In her Turning the Tables essay for NPR Music, singer-songwriter Kaia Kater extols Rhiannon Giddens' virtues as not only a singer, fiddler, banjoist and folklorist, but also as a reckoner of truth. "Throughout her career Giddens has been reaching towards something more imperative than the honors and praise she's received," Kater writes. "With every performance, she gently enters the listener's mind, whittling away at our fallacy of perception as reality."
Through Carolina Chocolate Drops and her versatile solo work, Giddens has demonstrated clearly that folk music is intrinsically tied to the black experience. Now, she's formed a folk supergroup of sorts called Our Native Daughters, featuring former bandmate Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell (of Birds of Chicago) and Amythyst Kiah. Their debut album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, is a restoration of narrative, to render in song the pain and resilience of black women over the course of American history.
"Gathering a group of fellow black female artists who had and have a lot to say made it both highly collaborative and deeply personal to me," Giddens writes in a press release. "It felt like there were things we had been waiting to say our whole lives in our art, and to be able to say them in the presence of our sisters-in-song was sweet indeed. I see this album as a part of a larger movement to reclaim the black female history of this country."
Each member of Our Native Daughters contributes songs, harmonies and instruments to the record, reaching back to their ancestors and experiencing parallels within their own lives. Giddens brought "Mama's Cryin' Long" to the group, as she explains in a short documentary about the recording. The words stem from a slave narrative about a woman who stabs an overseer after being raped repeatedly; the killing is turned into a song by a child who saw the blood stains on the dress.
Giddens takes the lead vocal as McCalla, Russell and Kiah respond in unison, accompanied only by a handclap and drum. The story is told in short fragments — "Mama's hands are shakin' (and she can't get up) ... It was late at night (when she got the knife) ... She went to his room (when she got the knife)... Mama's dress is red (it was white before)" — that drive toward the end. The performance leaves the quartet visibly shaken, but embedded in the harrowing end seems to be hope: "Mama's in the tree (and she can't come down) ... Mama's flyin' free (and she can't come down) / Mama's flyin' free (and she won't come down)."
Songs of Our Native Daughters comes out Feb. 22 via Smithsonian Folkways.