Rhiannon Giddens and Ben Harper on Collaboration and Common Ground
Ben Harper (photo courtesy of the artist) and Rhiannon Giddens (photo by Ebru Yildiz)
Rhiannon Giddens and Ben Harper had heard about each other for years, but they hadn’t met until they found themselves in the same room for a Grammy Museum event last year.
Harper heard Giddens perform with her partner Francesco Turrisi at the event, and when they chatted afterward they both knew they’d each found a kindred spirit.
A few months later, Harper sent Giddens a recording of Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog” he’d been working on and asked her to add instruments and harmonies. The result is a meditative, haunting interpretation that sets an ominous mood with Harper’s lap steel and Giddens on banjo and viola, their harmonies adding depth to the trance-like arrangement.
In a phone conversation last week across eight time zones, Giddens and Harper spoke about their “Black Eyed Dog” collaboration and the common ground they’ve found in music, including an early boost each got from blues icon Taj Mahal. Hear the song below, followed by their conversation, which has been edited for length.
BEN HARPER: My family has a music store, it’s called the Folk Music Center. It’s been in my family for going on 65 years in Claremont, California. It’s a certified museum. One of the most important people to ever walk through those doors is Taj Mahal. He’s known me since I was child, 5. He knew my parents before I was born. Taj took me on tour in my early 20s. So if it weren’t for Taj, I probably wouldn’t be on the phone with you guys right now.
And Taj is of course not only one of the greatest artists to ever live, in my humble opinion, but he is a purveyor of Black folk music and blues. He’s a music historian, and an ethnomusicologist in his own right, and it’s always been vital to Taj Mahal to carry on the lineage of Black folk and blues. And I’ll never forget Taj calling me up about the [Carolina] Chocolate Drops. It was the late aughts, and Taj was just raving. And there wasn’t really even links then, but he said, go buy it now. And I went and got it and was as blown away as him. And I just remember having an hourlong conversation about your early group. And so that was my introduction.
RHIANNON GIDDENS: It’s so funny you say that about Taj, because I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you either, if it wasn’t for Taj Mahal.
BH: Oh, come on!
RG: Taj knows what’s up, right? He was one of the main supporters of [the Carolina Chocolate Drops]. We also went on tour with him for five dates. And it was our first time we’d ever opened for anybody, that we’d ever seen how a real tour works.
BH: That is wildly cool.
RG: It’s so amazing to hear that, because then you kind of realize how important — I mean, I knew how important he was, but it’s just that that’s the way we have to support each other, you know? I try to do the same thing. You know, there’s a whole bunch of young’uns, Black people playing banjos and fiddles and stuff, and I’m just like, y’all! Where were y’all and I was 26? But we have to pass that on.
BH: It’s a great reminder. I need to always remember to make that paramount, yeah.
After they met at the Grammy Museum event last year, Giddens and Harper stayed in touch and made good on plans they’d made to record something together. Harper sent Giddens a version of “Black Eyed Dog” that he’d been working on, and that had been shaped by hearing Giddens at that Grammy event.
BH: Something clicked when I saw you guys, and it moved me to record the song in a way that I had never thought of. I’d tried to do it on bottleneck, and I’d tried to do it on six-string banjo, and the regular flat-top, open tuning, and nothing was working. But then I gave it a shot on lap steel, having been inspired by you guys’ show. And it just kind of played itself for the first time, after having attempted to cover it over the course of 20 years, off and on.
I was going to go into a proper studio to do it, but I thought, you know, I have an old ’50s ribbon mic, and I thought, “What would have been the process of recording this back in the day?” So I just put one mic up, played it, and sent it off, just to say, “Hey, check this out.” I don’t even remember what I said in the email, but I just sent it over, following the spirit. And I’ll tell you, when I got it back, I my jaw hit the floor with what you did. I mean, this is the first time we’re talking about it in person. So yeah.
RG: It’s so amazing because to hear you say that because there was such a pocket for me in that song, you know? It wasn’t hard, if you know what I mean. Whatever you were doing with the rhythm, it was so easy for me to just kind of slide in there, it wasn’t an effort. It just flowed out, you know? It was very spare, what you sent. It was so funny. I remember sitting there going, “I don’t know what he wants,” so I’m just gonna let it flow. And you know, the banjo, it doesn’t always fit in with stuff …
BH: There’s not a fret to be found on that track.
