Why These Four Banjo-Playing Women Resurrected the Songs of the Enslaved | At the Smithsonian
Music producer and composer Dirk Powell pointed to the back of the control room. I was filming him at Cypress House, his studio in Louisiana.
“Rhiannon was sitting right there on that green Naugahyde couch, and I was in that little room playing the guitar, and she had the talkback mic.”
Powell was talking about the day before, when he and musician Rhiannon Giddens, who teamed up for the recording of Folkways’ new release Songs of Our Native Daughters, were laying down a “guide track” for a song they would later name “Barbados.” As Powell stressed, a guide track isn’t meant to be saved. Musicians mine the track for its tempo and feel, layering their instruments over the top, before the guide instruments or vocals are redone. It’s a first step in recording a song.
Giddens—a native of North Carolina and the lead singer and a founding member of the GRAMMY award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops—researched the songs and haunting narratives of enslaved Africans. Native Daughters is a collaboration with three other African-American songwriters whose work interrogates history and, as Giddens writes in the album notes, shines “new light” on stories of “struggle, resistence and hope.”
“Rhiannon had brought in this handwritten music from the 1700s, the first slave melody ever annotated in the New World, and we started working on it, adding chords to it,” Powell says. “She was very close to the mic, and her voice was so unselfconscious and unassuming, her intention so pure, and things got very intense emotionally. We just had to keep it.”
Later that morning, they turned to the song again. Powell set up microphones with percussionist Jamie Dick.
“Jamie started adding drums, and I asked, ‘What do you hear?’” Powell says. “He said, ‘Well, I can add a few toms.’ The minute he started hitting them, it sounded like drums on a ship. Slave ship drums—you know? Rhiannon just started crying, just curled up in a ball and started crying.” He paused before continuing. “You know, slavery is such a recent thing in this country. People think it’s ancient history.”
Giddens reflected on the episode a couple days later. We were in a whitewashed gazebo on the rounded banks of Bayou Teche, where Cypress House sits.
“Listening to Jamie putting the drums on, that was pretty tough. I’m emotional, but I don’t cry a lot.” Her words slowed. “I just felt a kind of ancestral thing I haven’t felt in that particular way.”
She looked toward the trees edging the still water, and then smiled with an openness one could only perceive as profound appreciation for the song and where its first singers had guided her.
Cypress House sits on a gravel switchback off the main road a few miles south of the old city of Breaux Bridge. We’re surrounded by grassy fields and water.
Songs Of Our Native Daughters
Songs of Our Native Daughters gathers together kindred musicians Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell in song and sisterhood to communicate with their forebears. Drawing on and reclaiming early minstrelsy and banjo music, these musicians reclaim, recast, and spotlight the often unheard and untold history of their ancestors, whose stories remain vital and alive today.
Powell says the history of the land has influenced his recording work.
“Literally, this spot on the bayou is where the Acadians first landed in 1765 after they were deported from Nova Scotia. There was quite a mix that doesn’t exist anywhere else—all the African influence, the big influx from Haiti after the revolution there, and obviously the native people and the Louisiana Spanish,” he says.
Powell built the studio as a personal workspace for the film scores he composed for a host of award-winning directors like Anthony Minghella, Ang Lee, Victor Nuñez and Spike Lee, but it ripened into much more. It was home to Giddens’ second solo album, the influential Freedom Highway from 2017, as well as for other recording artists, including Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez and James McMurtry.
“I don’t know the exact history of the building,” Powell says. “It was an old Creole cabin, built before the end of slave times. There’s several things I’ve recorded in the room with Rhiannon, and I’ve felt these voices coming out of the walls—these stories. It feels like some of the voices are from people who maybe lived some of these things, but who ultimately triumphed. There were people who suffered so much.”
Giddens, thinking back to the day’s recording, agrees. “Cajun country is where these different cultures came together. There’s a lot of pain, a lot of violence,” she says, “but there’s also a lot of beautiful music and culture. It’s a real deep place you can sink into. I think it’s sympathetic to these songs.