ALBUM: Tomorrow Is My Turn
ARTIST: Rhiannon Giddens
Album release date: August 21, 2015
The Waterboy Watershed
Rhiannon Giddens, founding member and singer from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, stopped the show at the Another Day, Another Time folk festival in September of 2013 with her rendition of the stark Odetta song “Water Boy.” Her spiritualized, work-worn, bluesy take on the old folk-tune caught the attention of producer T Bone Burnett, the musical director of the night, who called her up a few weeks later and invited her to come record with him. Tomorrow is My Turn, released in February of 2015, is the resulting project.
A classically trained singer who also happens to be an excellent banjo, fiddle, and kazoo-player, Giddens began pursuing a career in singing around 16-17 but never expected it to go anywhere because she never fancied herself to be “that good”, according to an interview. She found her calling after college upon forming the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time string band that now has a grammy under its belt, in 2005. Though Giddens had proved her chops and garnered respect as a traditional folk-musician through her work with the band, her solo performance at the 2013 folk tribute festival is what launched her into a bigger game and revealed her musical capacity and power.
A Meaningful Tribute from a Powerful Voice
Tomorrow is My Turn is a collection of 11 songs that are, for the most part, by women-for women, selected by Giddens and producer Burnett. It is a tribute album that celebrates American roots music, and pays homage to those female artists who went before Giddens and had to fight to tell their tales and sing their songs in a culture that wasn’t always welcoming. Thematically, the songs range from questions of social justice and inequality to the fickle dance of the love of man and woman, with its unresolvable problems and the bittersweet ache it leaves in its wake.
Having been raised in a home where a large assortment of various musical genres and styles were part of the everyday fabric of life, I cherish memories of summer evenings in which the musical stylings of powerhouses such as Mary Black, Aretha Franklin, Emmylou Harris, Allison Krauss, Dolly Parton, and Nana Mouskouri told me tales of weal and woe, triumph and class. Though these women exemplified different genres and histories, each distinct in her own way, they shared a kindred manner of approaching the world, and a common message regarding the value of life: and Giddens’ song selection for this album pays tribute to the best of these story-telling women.
What is most unique and impressive about Giddens is her ability to sing each song as deftly and sincerely as though it arose from her own history, whether it’s a roots song about oppression and labor, as in Water Boy; or a mesmerizing Celtic ballad about being wronged in love, as in Love is Teasin. Her version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s (who was the pioneer of Gospel-Rock, by the way: if not for her and her example, Elvis probably wouldn’t have tapped into his niche, and Little Richard might not have been as sensational) spiritual Up Above My Head is rollicking and full of fervor, and somehow sounding as new as ever some 70 years after it was first performed; and her tributes to Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline, with the songs Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind and She’s Got You, respectively, are nothing short of gorgeous.
A marvelous array of musicians bring these songs to life and support Giddens’ multifaceted voice and style. Warmth, dexterity, and a light but controlled touch pulse through each song, whether it be tapping into traditional folk roots with bare instrumentation or jumping more enthusiastically into hip-hop/jazz-funk territory with less inhibition. Whatever hue the band takes on, it takes it on with sensitivity and expertise, letting the lady take the lead as she tells these old stories with fresh interpretation.
The Constant Relevance of Truth
While one of the songs on the album is an original – the delicate, lovingly crafted Angel City – Rhiannon Giddens isn’t particularly interested in writing her own songs, figuring that the older songs she covers still have much to say to each new generation. She feels that it behooves her as a folk musician to engage in the social, political, and moral drama of our time through her craft, like women who have gone before her (Nina Simone is another powerful figure who’s influence can be heard and felt in Giddens’ music). The struggles and heartache experienced by women and men throughout history and society are, in some measure, the same ones we each experience today: folk music and lyricism have always had a significant part to play in being the voice of the people, and can affect change in places of apathy and narrowness.
Rhiannon Giddens, a woman of great talent, beauty, and innovation, is one of the best voices on the musical scene today, and her vision – sensitive as it is to the past, the present, and the future – is to be lauded.