Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning artist Rhiannon Giddens brings American Railroad to the DC area this month.
Listening to Rhiannon Giddens perform is equal parts magic and transcendence. The two-time Grammy winner, Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Genius grant recipient is the artistic director of Silkroad (silkroad.org), which rolls into the Center for the Arts at GMU to perform American Roadroad this month. We caught up with the music icon, who hails from North Carolina, from her home in Ireland.
Why is remembering our musical history a central part of your work?
Because it is the central story of the human condition. Every innovation, every cultural movement, every music and every art form is a result of different cultures meeting, mixing, marrying and melding into something new. There are a million and one American stories that don’t get told—and peopled by folks of every color, religion, creed and economic background.
Before the tour, artist retreats and workshops took place in North Dakota, NYC and SF. Why were these locations chosen?
The story of the Transcontinental Railroad is multilayered and complicated; we had to summarize it in a way that would allow us to be specific. Thus, the idea of the four pillars of people: the African-American, Irish and Chinese workers of east and west lines, and the Indigenous communities impacted the most by the construction of the rails through their lands, which were often confiscated by the U.S. government for the purpose. This doesn’t mean that other communities weren’t also on the pickaxe line, such as Japanese, Italians, Polish and other Eastern European groups.
I believe in being led by personal connection, and [this] led us to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and scholars and Railroad organizations in San Francisco and New York. Those locations also cover the breadth of the railroad, from east to west and points in between.
The workshops produced American Railroad commissions from female-identifying or non-binary artists. Why was this important to you?
Simple—multiplicity of voices! How can we get anywhere without a diversity of storytelling? People from different backgrounds and experiences tell stories differently, challenging us to respond in a new way. And then we all grow.
Who are some of the voices in American Railroad?
Pura Fé is a Tuscarora-Taíno musician from New York steeped in traditional music and co-founded the groundbreaking, all-female drum and voice group Ulali, inspiring generations of young native women to find their voice. Suzanne Kite is an innovative Lakota composer who brings together the worlds of composition and Lakota dream imagery. Mazz Swift and I have explored and excavated African-American history for some time.
Rhiannon Giddens (second from left) performs with the Silkroad Ensemble at the Center for the Arts this month.
Your new arrangement is based on the work song “Swannanoa Tunnel.” Please share its impact on you.
It’s impactful to me because of the work two scholars did to uncover the true history of that song, and it’s representative of so much of how American culture is told. Kevin Kehrberg and Jeffrey Keith did the incredibly difficult investigative work to discover that an old bluegrass standard, ‘Swannanoa Tunnel,’ was actually the story of African-American railroad workers.
One of the pillars of Silkroad’s American Railroad project [reminds] people that African-American workers built many tracks east of the Appalachians. These workers, who were often convict laborers—folks thrown into prison for existing while Black to extend the slave labor that corporations had become addicted to during chattel slavery—were doomed to this backbreaking work until they died.
‘Swannanoa Tunnel,’ or ‘Asheville Junction’ as it’s also known, started as a hammer song, a work song, and told the story of a cave-in that killed scores of Black railroad workers. The reclamation of this song is part of a larger narrative of remembering that we have woven into this show. The arrangements are communal—some by me, some by the Ensemble, some that will change every night within a framework.
Why is American Railroad more than a musical experience and includes guest lectures and panel discussions?
Because this story isn’t taught in schools. It’s not taught in our culture. And there’s so much to know and to learn about who we are right now by looking at who we have always been. Diversity isn’t new. Americans have been of every background for centuries; their stories haven’t been [told] by mainstream, capitalistic culture.
How has living in Ireland informed your musical storytelling?
It’s funny—people think I’m sitting at sessions every night or wandering the bogs, getting inspiration from the smell of the verdant grass [laughs]. When I’m home in Ireland, I’m cooking, shuttling my children from event to event and trying to keep up with the work I can’t do on tour.
But what I’m really excited about in terms of interacting with the Irish story is that I’m now an artist-in-residence at the Academy for World Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, and I’m getting more opportunities to hang out with those folks, exchange music and be a part of the lively community.
What’s next for Silkroad?
We have more work to do on this project because of the breadth of it, but we are already moving and thinking about what is next—stay tuned!
What’s next for you musically?
There are so many projects on the boil. I tend to follow where I’m led. Nov. 5, Center for the Arts, George Mason University, cfa.gmu.edu
Photography by: EBRU YILDIZ; ADAM GURCZAK