The venerable Izzy Young passed away earlier this year. However his work to preserve American musical heritage as represented by Smithsonian Folkways Records will live on for as long as there’s a Smithsonian, and possibly longer. To honor the legacy of Young, I’m going to look at one of the latest releases from Folkways, one of their efforts to publish contemporary music, as opposed to the archival releases they’re known for.
Songs of Our Native Daughters is an album by women of color folk supergroup Our Native Daughters, consisting of Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell. Rich in the history of black women and their musical heritage. Soaked deep in musical traditions and history, it seeks to celebrate the rich culture black women have to offer,
Accepting it as what it is, Songs of Our Native Daughters is a beautiful collection of folk music. The instrumental craft on these tracks is superb, and Giddens’ vocals are smooth and silky like a modern day Ella Fitzgerald, with the backup vocals making for superb and effective harmonies. Tracks like “Music and Joy”and the remarkably upbeat and happy “Lavi Difisil” illustrate this quite plainly, as the intricate banjo lines seamlessly meld together. There’s some great turns of phrases, like “demon mouths lined with halos” on “Blood and Bones” that prove for powerful imagery, illustrating systematic oppression with the grace of Zora Neale Hurston. The spoken word poem on “Barbados” is a haunting portrayal of the remorseful but complacent white man, set in 17th or 18th century British colonial America, the spirit of whom we can still see today.
But what exactly is Songs of Our Native Daughters? It feels like a group of songs sung by a grandmother on a porch as a series of cautionary tales to her grandchildren. This sounds particularly true on “Better Git Yer Learnin’” as a woman sings of slavery and Reconstruction and how hard it was for black people to get an education at that time. I’m sure it was intended as a mirror to Frederick Douglass’ struggles but it comes off more like Booker T Washington’s Up From Slavery, placing the onus of doing so on the black woman looking for opportunity instead of on the white man keeping those opportunities away from her.
It would perhaps be better titled Songs of Our Enslaved Mothers with its focus on the past. It’s not that we can’t learn from the past — I read too damn much US history to believe that — but without the proper lens this album can come off as lost in the history of oppression and totally disconnected from the plight of black women today.This album just doesn’t feel relevant in 2019. I’m not expecting Giddens to have a heavy beat to go behind her folk songs (although as I write that I wonder what a little more percussion and rhythm would do to this album), but this album feels like nobody under 50 is going to listen to it, even the neo-blues fans of people like Gary Clark Jr and Bones of JR Jones. Folkways has had a problem lately of being the label of an aging aesthetic, and I feel like Songs of Our Native Daughters only continues that.
Songs of Our Native Daughters is available now from Folkways Records.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.