RG: No, there’s not, that’s right!
BH: Which I love. Lap steel, viola, fretless banjo. I mean, what? [They laugh.]
Giddens was touring in Australia and Harper was in New Zealand when the coronavirus started canceling shows and shutting down travel. They made it back home — Giddens to her family in Ireland and Harper to his in California — and have been hunkered down since, finding ways to make the most of some rare time at home.
RG: It’s been an emotional roller coaster. And being away from home [in the United States] has been hard, especially because of the cultural moment happening and worrying for my family, worried for a lot of stuff, and having the kids 24/7 because there’s no school — it’s just not conducive to a normal sort of moving through grief. And being so far away is weird. But I’m starting to create now, it’s taken me a long time. I mean, I’ve been doing a lot of work, but it’s all like, “make this video,” and “do that and this and that.” But look, people are in dire straits all over the world, like unbelievably dire, even beyond dying. It’s like, I can’t even, so the end of my little speech is that I’m fine.
BH: Yeah, I mirror that. I’ve got nothing and everything to complain about, you know? So I’ll choose nothing over everything. Cause my everything pales in comparison to complaints that run a lot deeper. I will say, I do feel sometimes like I’m running in place. I feel like now that I have to absolutely sit still for the first time in my adult life, I suddenly can’t catch up with everything I have to do, it’s odd. I’m sitting still, but I can’t catch up.
I think probably because I’m cleaning up half the time; when no one’s leaving the house, things pile up and build up in a way that they don’t usually. And I have to really work and carve out the time to do anything I want to do other than being a husband, being a dad, being a housekeeper, being a gardener. There’s no playbook as to how to go about this in a functional, cohesive way. It’s on-the-job training here and I’m trying to help as many people as I can and not lose sight of the fact that I’ve got to help myself.
RG: I think the balance that has to be struck is realizing that on the grand scheme of things, we are unbelievably lucky to be safe and all of these things. Within that though, it’s okay for us to acknowledge that things can be hard. My kids are going, ‘Mom, why are you crying?’ Because I look at these protests and the cop killings and all this kind of stuff and trying to figure out how to process that on my own with children here with me all the time. And being in Ireland where they don’t understand what I’m going through, you know? That was hard. You can deny yourself that acknowledgement of, “Dang, that was not the easiest thing in the world,’ and then that’s not healthy either. I have to tell myself that.
BH: I mean, 2020 is a motherfucker on a lot of levels. 2020 is the year of the black-eyed dog, I’m going to tell you right now, song or no song, it just feels like it.
RG: And John Lewis? I’m just kind of like, really? But this is the tempering time. You cannot be tempered if the fire ain’t hot, right? So we have a choice of how we respond to it. And that’s where the positivity for me is, that’s where the hope is. Can we actually forge something new out of all this chaos and this loss that could be a healing thing, you know? And that’s where I think the arts come in, and I think that’s where we are, we have to keep creating. We have to keep figuring out how we can contribute to the conversation. Which means we do have to figure out how we can work in this. How do we carve out time at home where all of a sudden your office is on the kitchen table and the instruments, you can’t leave them out because your toddler might knock them over or whatever. All of our fears are combined, but we are needed. So we gotta figure it out.
Roots musicians pull from history and tradition to make new music that often speaks to the present times, and as Black roots musicians, Giddens and Harper have a lot to say in this moment, just as they have throughout their careers. Their conversation turned to the rich history of Black musicians, a history that often gets glossed over or flat-out ignored.
RG: As a culture in America, we are ignorant of our music. It’s not taught correctly. It’s not taught at all. You go to a music school, you learn dead white European composer music, which, don’t get me wrong. I did it, I love Mozart, but you don’t learn about American music. And so if you’re a musician, you get it however you can, and people learn the music without necessarily learning the context that those songs came out of. And people listen to it without knowing the context. And the context is everything because it is what makes us American.
