Music’s healing power

Rhiannon Giddens’ April 1 appearance on Firing Line with Margaret Hoover described how banjo music came to America with African slaves. In Appalachia, European and African traditions blended to create music that can teach and heal. Giddens’ audiences are predominantly white and she described feeling “broken” by a sea of mostly black faces when she performed at Sing Sing prison.

Giddens, a performing historian, uses music as a tool to teach an American version of the human story. She finds–and imparts–powerful lessons from history that can bring healing. Though she grew up in North Carolina, she first learned of the 1898 Wilmington Insurrection through her study of music.

On Firing Line, Giddens–a mother of two–sang “At the Purchaser’s Option,” inspired by the 1797 ad depicted below, which offered a young slave woman for sale. Her 9-month-old child was available “at the purchaser’s option.” The song, which she wrote with Joseph Edward Ryan, includes this chorus:

“You can take my body; You can take my bones; You can take my blood; But not my soul.”

See also: “Rhiannon Giddens’ 21st-Century Sound Has a Long History,” by Justin Davidson, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2019; “Why These Four Banjo-Playing Women Resurrected the Songs of the Enslaved,” by Charlie Weber, Smithsonian Magazine, April 10, 2019; “To Balance on Bridges,” a 2021 audiobook by Rhiannon Giddens.

From the New York Heritage Digital Collection

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