Rhiannon Giddens, Hurray for the Riff Raff rewrite American folk history with new albums

Rhiannon Giddens: Taking the country back

Rhiannon Giddens: Taking the country back Photo courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Alan Lomax had particular tastes.

The best-known white collector to scour the southern U.S. in search of folk music during the early 20th century, Lomax visited African-Americans at home, at work, at play, even in prison, where he would instruct wardens to threaten inmates with longer jail times if they didn't record for him. In addition to church songs, work songs, and songs about sex, Lomax heard musicians perform songs they learned on the radio, but he did not consider them part of the authentic African-American tradition and he did not record them, and so the curation of a white academic limited what we would come to think of as folk music.

But two recent releases -- Rhiannon Giddens’ Freedom Highway and Hooray for the Riff Raff’s The Navigator -- resurrect a history of musical styles that has been whitewashed out of our ideas of folk and country. This resurrection is not polite -- the struggle to reclaim social identities rarely is. Giddens and Hooray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra are folk singers, virtuoso performers, and brilliant writers whose fiercely political work retells Latinx and African American stories once excluded by white gatekeepers in the name of “preserving tradition.”

Hooray for the Riff Raff is Segarra’s alter ego. On her last album, Small Town Heroes, she revisited the murder ballad tradition, inserting a woman’s voice back into work that history had blanched out. Segarra brought once-silenced female voices to life, as authors and performers, a project she continues on The Navigator. But the new album also addresses her Puerto Rican heritage, a folk tradition with history outside the cult of academic observation. The last track on the album is a fanfare, a homecoming of horns and drums, that leads folk music out of the library and back into the streets where the people can hear it.

Giddens also strives to make folk music that feels present and alive. As a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she sang Blu Cantrell’s 2001 R&B hit “Hit Em Up Style,” as though lashing back at Lomax’s refusal to record people singing Tin Pan Alley songs in the ‘30s. As a black woman, the historically minded folk songs that Giddens sings about race, about violence, and about death take on inflections they would not if sung by a white performer. And her role as a banjo player -- an instrument brought from West Africa by slaves yet now largely identified with white musicians -- is similar to Segarra's choice to absorb Latin percussion and brass into her sound.

Giddens clarion voice returns the element of violence to the traditional song “Angels Laid Him Away,” which white folk singer Josh Ritter has literally reduced to a joke by folding it into a song called “Folk Bloodbath” where the violence was played for laughs. When Giddens talks about racing away, it suggests slave narratives, the weight of oral tradition, the living and breathing fear of whiteness, just as Segarra’s navigates towards a Puerto Rico isolated from yet controlled by America.

Both Giddens and Segarra work within “Americana,” a genre with a twisty legacy of race and class. After Lomax, country music split into folk music for collegiate connoisseurs and honky-tonk for the working class. Americana is a roots style indebted to outlaw country’s Nashville commercial propriety but often catering to much the same upscale crowds who nurtured the folk revival. The question of who is performing, and for which audiences, and under which traditions, is a thorny one that Giddens and Segarra bring front and center.

Giddens has made inroads into the world of prestige – she’s the first black winner of the Steve Martin prize for American Banjo, and has collected Grammys and BBC awards in the American Folk categories -- and into commercial country as well, collaborating with Nashville star Eric Church. Seggara’s wide absorption of jazz, folk and traditional Puerto Rican sounds complicates the idea of folk purity collectors like Lomaxes once imposed. After listening to these two albums, we’re forced to tell the story of folk music is a different way, and they’ll hopefully open the floodgates to other responses as well.