Songs of Our Native Daughters

August 8, 2019

Learning to Fly

Listening Post 213. Sitting in a New York theater, Rhiannon Giddens was angered by a movie scene of a slave being raped. As the victim emerged into a group of onlookers, the camera focused not on her but on her husband, impelled by the assault to join a slave rebellion. “I found myself furious…,” Giddens writes in the introduction to Songs of Our Native Daughters, “furious at the moment in a long history of moments of the pain and suffering of black women being used to justify a man’s actions; at her own emotion … being literally written out of the scene.” Giddens conceived the idea of using music to illuminate the experience of women in slavery and the post-emancipation struggle in the Americas, ultimately partnering with Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell to form Our Native Daughters—four mightily talented artists. Their album’s 13 extraordinary tracks, all but two written by quartet members, highlight the horrors of racism and sexism, and also the resilience and capacity for joy indispensable to overcoming humanity’s crimes. A second album focus is revisiting the banjo’s centrality in black minstrel music, predating the style’s mid-nineteenth century adoption by white performers. The collection’s most wrenching track, Mama’s Cryin’ Long, is a call-and-response description of a sexual assault and lynching, told from a child’s viewpoint (video 1). There’s exceptional patience in I Knew I Could Fly, a poetic dance of hope and oppression (video 2), and empowerment advice in Better Git Yer Learnin’ (video 3). Some songs explore personal history: McCalla, daughter of Haitian immigrants, performs Lavi Difisil (Hard Life) in Creole and English (video 4), and Russell honors a slave ancestor transported from Ghana to the Caribbean in Quasheba, Quasheba (video 5). Another standout: Polly Ann’s Hammer, the John Henry legend refocused on the steel driver’s wife. Art achieves monumental proportion not by building large but by penetrating deep, occupying little physical space but—like Songs of Our Native Daughters—touching the soul. (Smithsonian Folkways)

Our Native Daughters
Rhiannon Giddens: Grammy-nominated solo singer-musician, co-founder of Grammy-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops country-blues string band
Amythyst Kiah: Alt-country blues singer-songwriter
Leyla McCalla: Classical and folk singer-musician, veteran of Carolina Chocolate Drops
Allison Russell: Singer-songwriter with Americana band Birds of Chicago


Mama’s Cryin’ Long (song begins at 05:10 in video)
Song by Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens, vocals and handclaps; Amythyst Kiah, vocals; Allison Russell, vocals; Leyla McCalla, vocals; Jamie Dick, percussion

Chorus: Mama’s cryin’ long/and she can’t get up
Mama’s hands are shakin’/and she can’t get up

Mama’s runnin’ hard/from the boss’s man
Caught her anyway/the boss’s man

They lie on the ground/again and again
i can hear her screamin’/again and again

It was late at night/
when she got the knife
She went to his room/when she got the knife

Mama’s dress is red/
it was white before
Lift it up and see/
it was white before


All the men have come/
and they brought the rope
They came here for mama/and they brought the rope


Mama’s in a tree/
and she can’t come down
Mama’s in a tree/
and she won’t come down

Mama’s flyin’ free/
and she can’t come down
Mama’s flyin’ free/
and she won’t come down

Mama’s flyin’ free/
and she can’t come down
Mama’s flyin’ free/
and she won’t come down

Mama’s flyin’ free


I Knew I Could Fly
Song by Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell
Leyla McCalla, vocals and guitar; Rhiannon Giddens, minstrel banjo; Allison Russell, backing vocals; Dirk Powell, mandolin

I didn’t know why
/I knew I could fly (x2)

You see what you see/
You think you see me (x2)

I follow the stars/
I carry my scars (x2)

I know what I hear/
I won’t live in fear (x3)

I sit by the stream/
I’m counting my dreams (x2)

My face to the sun/
My battle half-won (x4)

Note: McCalla and Russell co-wrote the lyrics to this song thinking of how discrimination shaped their American experience, but as they were writing they realized the words could equally apply to the life of blues guitarist Etta Baker (1913-2006), who gave up performing at her husband’s behest, raised nine children and then resumed her career 


Better Git Yer Learnin’
Song by Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens, vocals and minstrel banjo; Jamie Dick, percussion; Dirk Powell, fiddle; Jason Sypher, bass

When I was just a little pick/I almost learnt from cousin Nick
Ol’ Massa found out sure enough/And poor ol’ Nick he got strung up

Chorus: Better git yer learnin’(x3)/Before it goes away

The year was 1863/
A paper said that I was free
But no one read it to my ears
/And so I slaved for two more years


A teacher came from Ohio/
To learn us what we’d need to know
Before she told us what was what/She up and died of whooping cough


I heard about a school was free
/Way out east in Tennessee
Before I got to go to town/
The damned ol’ Rebs had burned it down


So now that I am old and gray/
Listen close to what I say
The white folks they will write the show/If you can’t read
You’ll never know

Chorus (x2)


Lavi Difisil (Hard Life)
Song in Creole and English by Leyla McCalla
Leyla McCalla, vocals and tenor banjo; Rhiannon Giddens, fiddle; Amythyst Kiah, guitar; Allison Russell, clarinet; Jamie Dick, percussion; Jason Sypher, bass and bowed bass

Ain’t got no money /Ain’t got no job (x2)
But I have your love/And I have your heart

Ain’t nothing in this world/Ain’t nothing in this world
Gonna keep us apart

I don’t have much
/But I wanna give you the world
This life can be hard, this life can be cruel

I don’t have much
/But I wanna give you my heart
Nothing in this world, nothing in this world
Gonna keep us apart


Quasheba, Quasheba
Song by Allison Russell
Allison Russell, vocals and 5-string banjo; Rhiannon Giddens, backing vocals and minstrel banjo; Leyla McCalla, cello; Jamie Dick, drums and percussion; Dirk Powell, baritone electric guitar; Jason Sypher, bass

Chorus: Quasheba, Quasheba/You’re free now
You’re free now/
How does your spirit fly
Blood of your blood/Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength/We have life
From the golden coast of Ghana/To the bondage of Grenada
You kept the dream of hope alive

They burned your body
They cursed your blackness
But they could not take your light


Raped and beaten
/Every baby taken
Starved and sold and sold again

But ain’t you a woman/
Of love deservin’
Ain’t it somethin’ you survived


You dreamt of home
/You dreamt of freedom
You died a slave, you died alone

You came from warriors/They once built empires
Ashanti’s kingdom carries on


You were forgotten/
Almost forsaken
Your children founded generations

Your strength sustained them
/They won their freedom
Traced their roots to find you waiting

Quasheba, Quasheba/You’re free now
You’re free now/
How far your spirit’s flown
Blood of your blood/Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength/We are home

Blood of your blood/
Bone of your bone
By the grace of your strength/We are home




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