655 and…” No, no, no, no, no. This is a really reductive and violent narrative. So when we restore the collaborative nature of where we end up with the banjo … You know, it’s got European technology in there. If you think about how the things that make the tension are most likely gotten from Italian or English tambourines… It is a Creole instrument. It’s an instrument of innovation and collaboration. Yet it has been used for blackface minstrelsy. It’s an “and/also” story; it’s not “Let’s take this away and replace it with this.” It’s like, OK, well, let’s look at what actually happened, so we can actually celebrate how we have this instrument. Because yes, it was born in this, but look at all of the countless thousands or millions of interactions between poor white people and poor Black people that created old-time music, that created string bands, that created how we think of the banjo now in jazz music…

For me, it’s ultimately a story of what is the best about America. We have to look at what is the worst about America to get there, though. Because we wouldn’t have the banjo without slavery. It wouldn’t still be popular without minstrelsy. These are just facts. If we’re not willing to look at that, then we’re gonna miss miss thinking about all those folks that traded licks or heard so-and-so down the street that went into our communal heritage as Americans. Whatever stripe you are, this is American history and it’s American music. So this is just a small, yet very exhaustive, attempt to add to that narrative. Because I think we are desperately in need of it today. People always ask me “Why the banjo?” It’s something that everybody recognizes, and we need to know all of the ways that we fought that division and fought that segregation by becoming co-creators of a national music.

Would you go so far as to say that this is the instrument that best tells the American story, or is most emblematic of it?

One hundred percent. That’s why I never cannot talk about the banjo. All roads lead to the banjo. [Laughs.] Because it is the only uniquely American instrument that is still in use. It obviously was born in the Caribbean, but it became what we know it as today in America. Really, those first commercial-type banjos were in Maryland.

Rhiannon Giddens films her Wondrium series

It literally represents so many narratives of things that are born in one culture and then covered up and made to serve a white supremacist narrative. There’s so much history that is like that. It’s really hard to say, no, that didn’t happen, because nobody was shy about this. People were very, very much like, “No, Black people aren’t allowed at our folk festival! Black people aren’t allowed at our village commission. Black people aren’t allowed to play old-time music for this recording…” I mean, the paper trail is there. We just need to know that, so that also Black people can feel like, “Hey, this is something I can engage in if I want. I’m not ashamed of this because it was only a minstrel thing.” Minstrelsy was a huge artery of the transfer of some of this music, but it wasn’t the only one, or even the most important one, in my opinion. It was a huge one, but you ignore all of those thousands of interactions between people who are living together in poverty and what they have as music.

And that’s really imprinted upon me thinking about Joe Thompson, who was my mentor and my link to this older style of music. He would learn from anybody and teach anybody. He knew what racism was; he’s not thinking we all live in a Pollyanna society. But when it came to music, he didn’t really see color in that way, in terms of he wouldn’t learn a song if it was from a white dude. He’d be like, “Yeah, I learned this from that white guy down the street. Like, who cares? It’s music.” And there was a lot more of that in not just the South but in early America than people really talk about.

Do you think there is at least a tiny movement of Black musicians rediscovering the banjo and wanting to claim their part in it? Or just liking the sound of it?

Oh, absolutely. And I’m proud to say that the Carolina Chocolate Drops [the Black string band she was a part of prior to her solo career] have played a big role in those musicians’ lives. I’ve heard them talk about them and we’re in their biographies. And I do see it now, like with Justin Robinson, who’s one of the original Chocolate Drops. It’s like this skipped a generation. We are kind of the elders in this movement, even though we’re really the middle generation. We’re not the young ones, but we’re really not the old ones yet. But the generation above us, they don’t really exist. You know, Taj Mahal is like my grandfather’s age, like Joe was my grandfather’s age. In that generation, there were kind of one or two folks doing it, but there was not a movement until we came along. And those folks who had held it up, like Taj, like the Ebony Hillbillies, like Earl White, who was a Black fiddler from the hippie era, were isolated folks. That wasn’t enough to be a movement.

Rhiannon Giddens performs onstage during Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon at Hollywood Pantages Theatre on April 06, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)
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So we are kind of now some sort of representation of that. And there’s tons of young people now. I mean, there’s the band Reclamation Project that’s out in California. There’s Jake Blount, who’s doing amazing things with the music. There’s Amythyst Kiah. I mean, Valerie June’s more my age, but she also plays the banjo. … You see these people coming into their own. There isn’t another Black string band, and that makes me sad. I’m not sure when that’ll happen again. … But there’s Tray Wellington, a Black bluegrass player who just released “Black Banjo.” It is exciting to see Alison Russell, who plays banjo, who’s a shooting star and playing with all sorts of people. So the image of Black people playing the banjo is becoming more and more out there now. For me, the important thing is that people realize that’s not folks sort of adopting a tradition that’s not their own. It’s people rediscovering a tradition that was always theirs as well.

