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North Carolina’s Most Famous Person

by | Aug 14, 2023

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


Who is the most famous living North Carolinian? Michael Jordan? Stephen Curry? Zach Galifianakis? Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Richard Petty? Franklin Graham? Others?

My answer today: Greensboro native Rhiannon Giddens, who was a part of my recent column about Omar ibn Said, the enslaved scholar of the Arabic language. Giddens starred in the opera about Omar. She and Michael Abels shared a Pulitzer Prize for writing and composing that opera, which premiered last year at the Spoleto festival in Charleston.

I first heard about Giddens when she was part of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a small band that featured music based in the Piedmont region where Giddens grew up. All the musicians sang, played, and traded multiple instruments, including banjo, fiddle, guitar, harmonica, snare drum, bones, jug, and kazoo. They were enthusiastic performers. For me it was folk music at its best.

Then The Chocolate Drops were gone.

But Giddens has stayed busy. At Oberlin College she had trained as an opera singer, yet according to NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas, Giddens is “best known as an American roots musician, a singer and songwriter who wields a mean banjo and makes her viola croon.”

An article by Jon Pareles in the Aug. 7 edition of The New York Times further demonstrates Gidden’s growing fame.

He wrote, “Giddens, 46, was at the home in Ireland that she shares with her two children and her partner, Francesco Turrisi–an Italian jazz musician who explores global traditions and has made two duet albums with her that examine African, Mediterranean, and American crosscurrents. A microphone stand sat behind her, and her latest bit of crocheting was close at hand.

“Giddens has made it her mission to delve into ‘difficult and unknown chapters of American history,’ she said, and to reveal complicated cultural entanglements. ‘We like to say it’s a melting pot,’ she said. ‘But it’s more of a patchwork. You can see the bits and pieces, but we don’t always know where all the patches are from.’”

One result is a new course by the Teaching Company/Wondrium. While working on this column, I received an advertisement for a new course: “African Instrument, American Culture: A Musical History-The Banjo: Music, History and Heritage” taught by Giddens. She is everywhere! I sampled several of the 13 episodes in which she combined great teaching with dazzling banjo playing. A preview of the course is available at [].

Currently, she is preparing for the Aug. 18 release of her new album, “You’re the One,” which will be the first album of her own songwriting. Pareles wrote that the new album is “also her most playful project yet.”

“I need to make the record that I need to make at that moment,” she told Pareles, “I needed to do something with these songs that I loved. And I wanted to have fun and I wanted to explore different sounds.”

After the album’s release Giddens will go on tour with a full band. “I know I get intense,” she told Pareles. “But yeah, there is also the thought of, ‘Maybe I can bring more people, a new slice of folks, to the fold of what I do.’ Bringing them in with these kinds of songs. And then when they come to what I do, maybe they’ll discover the other things — and dig them.”

If you can’t wait for the tour and would like to get to know Giddens better, another example of her wide-ranging interests is a program she produced with her partner Francesco Turrisi for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MetLiveArts program in 2020. That program is available on YouTube at [].

That demonstration of her multiple talents should convince you that Giddens deserves to be named North Carolina’s most famous living person.

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D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.

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