If, at New York’s Town Hall, on the evening of September 29, 2013, there were audience members unfamiliar with Rhiannon Giddens, they surely were devotees after she brought down the house with a stunning, one-two punch of a performance. Giddens, a founder of the folk revivalists the Carolina Chocolate Drops, sang at the “Another Day, Another Time” concert T Bone Burnett produced at Town Hall to celebrate the music of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ film about New York’s ’60s folk music scene. Giddens shared the stage with a high-powered lineup that included Jack White, Gillian Welch, Patti Smith, Marcus Mumford, the Avett Brothers, and the Queen of Folk herself, Joan Baez… and she stole the show. Her first number, Odetta’s “Waterboy”, brought the crowd to its feet; she got a second standing ovation with “S’iomadh rud tha dhìth orm/Ciamar a ní mi ‘n dannsa díreach”, a tongue-twisting Gaelic mashup that started off stately and restrained and ended up wild and rocking.
Burnett, like everyone else, was knocked out by what he heard, and he asked Giddens if she was interested in making a solo album. Burnett admired her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the band Giddens founded in 2005 with banjo player and guitarist Dom Flemons and fiddler Justin Robinson. But he felt that Giddens’ gifts were “underutilized” in the Drops, whose repertoire comprises African American string band and other folk styles, black and white, mainly from North Carolina. “In the Bible it talks about hiding your light under a bushel,” Burnett remarked. With her superb debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn, Giddens’ light shines with the dazzling brilliance of a genuine star.
The 11 songs Giddens and Burnett picked for the album are stylistically diverse, covering blues, folk, country, gospel, jazz, and even French chanson. Giddens, of African American, European American, and Native American background, weaves together the various strands of American vernacular music into an all-in-one tapestry that also is a musical autobiography. “I always felt culturally adrift as a child because I’m mixed race,” Giddens remarked in an interview. “I’ve had to deal with that since I was little. Who am I? What makeup do I have? What are the black and the white?”
“So that just kinda made me even question what is in our background, and then hearing bluegrass and old country Hank Williams stuff and then hearing ’30s and ’40s jazz and blues records, and hearing all the music that makes North Carolina … and then getting my mom who is into Andre Segovia exposing me to a whole different side of things. I was having the perfect storm of all those different things coming together.”
Giddens’ musical education wasn’t limited to her family’s record collection. She graduated from Oberlin Conservatory with a degree in vocal performance – in the rehearsal scenes from the “Another Day, Another Time” documentary, she warms up with some operatic exercises – and that training has served her well. Her technical mastery enables her to realize her inclusive – and ambitious – aesthetic vision, in which there’s no place for the purists Bob Dylan has called “musical border police”.
Who says you can’t have Dolly Parton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe on the same album? Or Jean Ritchie and Nina Simone? Or Odetta and Patsy Cline?
Tomorrow Is My Turn covers material recorded by these and other women, famous and obscure. (The album’s feminism isn’t accidental; Giddens says that she picked songs that were “all by women or interpreted by women.”) There’s “Waterboy”, the plantation work song that Giddens performed at the Town Hall show. It was a staple of Odetta’s concerts, and Giddens honors her version. But Giddens’ interpretation — less declamatory, with more variation and nuance — transcends tribute. Her take on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head” equals the original for sheer, unbounded joy, with guitarist Colin Linden’s rockabilly licks underscoring Giddens’ testifying. Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” gets a lovely, understated reading while Giddens brings a soul flavor to “She’s Got You”, a Hank Cochran number that was a hit for Patsy Cline. On “Round About the Mountain”, Giddens, inspired by African American mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, who recorded the song in 1992, marries the dramatic intensity of opera and the soul-stirring fervor of gospel.
Countless singers, including Nina Simone and Joan Baez, have covered “Black Is the Color”, but Giddens reinvents the venerable folk song. Her version, inspired by North Carolina balladeer Sheila Kay Adams, adds R&B club beats and new lyrics Giddens wrote about her (redheaded) husband. Jean Ritchie, the folk doyenne (now 92) who introduced the world to Kentucky mountain music, surely would appreciate the vocal purity and Celtic melancholy Giddens brings to “O Love Is Teasin’”.
The album’s outlier is the title track, an English-language adaptation of “L’amour c’est comme un jour”, by Charles Aznavour and Yves Stéphane. (Giddens’ model was a performance by Nina Simone that she saw on YouTube.) It’s unlike anything she has done with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, or the American roots music that makes up most of her album. But it fits, as a statement of purpose by a gifted — and evidently fearless — artist who knows exactly what she’s doing, and why.
Tomorrow Is My Turn ends with “Angel City”, the one track Giddens wrote. Backed by guitar and fiddle, she delivers a tender homage to the women who inspired her. Giddens has said that she thinks of herself more as an interpretive singer than a songwriter. But “Angel City”, which she wrote while working with T Bone Burnett on his The New Basement Tapes, project, proves that she’s got the chops to create first-rate original material. (Giddens’ contribution to The New Basement Tapes, “Lost on the River”, is the best thing on the album of Bob Dylan lyrics set to new music by a diverse bunch of neo-folkies and rockers.)
On every track, Giddens’ singing is a wonder. She can dirty up a vocal line with blue notes and growls, sing with crystalline purity, rock out and soothe. Burnett’s production is adroit but unobtrusive, and the musicians he recruited — fiddler Gabe Witcher; bassists Paul Kowert and Dennis Crouch; percussionist Jack Ashford from Motown’s renowned Funk Brothers and drummer Jay Bellerose; guitarist Colin Linden, and Tata Vega on backup vocals — sound like a real band, not hired hands.
Everything works on Tomorrow Is My Turn, an album that heralds the arrival of a major American artist.