By Saffron Forsberg
Despite the heft of her accolades, Rhiannon Giddens still worries you may flee during the show’s intermission. The famed Oberlin Conservatory alum played a rare noontime show at Finney Chapel, a full house, last Monday as part of Oberlin’s 142nd Artist Recital Series. It would’ve been its 144th if not for the pandemic. Alongside her longtime collaborator Francesco Turrisi – “meeting him was the best thing that has happened to me in the last five years” she admits – Giddens led a two-and-a-half-hour show, lulling her audience of alumni, students, faculty, and loyal fans to a trance with an expansive host of songs: early Creole folk numbers, rich jazz and blues tunes, ballet suites, chest-clutching Shakespearian opera, and Italian love songs… with particular nods to Alice Gerard and Paul Simon and Ethel Waters.
Giddens is humble and sweet about her striking talent and vision. Her stage presence is profoundly bodily, deep red hair gathered into a knot on the base of her head, shoulder length earrings brushing her face as she drifts across genres and continents, shrugging on and off a slight banjo. It’s a reproduction from 1858 – something akin to the Afro-Caribbean instruments played by early African American musicians before their subsequent adoption by white minstrel performers. “All those Black banjo players, we erase them when we cut that [history] out,” she tells her rapt audience. “We don’t like to talk about [minstrelsy] but it's there…most popular form of entertainment for 80 years. It’s in our cartoons.” Authentic instrumentation and an attention to its contextual groundwork are just a few aspects of Giddens’ commitment to the historical upkeep of folk tradition.
This commitment to folk tradition – especially that of Black, Southern performers – is fascinating considering her musical origins. Giddens studied Italian opera at Oberlin. You can hear it in the diligent conservatory-cleanness that lies behind the Creole spirit of her sound. “When I was last on this stage, I was just a singer,” she says, referring to her 5th-year senior recital. “Well not ‘just’...we’re musicians too!” Giddens now plays the banjo, fiddle, and, her favorite, the viola. Beside her, Turrisi pulls warmly at an accordion. “I went home [to North Carolina] and retrained on banjo,” she explains. “I couldn’t get into the banjo until I got into the world the banjo comes from…which is a world of slavery and violence.”
Throughout her recital, Giddens speaks on underscoring “what we don’t talk about” in her music. How can music be an activist gesture? In what ways is it limited as such? “It’s great to have that [activist] sentiment; where do you take it after the concert? … What are we doing in our own lives, in our own communities?” Before singing her own rendition of “Build a House,” one of the earliest known “slave songs” of the early 1600s, she tells her audience: “whenever I have a chance to highlight the nameless, I try to do it. … It’s not even just having a seat at the table; it’s changing the table.”
At the show’s conclusion – the shortest nearly-three-hours of my life – Giddens steps from the mic and clasps her hands together. You can feel everyone leaning over in their Finney pews. What else could she possibly have up her sleeve? “I’m going to sing a song from my senior recital,” she says. We laugh knowingly. It’s a sparse operatic piece from Porgy and Bess – the breathtaking “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. A gift.