Erstwhile contributing editor Caroline Grego talks about recent-ish music that draws upon the history of the American South for this week’s post. Featured image courtesy Smithsonian Folkways.
Rhiannon Giddens, a classically trained, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter intent on re-centering the historical contributions of Black women to American music traditions, gave an interview to National Public Radio one year ago that made my historian’s heart happy. Giddens had just won a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and spoke with NPR about one of her current projects: a theatrical telling of the 1898 Wilmington riot, in which white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina conspired to overthrow the recently elected, multiracial coalition of city leaders. They killed between sixty to three hundred people, targeted Black homes and businesses, and ran the new government leaders out of town in an orchestrated coup d’état that ushered Jim Crow into the city. Giddens described the power of history: “When you look at something like, say the massacre of 1898, you understand what’s going on in North Carolina today. You understand the politics that are going on now.”
Given that many historians today are trying to figure out how best to reach people outside of the academy, I was pleased to hear Giddens refer to the labor of historians in helping her understand the legacies of the past in the present. And while her theatrical production of this landmark event in Southern history seems to be quite some time away yet, Giddens released the album Songs of Our Native Daughters a month ago, a collaboration with three other Black women musicians. Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell, and Leyla McCalla produced an album so imbued with the history of slavery, Jim Crow, sexual violence, and resistance that it even includes a bibliography of books by historians in the liner notes.
We rarely talk about music here on Erstwhile, though all of us editors frequently use music in the classroom, play instruments ourselves, or attend concerts with greater regularity than our graduate student wallets can really take. But Songs of Our Native Daughters inspired me to put together a list of albums released in the past few years that could be useful for historians not only in the classroom, but to think about how our work can inform the arts. Any of these albums could easily shape a class period, or could serve as the basis for a student assignment to investigate the history and cultural traditions that these artists unite in their music. To that end, almost every entry is linked to an interview with the musicians that help provide context and insight into the artists’ processes.
Admittedly, this list is slanted towards my own taste in music and politics: they’re all Southerners interested in exploring the South’s painful, fraught history and in emphasizing the diversity and injustice of its present. But this is also an open conversation. Leave a comment, retweet, or share with recent albums that you like to use in the classroom, or that you think bring history and music together effectively! And check out the Spotify playlist at the end to listen to select tracks from each of these albums.
- Songs of Our Native Daughters (2019), Our Native Daughters
It’s hard to say anything about this album, produced by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, that the remarkable musicians haven’t already said themselves in interviews and in essays. The detailed liner notes explain how Giddens, Kiah, Russell, and McCalla drew upon slave narratives, folk songs, and family histories and how they see this album as “part of a larger movement to reclaim the black female history of this country.” Read the liner notes, themselves a poignant, powerful essay on Black music and history, go take a look at their interviews, and above all, listen to their music. Below is a moving mini-documentary, “The Making of ‘Mama’s Cryin’ Long,'” a song from the album inspired by a slave narrative.
- Freedom Highway (2017), Rhiannon Giddens
Songs of Our Native Daughters pairs beautifully with Giddens’ album released just a year earlier, in which she uses similar source materials to Songs to draw attention to the history of race and racism in the United States. The banjo is the star instrument of Freedom Highway, a deliberate choice by Giddens. As she told NPR in 2018, “This instrument right here, born in Africa, but then made in America and then altered by white America, that’s the story of so much of our music.”
- Amythyst Kiah & Her Chest of Glass (2017), Amythyst Kiah
Kiah brought her throaty, rich howl to Songs, and in her own 2017 album, she reclaimed southern rock, bluegrass, and roots music for Black, queer women in Appalachia. The driving guitar, drums, and bass of this album speak to my love for dirty southern rock, but beyond sounding great blasted loud through speakers, this album could help shape a class session on the role of Depression-era blues in expressing the hardships of Jim Crow. While Kiah wrote most of the album’s songs, two tracks, “Trouble So Hard” and “Another Man Done Gone,” were first recorded by folklorist John Avery Lomax almost eighty years ago, sung by Vera Hall, a Black singer from Alabama. In an interview with The Bluegrass Situation, Kiah spoke about the significance of her music, which builds upon the work of earlier singers like Hall: “For me, being a queer woman of color in Appalachia, pulling from these different roots-based ideas and then making these connections with electric music and traditional acoustic music and bridging the gap there, as an Appalachian person, I feel like I can bring a perspective to a wider audience and hopefully inspire people that look like me or love like me.”
