In a world founded on patriarchy and ruled by white men, the black woman lands at the bottom of the power structure, her voice muted and mangled, decade after decade, century upon century. But the bottom of any kind of structure is also its base, making the black woman the foundation upon which all else is built. Indeed, our shared DNA traces back to “Mitochondrial Eve,” an African woman believed to be the common genetic ancestor of all humans. Somehow, though, the righteous and rightful prospect of centering the black woman in our collective history continues to be their own responsibility.
Enter Our Native Daughters, the folk collaborative of Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. With their new Smithsonian Folkways release, Songs of Our Native Daughters, the four women use their gifts and their grace to highlight the stories of not just their ancestors, but our ancestors. To them, giving voice to the voiceless is both a privilege and a responsibility.
When asked if she feels that responsibility to history to tell the stories that no one else dares to touch, to be the vessel or vehicle for other voices, Giddens says, “That’s exactly how I’d put it. This is part of who I am. There are loads of really nice singers out there. There are loads of great entertainers, loads of pretty faces out there. There are loads of people who do those things really, really well — better than I could ever hope to do. … But what I do know is that my particular talents, specifically, this is what they’re for.”
A self-professed history nerd, Giddens would have studied these stories and found a way to share them with or without her vast array of artistic talents. It’s just who she is. But she is also a musical phenom with a platform and privilege afforded to her, and she’s not afraid to use either to further the cause.
“I’ve always been really cognizant of the fact that I exist because of generations of people who didn’t have the opportunities I have to tell those stories. They just had to survive,” she offers. “I come along and I go to school and I go to college and all I have to worry about is ‘Oh, my car broke down. Oh, no.’ I have the time to think about this stuff. I have the space to think about this stuff. So I do feel like it’s a responsibility.”
The stories that make up Songs of Our Native Daughters reach far and roam wide — geographically, historically, and emotionally — having been culled from centuries of sources. The enduring folklore of John Henry gets turned on its ear to tell his companion’s tale in the lively, fiddle-infused “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” while Russell’s ancestral ties to the West African slave trade get traced back in the slow, banjo-based tread of “Quasheba, Quasheba.” On “I Knew I Could Fly,” McCalla steps into the shoes of the brilliant Piedmont blues guitarist Etta Baker, whose husband refused to let her pursue a career. With 13 tracks, there’s a lot to unpack here.
The project started at Giddens’ behest, and the four women gathered in producer Dirk Powell’s studio in south Louisiana for 10 days last winter. “That was my first experience of co-writing,” Kiah says of the adventure. “It was one of those things where we we’re going to write a song and we’re going to record it the next day. That’s kind of how it was rolling. There were a few songs where all of us were collaborating together. And a couple of instances where we’d write our own songs and kind of throw it out. I threw a couple of songs out to Alli, and she’d work on them all night and throw me a couple verses back … and then we’d record it.”
The set opens with Kiah’s husky alto anchoring the soulful folk swagger of “Black Myself” in which she details all the ways she has to adapt to the world around her because of her skin color. For the story’s narrator, so many moments in the white man’s world demand the black woman to code switch in order to merely survive. As with so many of the songs in the collection, the piece is emotional, but also redemptive because it reflects the power of the black woman’s unwavering ability to hold just enough joy and dignity to keep stepping ever forward.
“The very first thing we ever recorded together, it was a thing where we all sat there together,” Kiah notes of “Moon Meets the Sun,” wherein elements from each woman’s myriad influences converge in a hopeful, bittersweet lilt. “We talked about minstrel banjo. We talked about African rhythms. We talked about some of the slave narratives that Rhiannon had been reading. And we came up with a song, together, within three or four hours. We each wrote verses and sang parts, and we recorded it the next day. It was absolutely incredible.”
One of those slave narratives inspired the deeply affecting “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” a piece that found its way to and through Giddens as a kids’ song. In it, her voice quivers as she leads the call-and-response tale of a black woman who enacted revenge upon her white rapist. Though told from the perspective of a child, Giddens’ unflinching, one-take performance seems to center her as the mother, with the stoic choir of voices as the child who doesn’t fully understand what’s unfolding before their very eyes. Further still, it centers the black woman in her own story, refusing to look away from the unceasing suffering inflicted upon her at the hands of the white patriarchy that, from time immemorial, has used and abused her, then cast her aside.
“I think, in terms of black women, in general, we start a movement and it gets co-opted ‘for the good of,’” Giddens explains. “I remember my mom talking about ‘now’ and saying, ‘Now ain’t got no time for me.’ This was years ago. I remember her saying that and thinking, ‘What does she mean?’ As I got older, I understood. Where are the voices of black women in the abolitionist movement? Where are the voices of black women in the suffrage movement? They were there, is the thing. When you do the history, when you read, they are there. But you get, ‘Let’s look at the good of the race first’ or ‘Let’s look at the good of the gender first.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, wait a minute…’”
While Songs of Our Native Daughters can’t reverse centuries of erasure of black women’s voices, it can amplify a few stories and spark a few conversations. It can also claim a space and mark a moment in history when we all listen and learn about the past in order to do better in the present and future. Black women can’t — and shouldn’t have to — do it on their own. But they will. They always have.
“I go back and forth, getting tired of this being what I think about all the time, getting tired of us having to educate people about all of our history. Maybe I want to make a record that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with race or history or anything; I just want to sing about daffodils,” Giddens muses, then adds with a laugh, “That’s not to say that I couldn’t do that… but I can’t do that.”