With Rhiannon Giddens, Sunday, 3 p.m., Harrison Auditorium on NC A&T University campus
“I have always felt like a suspension bridge in the long road of American folk music. One that spanned the dry, cracked creek bed of the late eighties and nineties, between the old era evaporating behind me drop by precious drop, and the new deluge which had yet to be dreamed up in the clouds. The culture was moving from ‘folksinger’ to ‘singer-songwriter’ and abandoning ties to the radical politics of its forbears. But to me the radical politics were the coolest part, so I was swimming upstream.”
DiFranco, an independent American folk-rock artist, poet and activist, recounts her radical coming-of-age journey in her new memoir No Walls and the Recurring Dream, released May 7. No Walls is more origin story than chronology, filled to its brim with exhilarating, profanity-laden tales from North American roadways and lofty feminist manifesto-like musings, interposed with poetry and stream-of-consciousness prose. Unsurprisingly, her written style exemplifies the hard-fought artistic integrity of a punk-feminist chick who self-released her first LP in 1990 at the age of 18 on her own label, Righteous Babe Records. For years, fans could only find her tapes at shows or ordering through the two national women’s catalogues, Goldenrod and Ladyslipper.
With gritty sincerity, DiFranco invites readers on a young woman’s journey with no endpoint, shared, at times, with lovers of all genders, and sneaks them behind-the-scenes at the odd jobs she worked to survive along the way: nude modeling; loading UPS trucks on the third shift; and chopping endlessly in a minimum-wage job at a high-end catering company. The veal scraps she would bring home one night crowned her the favorite roommate among a motley crew of seven rock musicians she lived with briefly in the then-unglamorous meatpacking district, a fifth-floor apartment that had been a queer S&M bar the week before move-in.
Her frank retelling of stories dripping with her characteristic switchblade-up-her-sleeve ethos of independence and the cheeky humor of her “poet’s brain” make for an empowering, humorous read about endurance, humility and intuition, all of which the world tested as she cruised the interstates in a mid-’80s Hyundai, of which she had painted and collaged every inch. From the driver’s seat, DiFranco regales readers with a highlights reel from her relentless pursuit of a career at intimate clubs and international folk festivals where she “and the African dudes recognized one another as members of the same extended guitar family.”
DiFranco, still a touring musician more than 20 albums later, is now on tour for her memoir and will headline the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival on May 19 where she will share a conversation with Rhiannon Giddens, a prodigious folk singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and co-founder of the Grammy Award-winning African-American string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, who grew up in Guilford County.
As a practitioner and scholar of American traditional string music, Giddens is uniquely positioned to delve into meaningful conversation with the iconoclast at NC A&T University, a HBCU land-grant university just miles from the de facto start of the sit-in movement at Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro. Giddens, who favors the fiddle and banjo, curated programming reflective of African-Americans’ distinct contributions to folk music for last year’s NC Folk Festival in Greensboro. As headliner, she did not shy away from speaking plain truths about the legacy of slavery in America between songs based on 17th Century slave narratives from her 2017 solo album Freedom Highway.
In her memoir, as on stage and in life, DiFranco does not mince her words, either. She’s known for railing against patriarchy, capitalism and US foreign policy onstage, and for her vocal support of grassroots organizations that work to secure reproductive and queer rights. DiFranco counts Pete Seeger and Utah Phillips as mentors, not just as folk artists but as social activists.
DiFranco reflects on the rage, and the tactics for social change, she and Phillips shared: “We liked to get people laughing and then, when their heads were thrown back in an open-mouthed guffaw, we’d slip a little kernel of truth in there. That’s how you get people to swallow shit.”
“The way he conceived of it, his job as folksinger had a research component to it and it began the moment he stepped off the train,” she continues in No Walls. “He took the time to make each of his shows personal and relevant to the community he was in. He made it his gig to sow the seeds of critical thinking and he did so through a street-level awareness of history and oral tradition.”
DiFranco and Giddens’ mutual interest in educating and healing society through music is tied up in a belief that folk music is as much an attitude, a way of carrying oneself onstage, as it is an awareness of cultural heritage.
“I will never know what is the right balance in art between painful truths and painful silences,” DiFranco writes about the art of engaging an audience. “There is no right balance to be known. It is a question to be asked of every moment and its answer pertains only to that moment and no other. It’s the spontaneous deal we strike with others, the conversation or lack thereof.”
Find the full 2019 GSO Bound schedule here.