Distinguished guest artists come to UNCG’s campus every semester, but for the 125th anniversary Founders Day concert, the music star was one of our own.
Last Thursday, just days before receiving the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” Greensboro native, former UNCG opera student and founding member of the Grammy award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops Rhiannon Giddens paid a visit to her alma mater to give a powerful, dynamic Founders Day concert.
In one of the most widely anticipated events of the 2017-2018 University Concert and Lecture Series, Giddens and her band performed for a full house in UNCG Auditorium. Many of the songs were from her 2017 album, “Freedom Highway,” focused on civil rights and slave narratives.
During the first set, the spellbinding song, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” inspired by a 1792 newspaper slave advertisement, showed Giddens’ commitment to historical infusion in her songwriting.
“Well, it’s getting out,” Giddens told the audience. “I’m a bit of a history nut, and I read a lot.”
The stirring lyrics and Giddens’ tremendous vocal talent worked in tandem with riveting instrumental work that blended blues, old time, rock, Cajun, jazz and country, with band members Jason Sypher, Jamie Dick, Hubby Jenkins and Dirk Powell, the producer of “Freedom Highway.” Along with original songs, Giddens sang covers originally performed by Etta James and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
UNCG alumna Laurelyn Dossett and Giddens’ sister, Director of UNCG’s Beyond Academics program Dr. Lalenja Harrington, joined Giddens for “Freedom Highway,” and Dossett also sang on Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Earlier in the day, Giddens, who has shared the stage with Aretha Franklin and Emmylou Harris at the White House, held a masterclass open to the UNCG community and also played in a jam session with UNCG’s Old-Time Ensemble, directed by Dr. Christen Blanton Mack.
“Seeing the Old-Time Ensemble students jamming with a musician of that caliber was awesome,” said Mack. “Rhiannon gave the group some amazing feedback about drive, pulse and groove in fiddle tunes. Drawing on her own experiences, she brought the players to a whole new level.”
Giddens shared her comprehensive knowledge of music history throughout the masterclass and the jam session with the 22 students and several faculty and staff members.
“This music was for dances,” Giddens told the Old-Time Ensemble. “In that time, when this style of music began, if you had a band, it was for a dance. Experiment with why it existed, and you can pull that into a performance.”
At the masterclass, Giddens encouraged students to be fully involved in their education and to lead with their hearts while still developing skills that can benefit their careers in the long term.
Giddens detailed her own experience with Greensboro Youth Chorus and family singing as her only musical training until she arrived at Oberlin Conservatory, admitted on the strength of her ear, as she said.
Many students, both music students and those from other disciplines, said they felt inspired by both Giddens’ career and what she shared with them about her musical history.
“I had been struggling with participating in the Old-Time and Celtic culture in a way that speaks to me through music and dance,” said senior biology major and fiddle player Olivia Deitrich. “I didn’t know this until I got in the jam session, but Rhiannon’s words in the masterclass had freed me to just do what I love – play music.”
“Her level of musicianship and performance is so high that it seems unreal,” said senior English major and banjo player Jeremy Glasgow. “The opportunity to play with Rhiannon was an honor in itself, and to hear about her experience with the Old-Time music tradition was eye-opening.”
Concurrent to studying opera at UNCG as a master’s student in the early 2000s, Giddens picked up the banjo and fiddle, exploring both Gaelic and Old-Time music styles and playing at contra dances. She co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops in part to honor her mentor and friend, North Carolina fiddle master Joe Thompson – a detail she brought up in the masterclass to illustrate the value of crafting a career path that’s led by the heart.
“Whatever you’re doing,” she told UNCG students. “The core should be something that really speaks to you.”
Giddens played an old-time song during the evening concert’s first set and gave a shout-out to the UNCG Old-Time Ensemble.
“We had a lot of fun today,” she said.
Breaking news: Rhiannon Giddens will receive MacArthur Grant (known as the genius grant).
By Susan Kirby-Smith
Photo by Martin W. Kane