How Folk Music Became White Music—And How Rhiannon Giddens Is Taking it Back

via Rhiannon Giddens / Facebook
via Rhiannon Giddens / Facebook

Most of the time, folk music is white music. The term brings to mind images of Bob Dylan- and Sufjan Stevens-types in coffee shops, strumming their guitars and singing softly about politicians or elves (sometimes both). So today, Rhiannon Giddens might seem like something of an anomaly: a black woman who plays the banjo and makes music drawing on Appalachian traditions, as she does on her latest album Freedom Highway, out February 24 on Nonesuch Records.


There’s something else that separates Giddens from today’s canon of coffee-shop folk singers—and it’s that her music is steeped in the folk revival tradition of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Like those singer-songwriters of the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, she writes songs that champion social justice, and she’s influenced by an eclectic range of roots music. You hear this right away on Freedom Highway: “Baby Boy” is a lullaby with haunting cello by Lelyla McCalla, Giddens’ former bandmate, and harmonies from Lalenja Harrington, Gidden’s sister. “Following the North Star” is an old-timey hoedown, heavy on the percussion—music to dance under the stars. “Hey Bebe” is built around a squawking New Orleans trumpet, while “Better Get It Right the First Time” features an awkward rap verse by Justin Harrington. The hip-hop trick doesn’t work—but it’s in the spirit of clumsy earnestness found in Dylan and other folk revival luminaries.

Giddens’ music doesn’t just sound like that of white folk revivalists of the ‘60s—it carries a familiar message. She covers “Birmingham Sunday,” a civil rights anthem about the 1963 Birmingham bombing, written by Richard Fariña. It’s a reminder that folk revival was very much committed to the civil rights movement. Giddens’ album opener, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” is a bleak, bluesy ode from the point of view of a woman in slavery. When Giddens sings “You can take my body, you can take my bones / You can take my blood, but not my soul,” she sounds like Joan Baez. “I’ve got a body, dark and strong / I was young, but not for long.”


The song is about sexual assault—an issue that others in the ‘60s might not have confronted so head-on. But in her identification with the history and brutality of oppression, Giddens has written a quintessential folk revival song, like Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.” In creating Freedom Highway, Gidden stands out as unique—not because she is a black woman, but because she writes with history in mind, and she knows history has not always been kind to the marginalized. The most popular music that gets thought of as folk today—the Sufjan Stevens, Bon Ivers, and Animal Collectives of the world—is generally made by white musicians and lacks explicit politics. How did a movement that is largely defined by its commitment to rights for black people end up defined as corny music for white people?

Part of the problem is erasure. The truth is that folk music—the folk revival movement that draws on roots tradition—was never that white to begin with. Consider Fariña: He was one of the major figures in the folk revival, and he was black and part Cuban-American. Giddens’ album is full of traces of other black folk singers: Her classically-trained voice on “Julie”—and throughout her work—is indebted to the great Odetta, a folk revival pioneer who influenced Dylan and just about everyone else. Giddens also covers “The Angels Laid Him Away,” a song written by Mississippi John Hurt, one of the many blues performers who restarted their careers on the folk coffee shop circuit during the 1960s.


Hurt wasn’t the only one. Numerous black performers were associated with the folk revival: Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Josh White. Sam Cooke’s last great hit, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” is strongly influenced by Dylan and the folk revival—as Jack Hamilton points out in his recent book Just Around Midnight. “A Change” is a wistful conflation of personal and political hope. Giddens’ song “We Could Fly” channels some of the same emotions, and even seems touched by Cooke’s delivery:

Mama, dear mama,
Look in yonder tree
See that pretty little sparrow
Looking back at me
She can soar above the clouds
Way up in the sky
We can soar away from here
Why, oh why can’t I?


That’s not so far away from the longing in Cooke’s line: “I was born by the river in a little tent / And just like that river I’ve been running ever since.”

But Cooke isn’t immediately thought of as folk music. For that matter, Sonny Terry and Josh White are also seen as curious footnotes to the “real” blues traditions of Robert Johnson—a performer hardly known in his day, but idolized by rock performers.


Back in his time, though, Josh White wasn’t a footnote. He was a very successful performer with a swaggering, sexual rock-star style. He recorded blues records in the 1930s, and then, like many artists, had a career boost in the ‘40s with the folk revival. But despite his history and active role in the civil rights movement, he was perceived as a sell-out when he expressed interest in white as well as black music traditions. Critics were repulsed when he recorded songs like “Molly Malone” and “Waltzing Matilda.” When Bob Dylan sang the blues, moving across racial boundaries, he was seen as authentic. But when Josh White sang Irish songs, moving across racial boundaries, he was betraying his roots.

Although the folk revival movement was aligned closely with the civil rights movement, it wasn’t perfect in its own treatment of black musicians. Folk revival idealized black musical expression—but only that of black musicians from the past. Folk singers of the ‘60s sneered at motown, a genre where black performers of the time were making wildly popular and innovative music. Instead, many folk singers pledged their hearts to Blind Willie Johnson or Blind Willie McTell—blues performers whose legacies were fixed and safely buried.


Hamilton explains in his book: “’Real’ black music was always believed to be vanished or vanishing and thus in need of preservation by revivalists.” He quotes a particularly painful 1963 article in The Little Sandy Review, in which the white reviewer chastises the great folk revival singer Ella Jenkins’ album Negro Folk Rhythms as “a purposeful attempt by educated Negroes to…show these whites that negro music is noble and good, in the whites’ own image.” The white critic is attacking a black performer for not being black enough, for having a white audience—and for having too much education.

White critics in folk music and elsewhere have often taken it upon themselves to define “authenticity” in a way which includes white performers with black influences, but excludes black performers with white ones. Thus, in the ‘60s, the highly-regarded Staple Singers were seen as betraying their gospel roots because of their secular repertoire and their success with white audiences.


Giddens’ album is named after a Staple Singers song, “Freedom Highway,” making this an album of roots exploration. Not because it is a 20th-century artist reaching back to an unblemished “authentic” tradition—but because it connects one folk artist with eclectic influences to another. Giddens performs the song with Bhi Bhiman, a Sri Lankan-American guitarist and singer, whose meat-and-potatoes blues-rock phrasing provides a counterpoint to Giddens’ more polished and authoritative declaratives. The music locks into a shoulder-shrugging hook, with Bhiman’s gritty electric guitar augmented by horns, mandolin, and organ flourishes.

“We’re gonna march down freedom highway / Marchin’ each and every day,” they harmonize. “Made up my mind / That I won’t turn around.” It’s gospel, it’s blues, it’s rock: it’s a glorious mixture, like the United States or folk music, at its best.

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