Rhiannon Giddens is a folk singer in the truest sense of the world: she spins yarns to music about ordinary American folk, tracing a lineage of suffering for her people that stretches right back to when they were slaves forcibly brought over to the United States. On 2017’s Freedom Highway she did exactly this and more, her voice flying across oceans and all of time to seek the answers about the terrible historical repression of familial soaring black spirits.
On the latest album from this prolific artist, who has already released a collaborative project called Our Native Daughters this year, she teams up with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi to sing more songs about human suffering that sound like they were supposed to be sung around a campfire with a banjo or acoustic guitar. They also sound like they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and some of them have: hello again, “Wayfaring Stranger”, a folk classic that it’s surprising Giddens hasn’t tackled before.
Giddens is a firm traditionalist, and the music here contains few instrumental touches that couldn’t have been played centuries ago. Francesco Turrisi’s jazz background has little bearing on any of the songs. He bows down to Giddens as the album’s auteur, even on instrumentals such as the title track, which is a simple folk dance with a recognisable and unchangeable chord sequence – far removed from the unpredictability of jazz. He augments the primacy of her vocals everywhere else with touches that sometimes might set off your gag reflex, as on the faux-spiritual piano of “Trees on the Mountain”, but elsewhere captures your attention and fires up the imagination, as on the ominous booming Arabic drum of “Brown Baby”.
To folk aficionados, every track will be a welcome respite from the onward march of modern music, a haven of traditional instruments and campfire singing. Even to those who are not aficionados, such as I, it might be a welcome break. We can’t just listen to rap, rock and electro-pop every day.
Yet there is something a little off-putting about this album to outsiders such as I, and it’s the very thing, I read, that folk aficionados most admire about it: Rhiannon Giddens’ voice. Certainly “strong” in a simplistic sense, in that it’s loud and never wavers out of tune, its weakness is in failing to avoid a common pitfall of folk music that is alienating to those of us brought up on the insouciance of rock: a suffocating self-seriousness.
Giddens is so keen to emit suffering that she unveils little else in her litany of ordinary folk’s travails, at least not through her voice. The wide world of human emotions and experiences is shut out by her solemn tones – just check out Harry Smith’s justifiably famous Anthology of American Folk Music for countless examples of how to do singing right on songs such as these, with suffering never completely shut out, but with humour, resilience, defiance, and giddiness often shining through regardless.
Only on “I’m on My Way” does Giddens conquer her solemnity and offer something else up for our inspection: confidence and optimism creep past her natural pessimism, and bring drama to the growls and swoops of her voice. It’s a decent argument for what she could do to conquer the minds of folk skeptics, if she only chose to buckle down and think a little deeper about how to bring the material she chooses to cover to life.
Unfortunately, she follows that song and closes the album with a hideous gospel number called “He Will See You Through”, which her pained sincerity and Turrisi’s viola and piano runs turn into a treacly mess. In the year when the film of Aretha’s Amazing Grace was finally released, it makes a sad point of comparison, a reminder that not all delving into American roots music delivers gold.
Rhiannon Giddens is a figure whom it’s easy to root for, an African-American deliberately seeking to bring the “African” back into American folk music. What’s more, she wants to tell us that there is no Other in a world where we consistently and depressingly find the opposite is true: in every political crisis, there’s always an Other who gets shunted and blamed. She’s unlikely to win over skeptics with there is no Other but it’s impossible not to wish her to keep trying.