Less than two years ago, I attended the Folk Alliance International conference to learn what the word “folk” meant these days. During the year in which singer-songwriter Aimee Mann won a Best Folk Album Grammy Award for her lyrically rich pop-rock material (Mental Illness), I wanted to understand what “folk” was in the modern world. I interviewed international players and American musicians, record label executives and DJs, bookers and managers, ardent fans and casual listeners, etc. Nobody knew the answer. The consensus was that whatever an artist or audience considered folk was folk. The term is inclusive. It could consist of self-penned or traditional material, feature electronic and electric instruments or acoustic ones, derived from tribally-specific cultures or worldwide blends—and everything in between.
That is the point North Carolina folk musician Rhiannon Giddens (with Italian born Francesco Turrisi) makes by calling her latest opus there is no Other. The capitalization of “Other” is intentional, as is the use of lowercase lettering. “Other” refers to the process of separating people and their music according to their differences: ethnically, racially, biologically, geographically, etc. Giddens’ point is that the surface distinctions are far less important than their human connectivity. She creatively demonstrates this fact on the instrumental title song. Giddens begins by picking out chords on the Southern minstrel banjo in a rhythm and tone suggesting Arabian arrangements. After about a minute, Turrisi joins in on the frame drum. He’s not playing percussion as much as moving the tempo forward. The two get into a groove just by performing at the same time. The act of playing unites them without blending them together.
The title also has a more spiritual meaning. Giddens suggests that we are all part of a larger, transcendent existence. G-d is within and around us—not separate from our being. The other three self-penned songs (that have lyrics) demonstrate this as suggested by their titles “He Will See You Through”, “I’m on My Way”, and “Ten Thousand Voices”. The gospel roots of this material can be clearly heard on these as well as on the 19th-century American hymn “Wayfaring Stranger”. Giddens vocals shine on these tracks as she sings about the sacred and divine. While Turrisi’s instrumental contributions should not be overlooked, nor should Gidden’s fine performances, it is her voice that stands out the most.
That said, Giddens plays minstrel and cello banjos, octave violin, and viola. Turrisi takes on piano, accordion, frame drum, daf, tamburello, lute, cello banjo, colascione, bendir, and tombak. Kate Ellis also joins in on cello on three cuts and viola on one other. The acoustic implements may come from different places but work together to show their shared musical substructures as expressions of our common humanity. There is no “Other” is expressed this way as well. Giddens’ expressive voice may most often be the most notable feature of many cuts, but the sound of the instruments provide the channels by which it travels.
Several of the other tracks are explicitly sad, such as the British ballad “Little Margaret”, Ole Belle Reed’s Appalachian “Gonna Write Me a Letter”, and Carlisle Floyd’s operatic “Trees on the Mountains”. These songs feature protagonists that were abandoned by their lovers. The MacArthur genius grant winner may know that we are all part of the same godhead and music from across time and space may communicate our wholeness as a species, but she also understands that on an individual level we all do get the blues sometimes. There may be no “Other”, but without another person, our lives are incomplete. The album as a whole invites us to do more than share our misery. It asks us to see ourselves as part of something bigger.