The Diana Wortham Theater is a 500-seat venue situated in the heart of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. It shares a building with the Asheville Art Museum and, if you walk out the front door and across the street, you’ll find yourself in Pack Square — a city park intended for large gatherings. Pack Square is where you go to join the Moral Monday Movement or to see presidential candidates speak. It’s where folks who support the sizable local LGBT community gather to celebrate marriage equality or protest House Bill 2. It’s where picketers stand on the edge of the street, asking drivers to honk for world peace or to drive out hunger or to close the US prison at Guantanamo Bay.
It makes sense that this juxtaposition of art and music and the public square is so closely tied in Asheville, since it could be said that — aside from the beautiful Blue Ridge vistas visible from almost anywhere in town — those are the core values of this city. Thus, it also makes sense that the Diana Wortham Theater is where quasi-local singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens held court last night, for a sold-out 90-minute set in front of an in-her-pocket crowd of music fans.
Giddens strode onstage in her bare feet, flanked by her freakishly gifted five-member band. Backup singers — including fellow Greensboro singer-songwriter Laurelyn Dosset — sat in for the occasion, buoying Gidden’s already extraordinary vocals. With a banjo strapped on, Giddens started the night with Bob Dylan’s “Spanish Mary,” before unleashing a number of selections from her 2015 release Tomorrow Is My Turn and some newer originals she said she’s about to record for its follow-up.
Multi-instrumentalist and fellow Carolina Chocolate Drop Hubbie Jenkins delivered his exquisite support on guitar, banjo, and mandolin, and sung a spirited, almost punk-like version of the old gospel tune “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Cellist Matt Smith stole the spotlight on countless instrumental solos, but his most stunning turn was during a break in Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” — a tune Giddens delivered as easily as if she’d written it herself, with a hand on her hip and a wry grin. As only the second song, it seemed she and the band were setting an impossibly high bar so early in the set, but that bar just kept getting higher.
Giddens gets plenty of credit for her powerful voice. She’s opera-trained at Oberlin, after all. But there’s much more to her talent than just a stunning ability to evolve a note. Her fiddle chops are tight too, as displayed on a medley of Canadian fiddle tunes, and the way she magically metamorphoses instrumental sections from Blu Cantrell’s pop tune “Hit ‘Em Up Style” into Appalachian old-time dance breaks. Further, the back-and-forth duelling and in-sync counterpoint between her fiddle and Smith’s cello could have carried the whole show.
Of course, it’s one thing to have mad music skills; it’s another to be able to school a crowd on the origins of the music, the reasons to revive tunes from under-celebrated artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Libba Cotten, and Ethel Waters. Giddens has a knack for telling the stories without making you feel like anything’s being shoved down your throat. Part of it is her willingness to admit some of the stories are as uncomfortable for her as they are for the audience, and part of it is her empathic nature as an artist. There are few performers these days who can address the legacy of slavery in this country, the affects of cultural appropriation, the underdiscussed Africanness of the banjo, the imperativeness of surmounting present-day injustices like persistent racism and LGBT discrimination, with such candor and honesty. Perhaps it’s because she sees all these things as connected, as part of the long tradition of American culture, in which the music has played an important role. Indeed, how the music is inextricably connected to these parts of our culture.
During one part of the show, for example, she introduced her rendition of Ethel Waters’ interpretation of “Underneath the Harlem Moon” as an outgrowth of an incredibly racist trend in early 20th-century entertainment. During another part of the show, she addressed a current trend in entertainment, where musicians are cancelling appearances in North Carolina because of House Bill 2 — a recent law that has rolled back civil rights policies statewide in the interest of discriminating against LGBT — and especially trans* — people. Employing the same tone of empathy with which she discussed Waters’ decision to change the lyrics of an overtly racist (but oh-so-catchy) song, Giddens discussed her decision to encourage the State of North Carolina to change its hurtful law.
Indeed, there’s a long tradition in folk music of paralleling our human impulse to change culture and society, with our human impulse to make art. More than a half-century ago, Zilphia Horton taught change-makers about self- and community-empowerment by teaching them about the songs indigenous to their culture. She taught them that just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it’s set in stone. Owning tradition means shaping it so that it can adapt to an ever-changing world, and she taught people how to do that by teaching them folk songs. Giddens may or may not be familiar with Horton’s work, but her approach to the music certainly follows that precedent.
As she introduced her banjo to the audience, she talked about how she’s been educating herself on the cultural context from which it was developed. Hers is a replica of an antebellum-era banjo, and as she told us about its music-making, she explained the context in which it existed. That brought her to a newspaper advertisement she found from the 1850s, where a man was placing a young black woman for sale. Seeing slavery distilled down to such frank, inhuman terms — selling a woman the way one might today sell a couch — was arresting enough, she said. But it was the final statement of the advertisement which stopped her short. The line that was tacked on, as a sort of afterthought, said that the woman came with a nine-month-old baby, also available “at the purchaser’s option.” The song she wrote after seeing this ad, “At the Purchaser’s Option” — a heartbreaking, urgent tune — will be recorded for her next album. While Giddens started her career reviving and re-imagining folk songs, she proved this night that she’s just as astute at creating new ones.
The night ended with her stunning delivery of Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head,” a gospel song that circles around a belief in heaven. But, a tangential message in its lyrics is about the fact that salvation can come within in the context of music (“Up above my head / I hear music in the air / I really do believe there’s a heaven somewhere”). With that out of the way, she and her backup singers circled around one mic and delivered a stunning turn on the old civil rights hymn, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” True to the folk process, Giddens adhered to the traditional melody and the core of the song, but adjusted the lyrics to say “We’re gonna keep on voting / gonna build a better world.”
The audience was on its feet, singing and clapping along. “People tell me I’m preaching to the choir,” she’d said earlier. “And I say, someone’s got to.”