Confronting Whiteness in Mountain Music


Photo of Rhiannon Giddens by Tanya Rosen-Jones for nonesuch records

While listening to Dolly Parton’s America, the musician Rhiannon Giddens was interviewed (at 29:11), and I was absolutely floored by how she dismantled the idea of “mountain music” being per se “White.”

Typographical Note: I’m using White to denote a social construct of race, not to denoted an actual racial phenotype.

My default image of “mountain music” is Dolly, or Kenny, or Del McCoury, or Hank Williams in his rhinestone suit, or Roy Clark “Pickin n’ Grinnin” on “Hee-Haw.” Something like this:

Such images and their imperial power would have us think that everything in such tableaux: bib overalls, straw hats, banjos, etc. were all also White.

But Ms. Giddens deflates that idea noting that luted instruments came from Africa. Think about it: the gourd was the resonating chamber of early lutes, and gourds grow in Africa not Europe. Luted instruments and the designs might have been translated into wooden forms in Spain (Moorish invasion) or Italy (trade with the city-states), but these instruments are fundamentally African.

Ms. Giddens explains further that the banjo came from Africa via the Caribbean to America by enslaved people on the same dismal route. After some time, she continues, the plantation instrument was appropriated and Whitewashed (like so many other aspects of African-American culture) into a possession of a segregated White history.

I was floored by this truth: while there’s always been a black history and a white history, there has never been the White history that so much effort and falsehood has labored to construct and maintain. Mountain music was never exclusively White and the banjo was never one of its possessions. Irish fiddles, English ballad lyrics, African lutes instruments, West Indian vocal and dance traditions. These are the truths that challenge the myth of per se “White” mountain music.

I suppose a confluence of media have all come to my attention recently which have been proclaiming the lie of “White history:”

  • Watching of “Hamilton,” meditating on its non-white cast playing white (and totemically White) icons so as to, by design, work to erase the false narrative of American history being exclusively the property of White men
  • Watching that choice serve to give non-white actors choice resume parts so that greater representation can be achieved (“Well, this person worked on the smash “Hamilton”, we should hire them!")
  • Witnessing the truth of the blackness of Thomas Jefferson’s love life in “Hamilton”
  • Karina Longworth’s powerful series exploring “Song of the South” on her podcast “You Must Remember This”
  • The recent film “Harriet” covering the biography of Harriett Tubman (Really good!)

In sum, with apologies to Faulkner, White history has never been separate, in fact it never even existed.

In addition to knowing the history of her instrument, Ms. Giddens continues to stymie the White and whitewashed narratives by performing joyful mountain music. She and her fellow (black) musicians play amazing, joyful mountain music under the moniker of the Carolina Chocolate Drops:

And on top of that, Ms. Giddens, a stunning vocalist, does an interpretation in Gaelic that would make you swear she was born in one of the counties of Erin. You can hear those mournful fiddle strings and the scales that underlie so much of the heart-rending cadences of mountain music. Who could know more sorrow than those who have been unwillingly and sickeningly turned into property?

I’m so thankful, impressed, and awed by talents like Ms. Giddens or Mr. Miranda. I grew up steeped in (unintentionally, to absolve my parents) systemic notions of Whiteness that, thanks to these artists, is being retired for a richer and more vibrant history of humanity.

In my country, we have so far to reconcile the dismal truth of whose blood and sweat built it. I don’t know that we have the skill required to negotiate such a deep chasm of discomfort presently.

But I do know that in “polite” places like Houston and California I didn’t see the problem getting better by “politely” skirting the facts. Where it’s messier, I actually see progress. In New Orleans’ lunch rushes I see black and white friends dining together. In New York, my colleague dared me to confront my assumptions with her T-shirt: “I love my blackness, and yours.” I was jarred, but more thinking and more reading points to this being a closer reality for many more people than are comfortable believing it.

Ms. Giddens and Mr. Miranda are trying to break down stultifying myths — for this nation to survive, they must succeed.