By Keaton Case
Rhiannon Giddens is an internationally recognized singer and songwriter who has never lost touch with her musical roots in North Carolina. This September, Giddens returns to her hometown of Greensboro, as guest curator of the 2018 North Carolina Folk Festival. Giddens credits her Tar Heel roots for inspiring her to be the artist she is today. Her decision to play such an important role as a performer and advisor to this year’s festival is especially poignant given her roots in this community.
“I have always been very vocal about how much North Carolina as a state and as a culture has played into who I am as an artist today,” Giddens said in an interview with the News & Record. The North Carolina Folk Festival is a legacy event to the National Folk Festival, which for the previous three years attracted over 100,000 people to downtown Greensboro every fall.
Like the National Folk Festival, the North Carolina Folk Festival provides a platform for musicians, dancers, and craftspeople to
share their cultural roots and heritage in front of thousands of attendees who come to Greensboro to enjoy great food, crafts,
and performances that celebrate new genres of music and dance.
For its inaugural year, folk festival organizers saw Giddens as the ideal guest curator to contribute to her expertise and artistic vision to this three-day celebration, and to spread a narrative of art as a vehicle to connect the present and past through a reinvigoration of historical traditions.
Just ask Tom Philion, the former president and chief executive officer of Arts Greensboro, which produces the event.
“She really wanted to be part of this launch of the North Carolina Folk Festival,” said Tom Philion, who retired from the non- profit last spring. “Capturing this destination event for North Carolina and Greensboro is a major coup for the region.”
Born and raised in Greensboro, Giddens grew up amid the rich cultural heritage the state offers. She later graduated from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham and then studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.
Before long, she discovered the banjo and returned to North Carolina where she sought out and studied with Joe Thompson, the celebrated African-American North Carolina fiddler.
From Thomspon, Giddens learned about the historical role of the banjo in African-American string music. Inspired by her sessions with Thompson, Giddens carries on those traditions and is dedicated to sharing the music, stories, and history of overlooked black banjo and fiddle players of the past.
Giddens is a co-founder of the Grammy Award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, who won Best Traditional Folk Album for their 2010 recording Genuine Negro Jig. In 2016, the band was inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame. Her solo work has earned her three additional Grammy nominations and helped open the door for her to be both an actress and songwriter on “Nashville,” a TV series that aired on CMT.
In October 2018, Giddens was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant,” a no-strings-attached award of $625,000 for “reclaiming African-American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and present.”
The award provides Giddens an opportunity to delve deeper into musical and historical topics that she can tell through different mediums. With the help of the MacArthur Fellowship, she has begun work on a powerful musical production that revives the story of the Wilmington insurrection of 1898.
She and her band are continuing to tour to support their 2017 album “Freedom Highway.”
And no matter where she goes, Giddens always thanks her home state for her success.
“What I have been able to do on a national stage and an international stage,” Giddens says, “wouldn’t be what it is without
having grown up in North Carolina.”