Rhiannon Giddens has the kind of talent that can only be described as a gift from God, and the courage of her beliefs that is a gift from deep within. Others will grace many stages this week during the World of Bluegrass, but that musical genre now shares its greatest new star with the world. Giddens has played both the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals, and she’s played with symphonies around the world, including the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh.
Giddens, 40 years old and a native of Greensboro, plays banjo and other instruments and sings, and though bluegrass claims her this week, she’s hard to categorize. The breadth and depth of her talent and her character were captured earlier this week by colleague David Menconi in a masterful profile.
She’d take this as a high honor, one would hope, but in some ways Giddens calls to mind, in terms of her musical gifts and her social conscience, another banjo player from North Carolina – the late, incomparable Earl Scruggs. For she is not the first bluegrass artist to become active in social issues. Scruggs was a country boy to his core, from a small community in Cleveland County, and he was a man of few words, rarely given to long, soul-searching interviews. But thanks to my grandmother having been his favorite teacher, I spent an afternoon with him on the porch of his brother’s house when he came home to visit once. He was a most decent fellow, wanting to tell me about the grandmother I never knew as well as play some music.
It wasn’t until later that I came across a surprise: Scruggs had played shows with Joan Baez, the folk singer and social activist, and he had voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War. His view was apparently the product of having friends of all views, and of having three sons. It also was a view perhaps not in the majority in the usually conservative world of country music. But Scruggs didn’t just play music at a protest rally; he gave a brief, reluctant interview and made his convictions clear. What protected him in Nashville was his stature as a musician for the ages and his reputation for integrity. It was Earl. It was OK.
In Giddens’ case, she made her own convictions clear when, at a recent concert, she and her band took a knee onstage to show solidarity with professional football players doing the same to protest racial discrimination in the United States – a protest that originated with one player protesting police treatment of minorities. President Trump has managed to ramp up attention for the protests with bombastic tweets against the players.
Giddens’ views also are in her music, and she’s reading history on the racial divide: “When you understand how deep this is and how long it’s gone on and how deeply it’s woven into the fabric of the U.S., it’s not a surprise now. These are desperate times, my friend.”
Giddens may not have known it, but she had another brother in social conscience in the late Johnny Cash, who prided himself on standing for the oppressed and who, like Giddens, bridged many forms of music. (And played with Earl Scruggs and Joan Baez.)
So her activism is not singular, not unique. But it is brave, in a time when a president flails at all those who dare to speak views different from his own, and who seems to have a particular disrespect for those who stand for the rights of the poor and minorities. Or, for anyone who stands somewhere he does not dare to stand.
Brave, yes. It seems the right word for a woman who might have traveled the world making music and basking in fame and retreating to her home and family in Limerick, Ireland, to enjoy the rewards of a big, big career. But Rhiannon Giddens does not retreat, choosing to make whatever corner of the world she’s in at a given time to know itself – glories and flaws – a little better.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at firstname.lastname@example.org