“It is only in his music…that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story. It is a story which otherwise has yet to be told and which no American is prepared to hear” – James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, 1955.
Easier to tell with music, and also easier to hear. An extraordinary project that springs from many inspirations but a common theme, Songs of our Native Daughters brings together four amazing musicians to examine painful, relevant history through beautiful songs and music. The project is the brainchild of singer and banjoist Rhiannon Giddens and producer and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell. The pair recruited Amythyst Kiah (on the strength of her performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival), Allison Russell (of Birds of Chicago) and Leyla McCalla (who toured with Giddens in Carolina Chocolate Drops) to write, sing and play on the record. The songs and performances are unapologetically pointed, political and personal. And they’re all stunners.
“Black Myself” starts the album. It’s a song about the range of discrimination that comes with being “othered” – to the singer, even being darker than other black kids is, at first, a problem. Each line – “I want to sweep that gal right off her feet” and “Your precious God ain’t gonna bless me” – is met with the response, “‘Cause I’m black myself.” Frustration, though, is replaced with defiance and strength: “I don’t creep around, I stand proud and free” and “I’ll stand my ground” (a Florida reference that CAN’T be an accident). Progress, yes, but still miles to go: “There’s no more workhorses/But still some work to do.”
“Barbados” is a marriage of two poems bound together by a dirge-like musical interlude. The first poem, “Pity for Poor Africans”, is a more than two-century-old work by English poet William Cowper, and it provides a (heavily satirical) justification of slavery – “I pity them greatly but I must be mum/For how could we do without sugar and rum?” After the interlude (sung/hummed by Giddens), we hear Powell’s 2019 response:
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum
For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium
The garments we wear, the electronics we own
What – give up our tablets, our laptops and phones?
It’s brilliant, and heartbreaking, and confounding – how DO we justify this?
These songs are tough. “Quasheba, Quasheba” tells the story of Russell’s ancestor, a slave brought from Ghana. “Mama’s Cryin’ Long” has a woman hanged for killing her abusive overseer. “Blood and Bones” deals with inhumanity both old (children born out of masters raping slaves) and current (emboldened white nationalists in modern-day America). Each story is different, and each each could break your heart. But, as an album, they don’t work unless the music is amazing. And it is. The artists decided to focus their songs around the banjo – an instrument which has a history centuries older than, and oceans apart from, that front porch in Deliverance – and each woman is an amazing player. But the music goes beyond that. “Black Myself” is a bluesy, swampy rocker. “Moon Meets The Sun” is beautifully airy folk. “Queshaba” is an eerie, slow burn with Powell’s baritone electric guitar bubbling underneath. “Slave Driver”, a tribute to Bob Marley’s undervalued militancy, has a reggae beat. Simply put, if one should choose to ignore the intense lyricism, the music itself is complex, eminently listenable, and sometimes even (gulp) fun.
So how, then, to answer the question posed by “Barbados” – how do we feel about problems we thought we’d outgrown? There’s optimism at the end of the record. “You’re Not Alone” is, fittingly, the most modern-feeling song on the album. Singing about her daughter, Russell realizes that shared experiences breed knowledge and strength, and that’s how we learn and grow:
In the cradle of the circle
All the ones who came before you
Their strength is yours now
You’re not alone
Songs Of Our Native Daughters is part of the African American Legacy series co-produced with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The album was produced by Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell, engineered and mixed by Dirk Powell, recorded at Cypress House Studio in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana and mastered by Emily Lazar at The Lodge, New York (assisted by Chris Allgood). Additional musicians include Jamie Dick (drums and percussion), and Jason Sypher (bass). One more note – when you pick up the album, read through the notes and annotations – the stories behind the songs are worth your time.