Album Review: Songs of Our Native Daughters

By Kevin Slick

Chances are, most people know this as the latest project from Rhiannon Giddens, winner of the 2016 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo, and recipient of a 2017 McArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” as well as a 2011 GRAMMY Award for her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. How you find this album is less important than the finding and listening. 

Giddens started the Our Native Daughters project after reading slave accounts in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. She also cites as inspiration the 2016 film drama, The Birth of a Nation, a film that attempts—and some say fails— to reclaim cinematic power from the infamous 1915 D.W. Griffith epic of the same name that celebrates the KKK. 

Giddens says that at the intersection of racism and sexism, “stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice.” 

The songs on this album tell the stories and sing the feelings of these women. The resulting work is a much more intimate history than is often found in books, and carries in its powerful performances an emotional impact that is rarely found in the historical accounts. 

The songs are modern folk songs, often based on traditional material, adapted and arranged by the four artists Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah. For example, Kiah and Russell take the verse about Polly Ann “driving still like a man” from the well-known folk song “John Henry” and create a new song dedicated to Polly. 

 Co-producer Dirk Powell deserves credit for helping craft the sound. Working with such intense subjects as slavery and rape, it might be easy to let the emotions overwhelm the sound. Thankfully, Songs of Our Native Daughters is a slow simmering burn that channels the rage of centuries of violence and discrimination into music that is powerful for what is left out as much as for what is included. Most of the songs features sparse instrumentation, notably a variety of old time banjo sounds alongside the four vocalists. 

Songs of heartbreak, unimaginable pain and celebration flow together on this album, a recording that needs to be heard and believed. 

Title: Songs of Our Native Daughters
Artist: Our Native Daughters[Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell]
Publisher: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, catalog number SFW40232