Dynamic duo Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi combine folk music, racial justice in concert

Feb. 11, 2020, 11:34 p.m.

The tambourine has the power to expose racial injustice and enact radical social change. Or so Italian percussionist Francesco Turrisi and critically-acclaimed folk artist Rhiannon Giddens argued before a packed crowd of more than 300 people at the Bechtel Conference Center this past Thursday. The two artist-activists came to Stanford under the auspices of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) as speakers for the 15th Annual Anne and Loren Kieve Distinguished Lecture. To echo the words of Comparative Literature Professor David Palumbo-Liu, Francesco and Rhiannon are simply the perfect candidates for a lecture series showcasing the works of prominent figures in social justice, humanities and the arts. Though Giddens and Turrisi are incredibly accomplished musicians in their own right, their combined ethnomusicology and performance backgrounds give an incisive yet hopeful account of the hidden racial dimensions of folk music. 

Quintessential American folk song “This Land Is Your Land”, discussed by CCSRE Faculty Director Jennifer Brody and Palumbo-Liu in their opening remarks, served as a touchstone for the featured lecture. Penned by Woody Guthrie and covered by Pete Seeger, among many other folk artists, the 1944 song has gone through many iterations, including one rendition that had a stanza recognizing stolen indigenous land. Brody discussed how many folk music aficionados do not know about Elizabeth Cotton, one of the greatest Black folk guitarists of the 20th century who worked as a maid in the Seeger household and was mentored by composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. Palumbo-Liu then treated the European reception musical and dance form of arabesque as a case study for the intersection of Judeo-Christian and Arabic culture that persisted despite the Spanish Inquisition. Combined, the arabesque dance style and Elizabeth Cotton’s works challenge notions of whose identities are represented within conventional narratives of the European and American musical landscapes. When the microphone was handed over to Giddens, she mentioned the gospel line “when the world is on fire” cut from “This Land Is Your Land” as a way of introducing the thematic tension between hidden Black history and marketed ‘whiteness’ of folk music. 

Turrisi and Giddens began the featured lecture by performing a 19th-century Black folk tune featuring banjo with tambourine accompaniment, surprisingly fresh and modern in its acoustics. Still holding his tambourine upright in his left hand, Turrisi mused how a 19th century print of a British janissary band sparked his tambourine research that eventually led to his musical collaboration with Giddens. The janissary band originated in the Ottoman Empire as a formidable musical ensemble and military band that accompanied the Ottoman army onto the battlefield from the 16th century on. The print Turrisi had stumbled upon caught his eye because of the presence of three African American percussionists including a tambourine player who held the instrument in the same upright manner he learned in Italy. Turrisi gave a whirlwind overview of the tambourine’s chronology dating back to the 5000 BCE Egypt frame drum and subsequent spread of playing traditions through Ireland (bodhrán), Sicily (tarantella), Spain (taranta), the Caribbean and the American South. The tambourine is generally associated with flamenco, bacchanalia, the pseudo-scientific tarantella folk dance and gypsy music. The 19th century, however, saw musicologists codify twenty-plus tambourine techniques into a wildly-popular treatise.

“There is way more to playing a tambourine than just slapping it on your knee or shaking it,” Turrisi noted, demonstrating the three movements of the left hand required by a stroke and how to create a resonant whir on the face of the drum. 

The tambourine research of Turrisi intersects with the work of Giddens on the banjo via a third folk instrument: the fiddle. The practice of Black tambourine performance within the European take on janissary bands grew out of a broader tradition of Black folk entertainment. James Frazer, the 19th-century Scottish-African American tambourine player of the royal British janissary band fame, hailed from North Carolina, not far from where Giddens grew up in Greensboro. 

“Before electricity, dance constituted the primary form of entertainment in America,” Giddens stated, before adding that Black servants and slaves constituted the majority of fiddlers, percussionists and other band members at 19th-century white social functions such as square dances. Playing the fiddle was lucrative social capital that allowed some runaway slaves freedom, and banjo performance evolved alongside it in the ‘folk’ dance scene. Around the time Europeans appropriated the janissary band, highly-problematic minstrel bands arose in the mid-19th-century America. Through a series of 1920s commercial vaudeville prints and headshots exhibiting blackface, Giddens emphasized that Mississippi showboats and the recording industry promoted minstrelsy as late as the 1970s. She then revealed a ‘gray-scale’ timeline she had curated which charted popular recognition of Black versus white folk music performance where the 1920s marked the erasure of Black folk music in favor of white derivatives. 

Giddens drew upon her own background in the fiddle and banjo to similarly trace the banjo from rural African American communities in the South to contemporary largely-white folk music performance. She provided a genealogical tree that showed the gradual cultural divergence of the banjo away from African-Americans starting with minstrelsy and continuing with the Black / hillbilly and urban (think vaudeville, George Gershwin) / mountain delineations. Giddens reminisced that she formed her first-ever band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, in order to bring back the sounds and melodies of ‘Black’ and ‘mountain’ subcultures underrepresented in contemporary folk. While critical of white appropriation and erasure of Black banjo performance, Giddens acknowledged, however, that the folk of Pete Seeger and Mumford & Sons is not necessarily problematic in how it treats the sounds and genre of folk music. She pointed out that the 1920s recording industry pursued far more questionable decisions in its marketing of ‘ethnic’ music albums that saw folk music portrayed purely as a white — and not a multicultural or Black — musical practice. 

Turrisi and Giddens used the recording of ethnic music albums to clarify that neither abides by race as a social construct and that assuming white cultural hegemony overlooks the historical marginalization of peoples such as the Sicilian and Irish. They then briefly remarked on how their recent album collaboration “there is no Other” (2019) brings together Black folk with Francesco’s multicultural tambourine performance to underscore the rich interplay of disparate folk traditions spanning multiple continents and centuries. The dynamic duo closed out their lecture by performing their take on the classic folk song “Buffalo Gals.” With Giddens on vocals and fiddle and Turrisi on tambourine, their performance reclaimed a minstrel song with the voices and acoustics of traditional Black folk music. 

The following Q&A session, moderated by CCSRE Executive Director Daniel Murray, offered an insightful coda to the featured lecture, with audience questions about how white people can be respectful in folk performance and incorporating ethnomusicology into history textbooks as a gateway for primary school social justice education. When asked specifically about her views on the Lil Nas X “Old Town Road” Grammy, Giddens stated that Black people have always been part of the country music scene and that she was not at all surprised at the Billboard controversy, which reflected the same cultural trends discussed in the lecture. As to whether white people should perform folk music, Giddens reiterated that folk music has evolved to represent a much larger American cultural milieu and that it is only problematic to perform “in the Black style” versus in one’s own way.

By claiming that “there is no Other” in regards to notions of race and musical ownership, Giddens and Turrisi have produced music that “chips away at the concrete” of racialized industry claims to music genres including but not limited to jazz, bluegrass, gospel and folk. The artist-activists do not forego humor even amidst dissecting the painful histories of cultural erasure and political injustice, laughing that “the banjo is simply a tambourine with a stick on it.” Giddens and Turrisi have now joined the hallowed ranks of Bryan Stevenson, Maxine Hong Kingston and Dolores Huerta as much-needed voices that will continue to reverberate on campus the intimate relationship between social justice, the humanities and arts. 

A previous version of this article misnamed CCSRE, as well as the staff positions of featured faculty. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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