Just when you thought you’d heard everything about a man’s faithlessness and a woman’s pain comes along an incredibly powerful version of the traditional Irish ballad, O Love Is Teasing. This masterpiece has been covered by such luminaries as Peggy Seeger, Marianne Faithfull and Jean Ritchie and it would surely take a brave soul to take these women on.
Rhiannon Giddens is that soulful woman. She admits to having been much inspired by the Seeger version and Ritchie’s Appalachian style. Yet she transfixes the listener anew with her unholy rendition of this much-loved song which offers an implicit warning to other fair maids to be wary of young men who ‘like a star on a foggy morning’ make promises that ‘fade away like the morning dew’.
The opening bars of this tale of love, ‘a pleasure when first it is new’ but now grown cold, hold a poignancy that urgently draws in the listener. The narrator, a young woman who has ‘left my father, mother, brothers and sisters all for the sake of you’ only to be left bereft when ‘love grows older’, delivers her lines with heart-breaking wistfulness.
Come all you fair maids, now take a warning
Don’t ever heed what a young man say,
He’s like a star on a foggy morning
When you think he’s near, he’s far away
Giddens’ voice is pure, fearless and strikes her audience deep. The song is underpinned by the gorgeous accompaniment of Gabe Witcher's fiddle, banjo, acoustic bass, doom-laden drum and delicate tambourine, all achingly emphasising her loss. Though lasting only just over four minutes, it is a lament that lingers long in the mind.
On her masterly first solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015), produced by the ubiquitous T Bone Burnett (who readily admits that he was blown away by Giddens’ talent when he first met her), she transforms old compositions from the songbooks of revered singer-songwriters, among them Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Dolly Parton, into delicious offerings from work song and blues to country in such a way that they demand renewed attention.
The title track was inspired by Nina Simone’s recording of a song written by Charles Aznavour (with Marcel Stellman and Yves Stéphane) into which Giddens breathes fresh, brooding life. She is also a gifted multi-instrumentalist, playing banjo and violin with vitality and intensity.
Her blossoming songwriting skills are evident on one track, Angel City, where she sings about the unsettling experience of writing tunes to old Bob Dylan lyrics for The Lost River (The New Basement Tapes) album, another T Bone Burnett project. Dylan must have been pleased with Spanish Mary. In fact, each song on Tomorrow Is My Turn is a musical revelation in its own right.
Giddens’ own profoundly mixed backstory (white father and Afro-American mother), combined with the long musical heritage of North Carolina’s bluegrass, gospel and folk and her marriage to an Irish musician, has contributed to a wildly eclectic sound from an artist who originally trained as an opera major.
College also helped form her unusual banjo style when she joined the contra dance classes sparked by her interest in Jane Austen. ‘That’s where I got obsessed with the banjo as a clawhammer, old-timey instrument, as opposed to a bluegrass instrument, which I’d heard,’ she told No Depression. 'Discovering that it was an African-American instrument, it totally turned on its head my idea of American music – and then, through that, American history.'
After struggling for some time to make a living as a musician, Giddens eventually found success as the face and voice of The Carolina Chocolate Drops. This acclaimed roots group (originally featuring Dom Flemons, Sule Greg Wilson and Justin Robinson) combined their classical, folk and Celtic music training and heritage into a new-style black string band that showed that American folk music was not only a white tradition.
The Chocolate Drops carved a much-heralded path in America’s ever evolving soundtrack, reconnecting the history of Afro-American and white folk music in a way that makes perfect sense in the 21st century.
It was T Bone Burnett who encouraged Giddens' exploits as a solo headline act although the Chocolate Drops remain at the heart of her touring band. He told the New York Times: 'It’s safer to be in a band. It’s good to have others to absorb the blows. But in her case, it seemed like she was being, I won’t say wasted, but under-utilised. In the Bible it talks about hiding your light under a bushel.'
That glorious light is no longer hidden. Giddens’ recent trip to the Byron Bay Blues Fest in New South Wales, voted among the top 10 music festivals in the world, earned her wider recognition and many new devotees here in Australia.
With Tomorrow Is My Turn and now her latest contribution, Freedom Highway, where many of the tracks dealing with the abominable slave trade are penned by her, the gifted interpreter is finding her feet as a writer for the forgotten and disenfranchised.
'I don’t do this because I want to be a star. As my mom always said, you never do anything for money, power or prestige. I believe that. This is a calling.' Giddens is extravagantly equipped for such a calling on music’s endless highway.
Nasseem Mohamed grew up in North London before escaping to the warmer climes of Sydney (where it actually rains more heavily though less frequently than in London). She is passionate about books and music and in her spare time works as a teacher-trainer at the University of New South Wales.