The ignorance is so deep on it. I had it, I still have it because there’s so much I don’t know. But I had even more when I started playing with Joe Thompson in my mid-20s, and when we started the Chocolate Drops, that was the beginning of my journey of, “Oh, all this shit they told us was totally wrong.” And then my realization of why they told us that stuff was the second half of it, of going, ‘Oh, it’s not enough to know that we don’t know this thing, like that the banjo’s an African-derived instrument. We also have to know why we don’t know that, because it’s not by chance. And that’s a long conversation.
BH: Yeah, and that’s as much about the history they want you to know, or don’t want you to know.
RG: Yeah, well see, that’s the thing. The narrative of American music has been shaped, and it has been falsified. I mean, it’s just the truth. And so we’re all coming to it with really big blind sides. And I just think that’s one of the reasons why it’s really important to talk about it. But it’s like you say, where do you start?
BH: If you’re not going to honestly talk about slavery, you’re not going to honestly talk about the musical transformation that came over along with it.
RG: And then there’s the whole time period from emancipation to, say, the 1920s. That’s a time period no one talks about in American culture in terms of where the music comes from, but that is where everything comes from.
When you think about emancipation, the end of the Civil War, and suddenly this huge cast of musicians is free to move, and is free to earn for themselves, which before there was this huge cast of enslaved Black stringband musicians all over the South, playing all the music, you know, in all the styles. And then you have freedom, and before the Great Migration, they are everywhere.
So you get to the ’20s, you got the Great Migration, you got the recording industry splitting stuff up into hillbilly and race records. And then you have white supremacists trying to create a false white narrative of ethnic music. Like it’s a square dance and the fiddle, basically claiming all of that for white America and erasing Black [creation].
BH: And then you throw in the silent pictures, blackface, the commercialization of what that sound not only sounds like but looks like. And as history has proven, the commercialization of all things roots in American can be really damaging.
RG: It is. And it’s like you say, if you can’t talk about slavery, you can’t talk about music history. If you can’t talk about minstrelsy, you also can’t talk about it because that drove so much, and that was America’s entertainment for like 50 years. And it was the first American music coming out to the rest of the world. When the Virginia Minstrels went over to London, they were like, “So this is what they’re doing in America.” You know, people in blackface.
Twenty years later, the Fisk Jubilee Singers were the first actual Black people to travel to the UK and play concerts. They were trying to save Fisk University, so they went on these tours, and there were actual critics in the audience going, “Well, this doesn’t sound like actual Black music” [laughs], comparing it to minstrelsy! Minstrelsy itself is a combination of actual African American authentic motives and European altering of that. And the Fisk Jubilee Singers is also a combination of African American [music], but they were taught by a white chorus master. So it’s all a mix, but we don’t want to talk about that. It’s far easier for us to go, “Okay, the blues is Black, bluegrass is white,” but that’s not true. Neither one of those is true.
BH: This is all not only vital, but this is what it’s about. And to bring it full circle, to “Black Eyed Dog,” it’s an exciting prospect because blues was such a prominent and powerful export from America to England at a particular time, I find it exciting to bring “Black Eyed Dog” back from England to America by way of two African Americans. We brought it the other way, so that’s fun. That’s important to me to note.
RG: I think that’s an excellent point. I really agree. That needs to happen more, I think.
BH: I guess anytime a Black band covers a Led Zeppelin song, it happens, but that doesn’t happen often either! [Laughs.] I mean, it’s a rarity and I’m with you. Let’s lead the charge or be a part of the charge being full on.
RG: It’s so funny because over the years, I’ve gotten asked more than a few times, “So have you ever done anything with Ben Harper?”
BH: As have I!
RG: But you know, that’s actually a good thing. For one thing, it happens when it needs to happen, you know, when it’s the right time. And for another thing, it’s not like we only got to work with each other. [Laughs.]
BH: That’s right. They would never think of comparing you to Dock Boggs, right? Or Flatt and Scruggs. It’s a bit lazy, but at the same time, it also makes exact perfect sense. And it’s a wonder it took ’til now to happen.
RG: Exactly. Both of those things exist in the same universe.
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