- Homecoming: The Live Album (2019), Beyoncé
I could easily have put Lemonade on this list, Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album in which she plays with a variety of genres, from reggae to country to trap to gospel. But I decided that the live recording of her 2018 performance headlining the Coachella Music Festival, released last week, would be a more up-to-date choice. This recording deserves a place on this list because of her use of a marching band and dancers from HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) across the U.S., which could undergird a course on those institutions’ long histories. For the Spotify playlist of selected tracks, I’ve chosen to feature “The Bzzzz Drumline,” in which the marching band borrows the horns from Beyoncé’s 2008 single “Ego” from the album I Am… Sasha Fierce before crescendoing into a strutting celebration that you imagine following a homecoming victory.
- MITH (2018), Lonnie Holley
Lonnie Holley’s life and career has been remarkable and strange, and so is his third album MITH. Born in 1960 as the seventh of twenty-six children, he says he was sold for a bottle of whiskey to a woman who worked in a traveling circus and later was forced to pick cotton in a miserable institution in Alabama for children who had been abandoned, abused, or taken from their families. He was better known as a visual artist and sculptor before making music, with pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and the American Folk Art Museum. MITH is more sonic than musical, a concept album that muscles through American history with lyrics that Holley often improvised or altered as he was being recorded. In “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship,” the album’s eighteen-minute long magnum opus, Holley imagines experiencing the Middle Passage and the cyclical nature of racism, violence, and labor stretching from the nation’s origins to the present. Below is the video for the song “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America,” which showcases both his music and his sculpture.
- Ranky Tanky (2017), Ranky Tanky
As a South Carolinian who studies South Carolina history, I had to include Ranky Tanky, a musical ensemble based in Charleston, South Carolina, that combines contemporary jazz with the traditional Gullah music of the Lowcountry. Today’s Gullah people are the descendants of enslaved Africans on the sea islands of the southeastern coast of the United States, who drew upon diverse West African, European, Muslim, and Caribbean traditions to form their own creole language and culture. The band Ranky Tanky derived its name from a Gullah phrase that essentially means “get funky,” and their titular album features their unique arrangements of Gullah songs and the gorgeous voice of Quiana Parler. Definitely check out this NPR interview to learn more about their influences and inspirations and the incredible live performance below of “Sink Em Low,” about racism in the criminal justice system.
- Kalenda (2017), Lost Bayou Ramblers
You’re most likely to recognize the Cajun band the Lost Bayou Ramblers from their work on the soundtrack of Beasts of the Southern Wild, the 2012 film that explores the trials and tribulations of a south Louisiana town, the Bathtub, through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a six-year-old girl. The Grammy-winning band’s latest album, Kalenda, even includes one of the film’s most recognizable tunes. But the band should also pique the interest of historians because of their dedication to singing almost entirely in Cajun French and in reviving and recording old standards of Cajun music.
- Lola (2016), Carrie Rodriguez
Yes, here I push the boundary of “recent.” But Lola has stuck with me, and I could see the album grounding a course on Texas history or on the cultural history of Mexican-Americans. In Lola, named after the famous singer of the golden age of Mexican music Lola Beltran, Rodriguez plays with genres and history. Her songs are about Mexican women immigrating to the U.S. a century ago, her songstress grandmother, her own experience with bussing in the 1980s, and more. As she told Texas Monthly, “The goal with this record was to make something that was true to who I am, which is a half-gringa, half-Chicana, fiddle-playing Rodriguez.”
- American Band (2016), Drive-By Truckers
This is another album that isn’t exactly recent, but significant for its engagement with history. There isn’t much I can say about this album that our contributing editor Graeme Pente hasn’t already said in his excellent review, which you can read here. As he wrote, “American Band is an album that sees the fraying social fabric of the United States and tries to find means to mend it by looking to the historical roots of present issues.”
And ultimately, isn’t that what we historians want?