Today is International Women’s Day, and I struggled to think of a way to mark it here without seeming frivolous or clueless. Then I thought about something I saw last weekend as I caught up with Rhiannon Giddens’ performance on Austin City Limits.
During that performance, recorded last April, Giddens introduced “At The Purchaser’s Option” like this:
I came across this advertisement for a newspaper . . . for a human being, a woman for sale, from 1828. It just listed her attributes like it would list anything’s attributes. So you’re reading this thing and it gets down to the end of the ad, and as an afterthought, it mentions that she has with her a nine-month old baby who is at the purchaser’s option. And it just kinda made me think a lot about what that woman’s life was like and, you know, what I get to – how I get to live my life, and so, this is a song that came out of that.
“At The Purchaser’s Option” is the first track on Giddens’ new album, Freedom Highway.
I’m spending more time in the car lately (gladly ferrying the Texas Gal around while her fibula heals), so I’ve taken to dropping commercial CDs instead of my (now well-known) mixes into the car’s player. I’ve listened to a few by Bruce Springsteen, including The Rising, Magic and a three-disc 1978 concert from Cleveland. There’s been some Bob Dylan, some Fleetwood Mac, a blues anthology or two, and a disc titled The I-10 Chronicles that offers music heard along the western portion of that southernmost Interstate highway.
And yesterday, I finally began listening – after sending one copy back to the retailer because it would not play on the computer – to a CD I mentioned with anticipation a little more than a month ago: Rhiannon Giddens’ Tomorrow Is My Turn.
Giddens opens the recently released CD with “Last Kind Words,” her version of a song written and recorded in the 1930s by Geeshie Wiley. The song was one of the linchpins of a recent piece and resulting multimedia presentation – “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” – from the New York Times Magazine. A chronicle of the search for information about Geeshie Wiley and her recording partner L.V. Thomas (long called “Elvie”), the piece and its accompanying video and audio captivated me so that I’ve gone back and re-read it and re-listened to it at least twice.
And it’s left Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues” echoing in my head from time to time. So as I headed toward the Texas Gal’s office near 5 p.m. yesterday, it was both startling and pleasing to hear Giddens’ version of the tune. (And I wonder without answers why she dropped the word “blues” from the title.) Here’s what Giddens had to say about the track in the liner notes to her CD, which was produced by T Bone Burnett.
The landscape of American music is littered with the ghosts of the unknowable and mysterious blues musician, scratchy voices on a 78 conjuring up an era and an energy long gone. No one represents this better, perhaps, than Geeshie Wiley, who, along with equally unknown L.V. Thomas, recorded a handful of sides for Paramount Records in 1930–31. “Last Kind Word Blues” calls to me in a way that I can’t really explain, but when T Bone suggested it for the record, I knew instantly it was the way to begin.
So here’s Rhiannon Giddens’ “Last Kind Words,” today’s Saturday Single.
Like many things in life, new music finds us when we are ready for it. About eight years ago, one of the blogs I frequented – a blog so long gone that I do not recall its name – dealt with the music we call Americana or roots music. Some of the stuff it offered, I liked, and some found me less enthusiastic.
And the one performer that I found there that I have followed more than any other is Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The lost blog offered several albums by the Chocolate Drops, a string band that records the music of a lost era. Its predecessor group, the Sankofa Strings, focused on “a gamut of African American music: country and classic blues, early jazz and ‘hot music,’ string band numbers, African and Caribbean songs, and spoken word pieces,” as Wikipedia puts it, and the Chocolate Drops have plowed the same fields.
Current members of the group along with Giddens are Hubby Jenkins, Rowan Corbett and Malcolm Parson; earlier members who have moved on are Justin Robinson, Adam Matta and Dom Flemons. The names mean little to me and, I assume, to readers, and I’m likely doing a disservice to those six musicians. But the music, steeped in a culture mostly lost to time, was what mattered, that and Giddens’ voice and her work on banjo and fiddle.
I started with a 2006 album titled Colored Aristocracy by the Sankofa Strings, some of which was released later on a 2008 CCD album titled Heritage. Other releases that have seen at least some time on the various music players here are Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (2007), Genuine Negro Jig (2010) and Leaving Eden (2012). The band’s work has also been included in several soundtracks and tribute albums, including the first Hunger Games film and the 2007 film The Great Debaters. And the sound of the Carolina Chocolate Drops – and yes, the name caused me some discomfort at first, as it has for other listeners whose comments I’ve read online – continues to pull me in, to reach some place inside me and make me feel as if I’ve been waiting a long time to hear music I never knew existed before.
Giddens has since gained a more prominent profile. As I noted in a post in December, she was one of the musicians invited by producer T-Bone Burnett to put music to a rediscovered sheaf of Bob Dylan’s lyrics from the Basement Tapes era. The resulting album, Lost On The River, was released late last year and found its way to my ears as a Christmas present. (The other musicians invited to write to Dylan’s lyrics were Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James and Taylor Goldsmith.) It’s a remarkable album, and I’ve seen several reviews that have noted that the eye-opener is Giddens, who was likely the least known – at least in the mainstream – among the musicians brought together.
And last month, Giddens released her first solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, also produced by Burnett. I’ve heard a few things from it, including a startling live performance of the Jacques Wolf tune “Waterboy” on the Late Show with David Letterman. And I’m looking forward to digging into the album as soon as our mail carrier drops it off.
Here are two pieces by Giddens. The first is “Spanish Mary,” one of her contributions to Lost On The River, and the second is “Waterboy” from Tomorrow Is My Turn. And they’re today’s Saturday Singles.
High on my want list these days is a CD titled Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes. I spent a couple pleasant hours the other week watching a Showtime documentary about the creation of the album, and here’s how it came to be:
Sometime in the past few years, someone associated with Bob Dylan – his publisher, I would imagine – came across some lyrics that Dylan had written in 1967, during the time he spent in Woodstock, New York, playing frequently with the musicians who became The Band and recording the music that became known as the Basement Tapes.
(Dylan has recently released a collection of the Basement Tapes that supplants or complements – I’m not sure which verb to use – the 1975 collection curated by Robbie Robertson of The Band. The newly released collection comes in two versions: a six-CD marathon of everything the musicians recorded during those days in Woodstock, and a two-CD distillation. I have yet to hear either, but I’m thinking that when I do my shopping, I’ll settle for the two-CD set.)
Dylan’s publisher got in touch with producer T-Bone Burnett and asked if the producer could find folks who could turn the lyrics into songs. Burnett made certain Dylan approved of the project, according to Wikipedia, and then recruited musicians to create and record songs for the lyrics: Elvis Costello, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
The Showtime film – titled Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued – shows the process of writing and recording the new/old songs. There were multiple melodies for some of the lyrics, and the documentary gives some insight through observation and interviews into the creative process of each of the five musicians.
I enjoy music by all five of the folks recruited (though I’m less acquainted with Goldsmith and Dawes than I am with the others), but my favorite among them is likely Giddens and her string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. And it was Giddens who, to me, was most interesting in the film as she opened up about her writing process and about the pressure of working with the high-level talent that was in the studio during the project.
I’ve heard a few things from the album beyond what was in the documentary – there are some videos (some official, some not) at YouTube – and I’m looking forward to hearing more. (I’m currently No. 10 on the local library’s waiting list.) I’m pretty sure, though, that even after absorbing all the new/old tunes, my favorite is going to be Giddens’ ethereal take on the title tune, “Lost On The River.”