Leave My Sorrow and Pain: A little rebirth for Allison Russell

The thing that really brought me clarity about Outside Child was learning that Allison Russell began writing it while on tour with Our Native Daughters. You remember Our Native Daughters, right? The group that proclaimed the rightful place of Black women in the unwritten history of banjo music, and put out a terrific album on Smithsonian Folkways that lingered long over the intergenerational bruises of the Atlantic Slave Trade? My favorite song on that album was Russell’s “Quasheba Quasheba,” which recounted the kidnapping and subjugation of an ancestral grandmother, but also celebrated the generations that have flowered in her wake. It’s a song about violence done to Black bodies, but also about how violent cycles can be broken, and even how they can bear redemptive ends that the abuser never imagined.

The songs on Outside Child are about the same things, only here, the violence is fresher, and closer to home. A song called “4th Day Prayer” outlines Russell’s story with a single harrowing couplet: “Father used me like a wife/ Mother turned the blindest eye/ Stole my body, spirit, pride/ He did, he did each night.” That’s about everything you need to know, save that Russell ultimately ran away from her abuser, living as an orphan and a runaway on the streets of Montreal. (“Montreal” is also the first song on the album, a hymn of gratitude to the city’s nurturing benevolence.) And that, though she is only now telling her story in public, Russell has not been idle; Outside Child tells a story that begins in brokenness but moves toward wholeness, chronicling a lifetime’s healing process. Not for nothing is its penultimate song called “Little Rebirth.”

After listening to the album for the first time, I went back to Real Midnight, an album Russell made in 2016 with her husband JT Nero, who together have a great band called Birds of Chicago. I have listened to that album close to a hundred times, I’d bet, finding kinship in its very relatable set of anxieties; like, how can a person ever feel at peace as a parent or a lover or a spouse when there are real wolves at the door, when nothing lasts forever, when things can end at any moment? (“Once she was born, I was never not afraid,” Joan Didion wrote, referencing her daughter Quintana.) I never knew to contextualize Real Midnight’s struggle in the broader story of Russell’s, but knowing it now makes that album sound sharper, somehow; its worries about the world’s capriciousness are not just theoretical, and neither is its sense of optimism. There is more of that on Outside Child. When Russell declares herself the “mother of the Evening Star,” it is a nod to her own daughter; to the end of one cycle and the beginning of something better.

I should get around to saying that Outside Child sounds earthy and pristine. It was recorded over four days in Nashville with producer Dan Knobler, and bolsters its storytelling with a colorful, porous library of roots music influences. (Birds of Chicago fans, take note: There are some very good Alli clarinet solos here, nearly enough for us to compile a definitive listicle. You might also be happy to know that JT plays on every song and sings on one of them, something I didn’t know I needed to hear until I was hearing it.) “Persephone” is nimble country-rock, comforting in its light touch and gentle gait. “4th Day Prayer” conjures a survivor’s swagger through fecund gospel harmonies. “The Runner” is a minor-key banger, celebrating the same rock-and-roll that Russell identifies as her deliverance from despair and purposelessness. When I hear a song called “The Runner,” I can’t help but assume it to be a song about prodigalism… but where the prodigal son in the Bible eventually wanders home, Russell finds home welling up around her. So, more like a Road to Damascus moment; not a song about finding something, but being found.

And this is one of the remarkable things about Outside Child: It is a rare gift of generosity and courage, and the bravery of Russell’s truth-telling lies in how it refuses to diminish either the darkness or the light. The world of Outside Child is one where abusers prowl like bloodthirsty hunters (real wolves, indeed), and Russell’s candor at times warrants a trigger warning. (“‘These are the best years of your life,’” she muses on one song. “If I’d believed it, I’d have died.”) But it’s also a world of benevolent cities, found family, and the redemptive power of music and art; because she is so honest about the darkness, you trust her when she invites you into a “little rebirth,” or drains the toxicity from a long-lodged poison arrow. There are signs of life everywhere, and often in places you wouldn’t think to look. When I’m listening to an album concerned with sexual abuse and see a title that reads “All of the Women,” my heart sinks; it’s about just what you think it’s about, and it’s a tough one, yet there is something amazing and beautiful in the way Russell finds room in her own story to advocate for others who’ve born abuse.

A few years ago, I was in the audience for a little Q&A session that Russell and Nero gave as part of Over the Rhine’s Nowhere Else Festival. I don’t remember the query that prompted it, but at one point Russell admitted to feeling self-conscious about her voice when she was a child, its slight rasp leading some to wonder if she’d come down with something. I’ve thought about that a lot while listening to Outside Child, an album where she never sounds less than confident, and where she renders something lovely from a traumatic history. I think about it when I play “Nightflyer,” a bold reclamation of the self. (It’s sort of her version of the Dylan song “I Contain Multitudes.”) I think about it when I play the cathartic album-ending “Joyful Motherfuckers,” where Russell speaks a word of blessing so surprising and powerful that I immediately began sobbing the first time I heard it, and also let out a string of gobsmacked swear words. And I think about it, and Quasheba, and whether art can really transform pain into something beautiful and redemptive, when I play “4th Day Prayer,” which features this nursery rhyme chorus: “One for the hate that loops and loops/ Two for the poison at the roots/ Three for the children breaking through/ Four for the day we’re standing in the sun.” I think what she’s singing about here is breaking patterns of violence; how it’s a process, potentially one that spans generation, but how it’s possible to achieve wholeness for ourselves and our children and the people who will call us ancestors. And based on all available evidence, I believe her.

By the Grace of Your Strength: Redemption songs from Our Native Daughters

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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.)