Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi Find the Comfort in Old-Time Sad Songs

When Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi began considering what songs to perform at the many home livestreams they played during the early days of 2020 lockdown, they started coming up with songs they hadn’t sung or even thought about in years. For Giddens, that meant old-time fiddle tunes, like “Black As Crow” (often called “Dearest Dear,” or “The Blackest Crow”) that she learned in her early twenties in her native North Carolina. For Turrisi, it meant traditional Italian songs, like the lullaby “Nenna Nenna,” which he used to sing to his baby daughter.

“We were comforting ourselves with them for a while,” Giddens of these familiar songs, “and then we thought, we need to do something with these.” With both musicians spending lockdown in Ireland, far away from their respective home countries of the U.S. and Italy, those homesick tales became the basis of They’re Calling Me Home, Giddens and Turrisi’s latest album, out in April.

“We created our own little space where we can fill in the gap of missing home,” Turrisi says of the record, which features unexpected arrangements — Giddens on the viola and Turrisi playing the cello-banjo — of traditionals like “Amazing Grace” and “O Death.”

The album follows in the wake of the duo’s collaborative debut, 2019’s There Is No Other, which featured Turrisi and Giddens mixing and merging instrumentation, arrangements, and material from North African, European, Middle Eastern, and American musical traditions. “Everything we do, there’s going to be a piece of that, the crossing of the boundary, just by nature of who we are,” says Giddens, who sees their new album as more of an interior, emotional record that’s less explicitly centered around such cross-cultural exchange.

Album highlights include “Waterbound” (featuring Niwel Tsumbu on guitar), a fiddle tune first recorded in the 1920s with a chorus that plainly vocalizes Giddens’ lockdown homesickness: “Waterbound and I can’t get home/Down in North Carolina,” she sings.

The title track of the album, “Calling Me Home,” however, is a relatively recent original written by a fellow North Carolinian, the roots pioneer Alice Gerrard. Gerrard, who loves Giddens’ new arrangement of her song, wrote the  ballad in an old-time, unaccompanied style after studying and spending time with renowned fiddlers like Luther Davis in Galax, Virginia, in the Eighties. 

“What that song is about, really, is an homage to some of the older people who told me their stories and sang their songs, and who were aware, and proud, to sing so that somebody might be carrying on the songs they were passing to us,” says Gerrard, 86, in a phone interview. “Rhiannon, herself, appreciates that aspect of learning the music of the elders.”

Calling from their respective homes in Ireland, Giddens and Turrisi explained the origins behind their latest album.

How did They’re Calling Me Home come together?
Giddens: We made There Is No Other together two years ago, and we had always thought, “Oh yeah, we should definitely do this again.” We were going to do something different this year. I haven’t had a big ensemble record in a while, so we had plans to go to California. All of that is obviously not happening, but we were able to make music together and figure out how to make that music mean something to us in lockdown. These songs started coming. 

Turrisi: We found ourselves working for livestreams and very often we found ourselves in my sitting room, in a very small space, trying to put together material for a stream. We kept it minimal, just sitting the both of us around the microphone… So this record ended up being even more stripped-down than There Is No Other. That’s the vibe. When the tunes started coming, unconsciously we both started bringing up stuff from our home countries that, obviously, we have no way to get back to throughout this entire period. 

Giddens: You know how singing sad songs makes you feel better in this weird way? Themes of death and homesickness and leaving and loss in all these old traditional songs, they express things so well and so simply. Generations of people have gone through things as bad or worse for many, many, many years, and these songs connect us to those generations. There is a comfort in that: We’re not alone. We’re just the newest kid on the sad block. 

Did you both feel like you learned a lot from this space of exchanging songs from your respective cultures and homelands?
Giddens: The traditions less than just our emotional state. “Waterbound,” I hadn’t sung or thought about that song in years. I had learned it so long ago, and it just started coming out of my mouth. “Where is this coming from?” It was just this deep connection to old, very important roots.

Turrisi: We put two Italian songs on the record. The lullaby [“Nenna Nenna”], I heard that many years ago. It’s not from my childhood but I used to sing it to my daughter when she was a baby. Rhiannon and I started messing with it for fun. The last thing I imagined, to be honest, was that she was going to make me sing it on a record. That’s my debut, for sure, as a singer.

Giddens: [This record] is really more about family and, “What does it mean to be an expatriate? To have two homes and none all at once?” We were thinking about that a lot. Neither one of us are Irish. We’re living in Ireland, both cut off, so these songs were a way that we could form our own little unit. 

Rhiannon, where were you in your career and life when you were learning traditional songs like “Waterbound”
Giddens: I’m from North Carolina, and I started learning old time music — something like “Waterbound” or “Black As Crow,” that was the very first old-time waltz I ever learned. I remember it very clearly. I was 24, I had went to see this group, they were a big part of the old-time scene in Greensboro. It’s a song I hadn’t done in years. It just takes you back. A lot of these songs are really connected to me early in the days of my old-time discovery period.

Gillian Welch, who also released a covers record of old folk songs during quarantine, has said that turning to old traditional songs that dealt with hard times helped her find comfort during quarantine. Do you also feel that way?
Giddens: That’s what they’re for. This was people’s daily life. People around the world, before the pandemic hit, were living through war and displacement and famine and all sorts of stuff that we, in some places in America and Europe, cannot understand. Even now, in lockdown, in our safe houses, with enough food, we don’t understand what some of these lives are like.

These songs offer up a little tiny clue. It simultaneously is a comfort, i.e. we are part of this larger experiment of humankind. But also, actually, we can get through this. It could be a lot worse. Ultimately, we have to put it in perspective and go, “OK, this is really tough stuff, and some people are having it way worse than others.” That’s always the case. And so, how can we use these emotions to comfort ourselves so that we can then reach and comfort other people? It always has to lead to, “How can we better life for somebody else?” We have to get out of ourselves in order to do that. 

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