Interview: Grammy Winning Artist Rhiannon Giddens Coming to Newport Folk and Jazz Festival

Next weekend, Rhiannon Giddens joins a select group of musicians who have played both the Newport Folk and Newport Jazz Festival in the same year. She follows Norah Jones who accomplished the feat last year, and bandleader Jon Batiste who played both events in 2015.

Rhiannon Giddens Plays Newport Folk Sunday (Photo: John Peets)

Needless to say, she’s excited about appearing. “It’s pretty cool, that’s nice company to be in,” remarked Giddens in a WhatsUpNewp interview last week. The singer and multi-instrumentalist, a 2010 Grammy winner with her former band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is an exceptional artist, and a favorite of Festival Producer George Wein.

“Jazz, folk, blues, rap, funk, soul or country – all of them are part of her repertoire. Not only that, but she has a pure quality to her voice, secure pitch, she swings, with good taste, clear lyrical interpretation and above all, a word I don’t usually use: the “class” of a great artist,” Wein declared.

Giddens is a North Carolina native, a banjo extraordinaire, and classically trained vocalist. She co-formed the celebrated roots band Carolina Chocolate Drops with Dom Flemons in 2005. The group disbanded in 2013 and Giddens released her first solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, in 2015.

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She’s also contributed to the T-Bone Burnett produced Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes and recently appeared on Folk Songs, along with the Kronos Quartet. She’s been recognized with numerous awards for her music and has branched out into acting with a recurring role of CMT’s Nashville.

 Folk and Jazz

While some might see them as two distinct events, Giddens appreciates the deep connection between the Festivals. “We play the roots of American music, so it should fit anywhere. We might play a jazz tunes from the 20’s next to a blues tune from the 30’s next to a gospel tune from the 50’s – it all works together,” remarked the singer.

Although the pairing might seem unlikely, she’s currently on tour opening for country legends Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. “We’re playing the stuff that we always play, and it connects. It’s validating about American music and people in general. If they feel ‘that thing,’ they feel ‘that thing,’ and it doesn’t matter what genre it is. We’re in a position to explore that in a way that’s kind of unique.”

Following a recent show with McGraw and Hill, Gidden’s joked, “the response was really great, we’re not getting beer cans thrown at us or anything.”

Freedom Highway

Giddens arrives in Newport with a critically praised new album, Freedom Highway, where she tells stories of the African American experience. Several songs are inspired by the Slave Narratives, memories of former slaves recorded by the Library of Congress in the 1930’s.

She noted “During slavery, there wasn’t narrative balladry going on, because people couldn’t write those songs, or they could be killed. The album is kind of an imaginative exercise – what if they could have written it down?’

“At the Purchasers Option,” is a good example. It’s a song that explores of the devastating reality of how slavery destroyed families. The lyrics were inspired by a slave sale poster advertising a woman for sale, along with her 9-month-old child offered “at the purchasers option.” The lyrics are assertive and powerful:

“I’ve got a babe but shall I keep him/’Twill come the day when I’ll be weepin’

But how can I love him any less/This little babe upon my breast

You can take my body/You can take my bones

You can take my blood/But not my soul”

Another song you might hear is “Better Get It Right the First Time.” Giddens wrote it after working on a Carnegie Foundation program that brought musicians to New York’s Sing-Sing prison.

“I was struck by the number of people of color there and was thinking about the whole injustice of the system. I began thinking about my teenage nephew who is Black and what could happen to him if he was in a situation out of his control.” That nephew, Justin Harrington, appears on the jazzy tune, rapping about the issue of police brutality and the all too frequent killing of unarmed African American youth.

Powerful Themes

Giddens’ songs are intense – they stir emotions. She sings a stunning version of the Joan Baez classic, “Birmingham Sunday,” with its moving lyrics about the four girls killed in the 1963 Church bombing in Alabama.

Giddens’ protest style is not preachy, “I don’t talk to the audience, I relay stories. I try to be a conduit to let the voices be heard that don’t usually get heard. That’s an important part of protest music that gets forgotten sometimes.”

“You’re not up there to show everyone how sad you are, you’re up there to deliver a message. You have to walk the line of being that emotional bridge for people without getting in the way yourself. It’s a heavy set that we do with subjects like slavery and police brutality – it’s important to remember why you’re there.”

Ultimately, her music celebrates the resilient nature of the human spirit. Check out her video of “At The Purchaser’s Option” below to see what we mean.

Show Details

Giddens is scheduled to perform three times between the two Festivals. Sunday July 30th, she’ll be playing the Fort Stage at the sold out Folk Festival.  Tickets are still available for both Jazz Festival performances – Friday evening August 4th at the Tennis Hall of Fame and Saturday August 5th at Fort Adams. Details on the Newport Jazz Festival presented by Natixis Global Asset Management here.