This album was released several weeks ago and the reason why it’s taken some time for Blabber’n’smoke to acknowledge its existence is that it’s taken several weeks to fully delve into the importance of this document. The music and the written words within this disc are described by Rhiannon Giddens as, “Shining new light on African American stories of struggle, resistance, and hope, pulling from and inspired by 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century sources. Interpreting, changing, or creating new works from old ones.” More specifically Giddens notes that “There is surely racism in this country—it’s baked into our oldest institutions—just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice.”
The acorn of the album was planted when Giddens visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC and was struck by a quotation from William Cowper, a noted abolitionist and satirist. It took further root during a screening of Nate Parker’s film, Birth Of A Nation when Giddens noted that in a scene depicting the rape of a slave woman, the camera lingered on the husband’s humiliation. All of this and much more is explained in the superb liner notes which detail Giddens’ invitations to her co-stars here, all of them black female banjo players, the banjo of import in several respects, again all explained in Giddens’ essay. Ultimately, Giddens wants the album to be seen as “Part of a larger movement to reclaim the black female history of this country.” As such, she and her sisters in song have succeeded as the album packs a powerful punch. The songs, all eminently memorable contain a litany of crimes, misdeeds and horrors visited upon their forebears while also celebrating the indomitable spirit which allowed them to survive and sometimes rise above such evil.
The Quartet performing Songs Of Our Native Daughters are Giddens, her former Carolina Chocolate Drops colleague Leyla McCalla, Alison Russell (of Po’ Girl and Birds Of Chicago) and Amythyst Kiah. Together they are a formidable force, writing or co-writing in various combinations and singing together in a spectacular fashion while producer Dirk Powell is acknowledged as an important ingredient in the mix. The songs range from powerful southern infused fury to glorious sun kissed Caribbean harmonising while Bob Marley is saluted in the cover of Slave Driver, the notes stating, “Marley sang about spirituality and sensuality but also about militant resistance to oppression… Like Martin Luther King his militancy has been whitewashed in the years since his death.” Like Marley, this album has songs to enjoy but which also contain a message.
Kiah kicks things off with her song Black Myself, her powerful voice driving the song just as much as the stinging electric guitar which gives the song a southern rock thump as she notes that there were considered degrees of “blackness.” Moon Meets The Sun follows, an almost calypso like song which is notable for the superb interplay of their voices but behind its sunny disposition the four are singing a defiant song, “Ah you steal our children but we’re dancing ah you make us hate our very skin but we’re dancing.” Giddens reads from the Cowper poem which so moved her in the haunting Barbados before Allison Russell hoves into view on what is possibly the most impressive song on the album. Quasheba, Quasheba grew from her own research into her family history uncovering this ancestor who was stolen in Africa and sold into slavery. Leyla McCalla meantime moves to the front for her salute to Etta Baker on I Knew I Could Fly, Baker being a blues guitarist who gave up playing when she married and only gained recognition in widowhood. The band then take great joy in upending the traditional John Henry, a song which celebrates the strength of the steel driving hero as they transfer him to a sick bed while his wife Polly Ann goes to work in his stead and survives.
The album is packed with memorable and moving songs. Mama’s Crying Long is a field holler telling of a slave who killed her rapist and was lynched. Better Git Yer Learnin’ is set to an 1885 banjo tune and commemorates the attempts to set up black schools after emancipation, many of which were simply blown up by whites. McCalla offers up a Haitian inspired number on Lavi Difisil and Kiah and Russell turn in a powerful diatribe regarding the hypocrisy of white slave owners who were happy to rape their slaves and then sell off their own black offspring on Blood & Bones, linking this to the misguided current white nationalist movement which has been revitalised under the current occupant of the White House. And it’s this linkage which lifts the album from being merely an incredibly well performed set of roots music, similar in fashion say to Ry Cooder’s or Taj Mahal’s best efforts. The stories and histories sung about here unfortunately reverberate through the ages and continue to impact. Black people and in particular black women are still discriminated against, look at #BlackLivesMatter for example. Writing as a white male in the first world one can’t begin to feel the ongoing pain, humiliation and real danger visited upon those who face these trials on a daily basis. The wonder of this album is that it might make more of us think about this more often. Buy it for the music as it is tremendous but take some time to investigate it as well. There’s even a bibliography to get you started. As well as being a contender for album of the year it’s probably the most important album of the year.