Arts & Culture
10:52 am
Fri March 14, 2014

Minstrel Music Meets The NC Symphony, Tonight

This is an example of a mInstrel show in the U.S.
Credit ilongga / Flickr/Creative Commons

Saturday March 15 the NC Symphony is working with Grammy winner Rhiannon Giddens in an interesting project. She will be singing traditional, classical/jazz selections. She will also present some of her own material, work that is based on minstrel music. (As you may know, minstrel music was often performed by white entertainers, in black face, for white audiences.)

Giddens has spent her career exploring the traditional music of African Americans and giving that music a modern flair. She won a Grammy for her efforts with the Carolina Chocolate Drops for the album Genuine Negro Jig.

Rhiannon Giddens with NC Symphony
Credit Michael Zirkle

Some say that the minstrel songs themselves came directly from the plantations, and that they are based on the music that enslaved people sang. But that might only be a part of the history, says Giddens:

"There's a camp of people who say that minstrel singing came from observing black folk on plantations and then there's people who say that it came more from black folk who were on ships and on the waterways." The idea is that on the ships, people heard music from many locations in Africa and Europe. So, "It's hard to say exactly where the earliest minstrel songs came from."

In addition, slaves did sing songs on the plantation, but many were encoded. The songs designed to pass along messages.

She started to wonder what the songs would sound like if slaves had more freedom with their thoughts and ideas.

As she found out more, Rhiannon Giddens began to image new lyrics for the old tunes.

She started to wonder what the songs would sound like if slaves had more freedom with their thoughts and ideas. And so she decided to write new lyrics.

"I mean this is part of where I am coming into this, re-writing some of these things, re-writing these lyrics because I kind of feel like, after what a lot of these folks had gone through, what they could have written had they been allowed to, and not been killed for their pains, I think would have been different than what eventually came out."

Phoebe Judge talks with Rhiannon Giddens about her new interpretation of minstrel music.

In one song, Giddens imagined that the slaves might have have passed along messages about the importance of  education. "You could be killed if you were trying to learn how to read or if you were known to be educated. Black folk knew that, and they knew that one of their only ways to know what was going on was to learn."

Here's an example of the new lyrics:

When I was just a little pick, I almost learned from cousin Nick. 'Ole massa found out sure enough, and poor ole Nick, he got strung up.

Better get your learnin'... better get your learnin'...better get your learnin'... before it goes away.

The year was 1863, the paper said that I was free, but no one read it to my ears, and so I stayed for two more years.

Better get your learnin'... better get your learnin'...better get your learnin'... before it goes away.

Rhiannon Giddens plays this music on a period banjo. The music itself came from a "Briggs Banjo Instructor," a book published in 1855 by Thomas Briggs. Listen to the whole song here:

Rhiannon Giddens plays banjo and sings the song, Better Get Your Learnin'.

Saturday March 15, Rhiannon Giddens will play more of this music, along with more traditional classical/jazz songs for a soprano with the NC Symphony under the direction of Grant Llewellyn.