Lately, songwriting women across the roots-to-indie-rock spectrum have exemplified the power of solidarity — an understanding that teaming up will lead to shared insight, buoying empathy or freer, brasher expression. Coming together under the name Our Native Daughters proved to be an especially significant move for Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, who've shouldered a particular burden as banjo-playing women of color: They've not only been called upon to deliver compelling performances, but also to explain their connection to string-band lineages falsely presumed to be the historic domain of white men.
After touring with McCalla in one iteration of the influential group Carolina Chocolate Drops — and crossing paths with both Russell (co-leading Po' Girl, then Birds of Chicago) and Kiah on the folk-festival circuit — Giddens invited the three to join her in writing, arranging and recording Songs of Our Native Daughters at the secluded Louisiana bayou studio of her co-producer, Dirk Powell.
The four collaborators brought distinct voices to the affair, with McCalla's delivery characterized by willowy sereneness and subtly jazzy phrasing; Russell's by feathery, softhearted trills and curlicues; Kiah's by flintily soulful resonance; and Giddens' by lithe expressiveness and regal bearing. All are multi-instrumentalists, and even their approaches on banjo differ in rhythm, register and texture; Giddens plucks minstrel banjo, an earlier, fretless form, while the others play five-string or tenor. The resulting 13 tracks are a loosely woven tapestry of the members' contributions that's also strikingly sharp in vision.
Giddens has done as much as any contemporary musician — or historian, for that matter — to demonstrate how reviving and riffing on traditional styles and repertoires can, and should, go hand in hand with unflinching, informed acknowledgement of the shameful realities that shaped them. Kiah, Russell and McCalla joined her in an artistic mission to supplant the portrayals of slavery as an abstract, ancient sin with the imaginative, immersive contemplation of its individual human impact and aftermath.
In the liner notes (to which Giddens has strategically appended a bibliography to encourage further reading), she spells out the awareness that animates this collaboration: "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 — in large, public ways that are only beginning to be highlighted, and in countless domestic ways that will most likely never be acknowledged."
The Daughters depict black women's resilience from numerous angles. In "I Knew I Could Fly," McCalla inhabits the role of Etta Baker, a Piedmont blues guitarist whose husband stood in the way of her performing career. McCalla sounds wistful and furtive, channeling Baker's secret knowledge of her musical ability and aspirations. "Quesheba, Quesheba" is Russell's hymn of lament and veneration to an ancestor she discovered was likely captured in Ghana and sold into slavery. The spirit and theme of the songwriting like that is new territory for Russell, and the same could be said for Kiah's Southern soul-rock number "Black Myself." Jabbing each line of the bluesy, mulish melody and supported by her bandmates' gospel-style harmonies, she depicts the simmering defiance of self-respect in the face of racism. In the song's most pointed confrontation, she inverts sacramental language familiar to Christian slaveholders: "Is you warshed in the blood of your chattel? 'Cause the lamb's rotted away."
In other songs, the Daughters zero in on more tangible tools of self-preservation. "Better Git Yer Learnin," a peppy banjo tune that Giddens found in a minstrel songbook and gave new lyrics, is a formerly enslaved person's lecture to subsequent African-American generations to empower themselves with literacy. It makes spry, knowing use of justified bitterness. "So now that I am old and gray / Listen close to what I say," Giddens warns. "The white folks they will write the show / If you can't read, you'll never know." "Mama's Cryin' Long," on the other hand, offers the album's most emotionally wrenching storytelling. Over a syncopated, minimalist pattern of hand claps and tom-tom thumps, Giddens summons the wide-eyed distress of a child watching an overseer repeatedly rape his enslaved mother. Eventually, the stark, horrified lines she's singing, to which the other three Daughters respond in matter-of-fact unison an octave beneath her voice, relate the fact that the mother has stabbed her attacker and is lynched for it. Giddens' vibrato takes on a choked quality as her repetitions of "Mama's flyin' free" transform the observation of death into a terrible but simultaneously liberation-minded chant.
In the musical circle formed by Kiah, McCalla, Giddens and Russell, there's also room for a mother's tender words of protection to her child in "You're Not Alone" and the unfettered pleasure of dance in "Music and Joy," a three-minute romp with a springy Afro-Cuban groove. The track that best embodies their dynamic, and the strength they draw from each other's willfulness, is "Moon Meets the Sun." They sing in the round over a polyrhythmic lacework of banjo and guitar, vowing not to let radical suffering diminish humanity. "Ah, you sell our work for your profit, but we're dancing," Giddens scoffs. "Ah, you think our home we have forgotten, but we're dancing." Then she recedes into the jubilant tangle of voices.