Was there something that was particularly interesting to you about the sound of the banjo? Because as you say in the first episode, when you first gravitated toward it, it wasn’t because you had this great awareness of the history of it. You say that you yourself had the image of a white man in overalls with no shoes, picking and grinning, and yet you still gravitated toward it. And not everybody does. It’s an acquired taste for most people. You described first hearing it as that real tinny kind of exciting, trebly, very piercing sound…

But, I mean, that’s the modern banjo. I have a lot of people who say, “I didn’t like the banjo until I heard your banjo.” Because I’m playing the older-style banjo, which is a sound that you still don’t hear, you know? I represent a very, very tiny amount of people who play a replica banjo from the 1850s. That’s my axe — that’s what I play in all my shows. So that is also part of my advocacy… I don’t even play the modern banjo anymore. The low, hard sound of those older banjos, people are really attracted to that. I’ve never heard anybody say, “I don’t really like that sound.” And people don’t even know that I’m playing a historical replica. They don’t even know. They just think it’s some sort of new thing that I made up. That’s how old the sound is, is that it’s new again. I’d heard bluegrass banjo, and that never really did much for me. It didn’t make me sit up and go, “I wanna do that.” This was the old-time style, which is a little bit lower, a little bit funkier. It’s syncopated. Something about it that was exciting to me. It was like the fire was kindled with the sound, and then somebody just poured a whole big old can of gasoline on it when I learned the history. It started with the sound, and then the histories… that was it. I was a goner.

Do you favor the banjo or the fiddle at any point? In your personal preference, would you put one above the other?

They’re just different, and I do different things with them. If I had to pick one to save from the fire, I would probably save my banjo, because it has been such a vehicle for telling this history. And I can always get another fiddle, I suppose. I go back and forth between the two, but the banjo has become a really large part of who I am as a storyteller.

Singer Rhiannon Giddens performs onstage during AMERICANAFEST’s Pre-GRAMMY Salute to Willie Nelson at The Troubadour on January 25, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)
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Many of us may assume you have always been a serious player, if not a virtuoso, instrumentally. But in this series, you talk about how when you had your epiphany about the banjo at a dance,  you had really thought of yourself as a vocalist up to a point.

I still do. I don’t really think that I’m a particularly great instrumentalist. I know what I can do when I stick to it. I’m not a Béla Fleck or a Chris Thile. Those guys are virtuosos. I figured out stuff that really worked with who I am, and I’m like a good, basic, dance-band musician. Then I’ve used my instruments to write music, but yeah, I came to it in my twenties. I’m never gonna have the kind of facility that those guys have. I’m OK with that because that’s what I do with my voice. But it always amuses me when people list me as a banjo player first. I’m a better vocalist than anything else that I’ll ever do in my life. But the banjo has become such a huge part of me as a musician that I’m OK to lead with the banjo because that helps me tell my story. But I don’t really consider myself a fantastic (player). I get very stressed when I have to record instrumental parts. Very stressed!

You had a phenomenal 2022, including playing a show with the LA Philharmonic at Disney Concert Hall at the same time you had the opera you wrote, “Omar,” being performed at the LA Opera. Are there more operas in your future?

Oh my Lord. No, no, no, no, no. That one is probably … that’s my lifetime opera, I think. That’s five years off my life.

Anything else you can tell us about what’s coming up for you this year?

I do have a record coming later this year. I’m not sure how much I can talk about it. So it’ll be quite different. I can say that it’ll be quite different to anything I’ve put out so far. I think the first (taste) comes out in the next couple months, but they haven’t really told me exactly what I can and can’t say about it. And I have a new children’s book that’ll be in the fall. My first one came out last year, and I’ve got two more on contract. There were a couple of documentaries for BBC Radio that have come out. In the fall, I will be back on some series tours, and I’m working with Silkroad Ensemble. We have an ongoing project around the transcontinental railroad and the cultures that built it and were most affected by it — that’s a years-long project. But basically, I don’t really sit still. So now I’m gonna be shifting into record mode and sort of performing again, which I need to do. This stuff is hurting my brain. I’m so happy to talk about it, but I get a little burnt out sometimes, so I’ll be happy to sing and play again.

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