While introducing her recent Tiny Desk concert, recorded in the Dublin home of her partner and musical collaborator Francesco Turrisi, Rhiannon Giddens announced that she and Turrisi would not be playing any new songs. For her, when it came to expressing emotions spurred by the rapidly shifting conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic (the Tiny Desk concert was recorded during Ireland’s early lockdowns), “the old songs say it best.” Although this comment contextualizes that remotely-recorded concert and her new album with Turrisi, They’re Calling Me Home (also recorded during the pandemic), that devotion to “the old songs” characterizes the entirety of Giddens’ career up to this point.
This is not to say that she simply “plays the hits” or dutifully rehearses established song traditions – far from it. Giddens has for some time been one of the most urgent and compelling voices in American roots music, both as a solo artist and as a member of the Black string music group Carolina Chocolate Drops. But few artists have championed traditional music in the way Giddens has.
One can see the perfect balance Giddens has struck between the days of yore and the present with a comparison between her first two solo LPs, 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn and 2017’s Freedom Highway. The former consists almost entirely of covers, with songs by artists spanning Elizabeth Cotten to Dolly Parton, while the latter showcases a set of tunes largely written by Giddens herself, along with several collaborators. Put alongside each other, these albums reveal how fluidly Giddens moves between traditional music and contemporary versions of those traditions.
Her rendition of Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree”, with its delicate flatpicking and gorgeous lead vocal, is a kind of musical time travel, making a song written in 1966 sound as alive as it ever had. On the Freedom Highway highlight “The Love We Almost Had”, Giddens sells her blues tune like it’s a standard that’s been around for a hundred years. In this way, Giddens’ music embodies the spirit of what her fellow Southerner William Faulkner once said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But on They’re Calling Me Home and the Turrisi collaboration that preceded it, the spartan 2019 record there is no Other, Giddens draws more from the traditional rather than contemporary elements of her sound. Giddens and Turrisi, armed with a bevy of acoustic instruments including numerous types of banjo, draw from a song catalogue so extensive as to include Irish folk, American roots, and Italian opera – the latter a throwback to Giddens’ days at Oberlin, where she studied opera. The sound of these two records is simple, clean, and pure to the songs themselves. One would be hard-pressed to find any excessive instrumentation or wrong notes.
They’re Calling Me Home memorializes and breathes new life into a set of songs that feel familiar and entirely unexpected. Hearing Giddens perform folk numbers like “Black as Crow” and “Waterbound” will be a delight to those who encountered her through her solo work or the Carolina Chocolate Drops. But on the chilling a cappella rendition of the Italian lullaby “Nenna Nenna”, which Turrisi used to sing to his daughter when she was young, the music takes on the quality of a medieval monk’s chant. When you think you know what direction Giddens is going, she finds the exact right way to illuminate music that can seem at times like a museum piece more than a living, breathing composition.
No song on They’re Calling Me Home illustrates this better than its curtain call, a wordless rendition of “Amazing Grace”. On paper, it’s the sort of song that one hardly thinks about as an actual song anymore: it’s something we all sing in unison at church services, funerals, and other somber occasions. We know the tune; we know the words. So what Giddens does is leave the words out, patiently drawing out the song’s melody while humming it over some hand drums and bagpipes. What’s left is a composition so elemental and powerful that it’s no wonder that its source material occupies such a major part of the cultural firmament. It is as if Giddens and Turrisi isolated the very core of the song, allowing the notes to speak for themselves gently yet powerfully. Giddens has performed this kind of sonic alchemy before, but it is no less remarkable to hear it in this form.
The “old songs” of They’re Calling Me Home serve to remind us of music’s eternal power. These songs, even as they grow old, only die if we let them.