You might not expect there to be any dance tunes on Songs of Our Native Daughters. This is, after all, an album released on Smithsonian Folkways, an imprint famous for its scholasticism. It’s named in homage to a James Baldwin collection. Its liner notes contain assiduous footnotes and recommendations for further reading. The songs– all 13 of them– trace the long tendrils of the African slave trade; give names to the skeletons that still rattle in our closets; linger long over violence enacted on the bodies of black women. It is unflinching; demanding, even. And yet, less than four minutes in, there it is: “Moon Meets the Sun,” featherweight and buoyant in its gossamer banjo rhythms, an airy mbaqanga dusted in American ash and clay. It almost sounds impossible, and it’s not even the only dance tune on the record: A late-album highlight called “Music and Joy,” creates wide grooves through sparkling polyrhythms, offering just what its title advertises. So if you read the album’s elevator pitch and want to psych yourself out of it– if you assume its achievement is academic, that it’s a righteous and necessary album but ultimately a harrowing listen– don’t. Lean in and you’ll discover a record that’s musically deep and robust; songs that ask us to sit with atrocities but not to settle for them. Remarkably, Songs of Our Native Daughters is both unsparing in its witness-bearing and uncompromising in its sweep of redemption. “We smile to the sky/ We move to stay alive/ And we’re dancing,” one song beams; this music is based in scholarship but enlivened by the resolution to wring joy from desolation; to mine the unthinkable for wisdom and light.
It’s no surprise that a project like this would spring from the mind of Rhiannon Giddens– celebrated folklorist, deep conceptual thinker, minister of neighborliness, curator of what she dubs “black girl banjo magic.” There’s plenty of that here thanks to the convening of blues conjurer Amythyst Kiah, borderless folk visionary Leyla McCalla, and luminous Bird of Chicago Allison Russell, all of them writing, singing, and playing multiple instruments. Even the assemblage of this group, like the summoning of The Avengers, feels momentous; a reclamation of folk forms often supposed to be indigenous to white, rural America but actually rooted in the African diaspora, nurtured and sustained by generations of women. Songs of Our Native Daughters is that secret history writ large, manifest through songs that accommodate both the highlife rumble of “Music and Joy” but also the sawing fiddles of “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” the sinewy blues of “Black Myself,” the prickly bluegrass of “I Knew I Could Fly.” It’s a history that’s been carried through suffering and physical trauma– through “blood and bones,” as one song puts it– and these women honor that history through narratives that never hold back or evade specificity. Many of the receipts of chattel slavery are aired here, including reckonings with the plundering of bodies, the theft of children, the crack of whips, the corruption of Christianity into slaveholder religion, and economic devastation that festers still. Giddens unpacks the economics most explicitly in her spoken word piece “Barbados,” where slavery is condemned as a moral affront but then accommodated as a capitalistic necessity. It’s a song that chases the intellectual seed of racism and injustice, but other songs are purely visceral; “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” a tour of violence wrought upon black women, is set to hand claps and thumping percussion, each one landing with a bruise. “Slave Driver,” sinister and traumatized, charts slavery’s warped genealogy, naming illiteracy and poverty as its spiritual children. “Moon Meets the Sun” locates the moral authority that slaveholder religion abandoned: “May the god that you gave us/ forgive you your trespasses.”
These are songs of integrity, historic precision, and moral clarity; they’re not written to make anyone feel better. And yet those very qualities are what make the album’s redemptive work so astonishing and so believable. It would be grace enough to hear these women channel suffering into “music and joy,” or to hear how “Moon Meets the Sun” traces back a long lineage of perseverance and strength (“we’ll survive this” may be the record’s single most stirring example of plainspoken resilience). Kiah supplies the pluck in “Black Myself,” which posits defiant self-respect as its own form of ancient wisdom (“I don’t creep around/ I stand proud and free”). But it’s Russell who’s ablest to turn sorrow into gladness. She sings the album-closing “You’re Not Alone,” which cries out to be performed by Mavis Staples and which summons the witness of the ancestors as a deep reservoir of courage (“All the ones that came before you/ their strength is yours now”). And in “Quasheba, Quasheba,” she tells the story of a distant grandmother who was captured in Ghana and sold into slavery in Grenada. Russell acknowledges a loss that’s incalculable but finds within it a fountainhead of hope; it was through Quasheba’s tenacity and survival that an entire family line blossomed. “By the grace of your strength we have life,” Russell sings, her voice just one of the multitude of blessings that sprung from Quasheba’s resilience. Over and over, Songs of Our Native Daughters tells the stories of women’s bodies being wrested into instruments of commerce, transmuted into crops and into gold– but Russell reframes the narrative. In her telling, a woman’s life is the seed for generations to come, a family tree that stretches on. It’s a song Quasheba’s captors never could have intended.
(Incidentally, the folds of the Rhiannon Giddens Extended Universe include not just Songs of Our Native Daughters and Giddens’ bridge-building collaboration with Francesco Turrisi, but also a recent solo album from McCalla, titled The Capitalist Blues. In it, the Haitian-American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist creates a jostling and anachronistic vision of her New Orleans home, one that hums with humor, empathy, and pan-cultural imagination. The title song, a vaudevillian shuffle set to old-timey banjo strumming, surveys the wreckage of late stage consumer capitalism; “Aleppo,” a distorted punk-blues, surveys the wreckage of falling bombs. By no means are the two songs unrelated. Listen to this album and then chase it with a repeat of Giddens’ “Barbados” if you really want to feel the capitalist blues.)