“Songs of Our Native Daughters,” is the brainchild of American musician Rhiannon Giddens, who was inspired while researching and reading slave narratives at the African American Museum of History and Culture.
In the album, Giddens, Kiah, Allison Russell (Birds of Chicago) and Leyla McCalla use American Folk music to bring these stories, their pain, resilience and resounding emotion to life.
Q: Tell me a little bit about how this project came together?
A: This project started this year in January. Rhiannon sent an email to the three of us asking if we would want to write and record songs that touched on the topic of the slavery and the journey of people of the African diaspora in the Americas.
Rhiannon and I are both from the American Southeast, Alli is from Montreal and Leyla is first-generation Haitian-American from New Jersey; we all have our unique perspectives and experiences as black women in North America, and our approaches to folk music are eclectic and bring so much dynamism to the music on the record.
Q: Can you describe the music in the album?
This album is an eclectic mix of folk traditions. There are minstrel banjo melodies, West African rhythms, Appalachian fiddle, contemporary folk, southern rock. Between the rest of the ladies and myself, each song reflects our personal and musical histories.
Q: Is there a track you are most excited for people to hear?
A: Ah, this is hard to choose! But two come to mind. I'm incredibly excited about people hearing “Polly Ann's Hammer.” It was inspired by the melody of Sid Hemphill's version of “John Henry.”
Rhiannon suggested that Alli (Russell) and I write a song that tells the story of John Henry's wife, Polly Ann. Often in the many versions of John Henry, he is celebrated most often as the steel-driving man who was faster than the steam-powered drilling machine, and in some of those versions, Polly Ann fills in for him when he is too ill to work.
Here, not only is Polly Ann central, but we tell the story of a woman who wants to be free of the hammer that would eventually kill her husband. The way the song came together in the studio was beautiful, and everyone was cheering when I sang the first take after we finished it as the final line is, “This is the hammer killed John Henry/Won't kill me, won't kill me/This is the hammer, killed your daddy/Throw it down and we'll be free.”
The second is “Mama's Crying Long” which is one that Rhiannon wrote about a child whose mother was hung after she murdered the overseer who raped her. It is utterly heartbreaking, brutal and powerful. There is a music video for it on YouTube, I highly recommend taking a listen. No one left that studio without crying during that song. It really showcases the absolute brutality of slavery and how it took away personal autonomy, identity, and family with no line of defense.
Q: What’s it like working with the other three artists involved? NPR called you a “folk supergroup.”
A: Working with Rhiannon, Allison, and Leyla has eye-opening and inspiring experience; writing with three other women of color, in the folk music genre, about the African Diaspora in the Americas, is truly a special experience that allowed for us all to air our grievances and concerns as black woman within folk music.
At one point or another we have been questioned about our involvement with what some conceive as “white” music, and our formation and the creation of this album and history itself shows that this is an American story and we are American women starting a conversation about a past that we all need to come to terms with.
I am so happy that NPR has cast a light on this, I have been a long-time listener of the station, have discovered many new artists and listened to some incredibly insightful interviews, so to be mentioned in this capacity is just incredible.
Q: What made you want to be involved?
A: The entire concept of this album is something that simply has never been done before; Rhiannon truly is one of the most driven and imaginative people I have ever met, and to have the courage to dig into some of the subject matter she has tackled and to want to create a medium to tell these stories is truly remarkable.
I wanted to be part of making these narratives come to life musically. In order to deal with this kind of material, to know the pain and anguish my ancestors went through, and then also to see the shoulders on which I stand on, to appreciate the people that survived and lived to tell their stories, that is something that takes a lot of patience and understanding.
“Songs of Our Native Daughters” comes out Feb. 22. To pre-order and to watch the music video for “Mama's Crying Long”, go to https://folkways.si.edu/songs-of-our-native-daughters.