Monday, December 3, 2018

Leftovers: Women: At The Purchaser’s Option


Last week’s Leftovers post was inspired by the I’m With Her concert my wife and I recently saw. Nine days later, we went to Symphony Space in NYC to see the final night of a Rhiannon Giddens residency week, a show billed as “Sisters Present.” All we knew was that the concert would include Giddens, Toshi Reagon, Amythyst Kiah, a young banjo and guitar player and singer, Birds of Chicago's Allison Russell, and Giddens’ sister, Lalenja Harrington, a singer, poet and, in her day job, Director of Academic Programming Development & Evaluation for Beyond Academics, a four-year certificate program supporting students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the University of North Carolina Greensboro (and a Princeton alumna). Giddens herself has quite the bio, which you can read about here.

Giddens had already provided me with my favorite musical moment of 2018-her intimate solo workshop performance at the Clearwater Festival, followed by her full-band show on the main stage, and knowing the work of some of the other performers, the question was not whether it would be good, but how good. At the end of the night, it was clear that Giddens has now provided me with my two favorite musical memories of 2018. It really was an amazing night of music, and that includes the rhythm section of Jason Sypher on bass and Attis Clopton on drums, with Francesco Turrisi on accordion and piano. And beyond the basic quality of the singing, playing, songwriting and arranging, it was wonderful seeing how much the women appreciated each other’s work.

I’ve found two reviews online of the show, one from the New York City Music Daily blog, which referred to the performances as “riveting” and “intense,” and No Depression described the concert as one “where the power of music and the spirit of togetherness gave off a light so bright and true it is hard to find the words to describe it.” But finding words, the reviewer called it “two sets of highlight after highlight, with Giddens leading a stage full of immense talent.”

For the most part, the concert consisted of new or recent songs (or poems), all of which were informed by the past musical styles and history that influences the performers (many of which were the subject of an earlier show in the residency, “Sisters Past” which focused on covers of older songs). They played together, and individually, with some emphasis on music written by Giddens, Russell and Kiah for a forthcoming Smithsonian Folkways album, Songs of our Native Daughters.

While I agree with No Depression that it is hard to pick a single highlight, certainly, Giddens’ performance of “At The Purchaser’s Option,” is a strong candidate. An original song inspired by a slavery-era advertisement for a “remarkably smart, healthy Negro wench,” who is described as having “a child 9 months old, which will be at the purchaser’s option,” Giddens sings the heartbreaking song from the woman’s perspective, describing the hardship and oppression of slavery—particularly being a female slave—overlaid by the additional fear of knowing that she could be separated from her baby, by forces utterly out of her control. And yet, she recognizes that her master, and the system, can take everything from her, except her soul. It is a remarkably powerful song, in the studio version that you can see in the video above. Despite its roots in the 19th Century, NPR voted it the 30th greatest song by a 21st Century woman or non-binary writer.

And it was incredible in the live version performed at the “Sisters Present” concert. Luckily, someone named David Adler, who had seats very close to the stage, recorded it, so you can see it.

It was also great from my seat in the balcony, by the way.

Finally, if you think that the lyrics are just a bit too much, and just want to hear the music, as interpreted by the Kronos Quartet, go here.

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