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More Than An Amazing Concert – Rhiannon Giddens

by | Feb 28, 2023

Rhiannon Giddens (center) performing with Justin Robinson (left) and Laurelyn Dossett (right).


Sunday evening was standing room only in the Duke Family Performance Hall.was

While they came for the musical performance that would be part of the Davidson College Concert Series and the C. Shaw and Nancy K. Smith Artist Series, ticket holders got so much more. The first indication that it was going to be a little bit different was when the program stated in all caps “PROGRAM TO BE ANNOUNCED FROM THE STAGE.”

Davidson President Doug Hicks reading the citation for the Doctor of Fine Arts.

Before the curtain went up, Davidson College President Doug Hicks walked out onto the stage in academic regalia.

He quickly let those gathered in on a well-kept secret. There would be more than a musical performance from MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and Grammy Award winning composer and musician – Rhiannon Giddens. Davidson College would bestow an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts on her.

Hicks was joined on stage by Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs Shelley Rigger. Shortly thereafter, Giddens walked out in an academic robe. As she stood on the stage, Hicks read the citation – the full text of which is provided at the end of this article.

Rigger and Hicks then placed the academic hood on Giddens. There was a moment of levity when they realized that it was inside out. They removed it, made the correction, and put it back on correctly.

And with that, there was a little break to allow for the transition on the stage. The audience was already in a great mood, and gave the stage crew an ovation when they came out to move the microphone and podium. When they finished, the curtain went up.

Giddens began with solo, a stirring a cappella performance of “Calling Me Home” by Alice Gerrard.

Laurelyn Dossett

She was subsequently joined on stage by her fellow musicians – Laurelyn Dossett and Justin Robinson. Dossett previously served as artist in residence at Davidson and performed with Daniel Bernard Roumain in 2012. She came back to Davidson in 2014 to direct the performance of ”Providence Gap,” the musical play she co-wrote with Preston Lane. In fact, Dossett shared that when Giddens called her for support on a project, she was here in Davidson. She always remembers that Davidson connection fondly.

Throughout the evening’s performance they sang a variety of songs and played variety of instruments including fiddles, banjos, and guitar.

The music was punctuated with Giddens’ history lessons for the audience. One of those lessons was that the banjo was created by enslaved persons. She further demonstrated the difference between a modern banjo and her prized banjo, which was created based on the design of an 1850’s banjo. That banjo has four strings, but only three run the full length of the neck. One runs two-thirds of the way and has a tuning peg on the neck. It has a deeper, lower sound.

The trio received a standing ovation at the end of their performance and returned to perform an encore curtain call.

Justin Robinson

Prior to singing, Giddens talked about the days leading up to her visit to Davidson.

I feel so blessed to get to do the work I do, and to work with the people I work with. . . There is so much good work being done. . .but there is also a lot of unraveling. It’s crazy. Simultaneously, there are people tearing down truth and people doing everything they can to uncover it. All at the same time. . .I keep going for uncovering truth. Hopefully we keep going faster – faster than they tear it down.

As they tuned up for the final song, Giddens told the audience that they hadn’t performed it in public in 10 years, and then joked that “we won’t do it again – it’s the present you didn’t ask for.” And with that, they performed “Corn Bread and Butter Beans” – an old favorite of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.


The full citation:

This evening we honor Rhiannon Giddens, a native of Greensboro, a graduate of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics and Oberlin Conservatory, a musician, a scholar, a citizen of the world.  Her resume is long, her awards and accomplishments too many to enumerate here. One can surmise quite a bit about Ms. Giddens by spotlighting her Grammys and her “genius grant.” To stop there, though, would not capture the fullness of her contributions to our understanding of American musical history, American history, and the human condition.

We honor the incredible breadth and depth of her talent. She has achieved distinction in at least six different musical genres. Trained as a classical singer, she moved to Celtic music and began a study of traditional instruments, becoming a Celtic fiddler.

Perhaps the greatest defining of her career happened in 2005, when she attended the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University. She had the opportunity to perform with legendary African American musicians, and to meet others who were interested in exploring and celebrating the musical contributions of enslaved men and women. That week’s events sparked the formation of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an old-time ensemble that directly confronted the traditional narrative of Appalachian music as having an exclusively Scotch-Irish heritage. Five years later, The Carolina Chocolate Drops won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

From there, she took on the challenge of Broadway, preparing herself to transform from singer to actor/singer/dancer. Ms. Giddens also has made her marks in jazz and country and folk. She has a rare distinction of headlining the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival, and the Stagecoach Country Music Festival.

She has performed for presidents. She is the first woman and person of color to receive the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. She was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.  In 2021, They’re Calling Me Home, her collaboration with Francesco Turrisi, won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album.

And her prodigious talents expand beyond performance. She recently wrote the music for an original ballet, Lucy Negro Redux, for the Nashville Ballet. She composed the libretto and music for an original opera, Omar, based on the autobiography of the enslaved man Omar Ibn Said for Spoleto. (Incidentally, his Bible – an Arabic translation with his handwritten notes in the margins – resides in Davidson’s Archives and Special Collections.)  She has written a children’s book, Build A House, which confronts the history of slavery in America by telling the story of  courageous people and the music that sustained them through untold challenges. Ms. Giddens had a featured role on the television series Nashville.

Her talents will not be defined by genre or medium. There can be no doubt, in the language of the college’s primary purpose, that Ms. Giddens possesses a creative and disciplined mind.

She distinguishes herself with her humane instincts. Her North Star throughout her exceptional career has been clear: Lifting up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been erased, in order to work toward a more accurate understanding of the country’s musical origins.

BECAUSE through your art in all its mediums, you look the past straight in the eye, connect it to the truth about our present and give inspiration about what the future could be;

BECAUSE you use your humane instincts and disciplined and creative mind to lift up the generations of people before you whose voices have been erased;

BECAUSE your gifts and energies are abundant and generous, and you, through your art, have made room for everyone at the table;

NOW THEREFORE, on the 26th day of February in the year 2023, Davidson College, with the approval of the Faculty and the concurrence of the Board of Trustees, honors you, Rhiannon Giddens, and names you Doctor of Fine Arts, honoris causa.




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