As she tends to do, Rhiannon Giddens had an idea. The singer-banjoist and MacArthur Genuis had convened a group of fellow artists — Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah —in January 2018 to record the collaborative concept album Songs of Our Native Daughters to interpret and revive long-extinct forms of music.
“Maybe,” she pondered out loud to Kiah and Russell one day, “you could reimagine the John Henry story. Why don’t you two write a song about Polly Ann, because nobody knows Polly Ann’s story. What’s her story?”
That was a radical proposal. Disrupting the foundational folk legend of “John Henry” — the late 19th-century tale of a “steel-driving” railroad man who, in his noble quest to outwork modern steam-drill technology, ends up working himself to death — is a near-blasphemous gesture in American folk music, akin to rewriting scripture. Countless 20th-century singers have sung the song, from Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger and Gillian Welch to Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte and Woody Guthrie. More recently, the tale has been reimagined and modernized in originals by songwriters Justin Townes Earle (“They Killed John Henry”) and Jason Isbell (the Drive-By Truckers’ “The Day John Henry Died”).
But never before had someone de-centered John Henry from his own story. Giddens’ idea, simple yet striking, was to write a new original based on one version of the song’s penultimate verse:
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John Henry had a woman
Well her name was Polly Ann
Well John Henry took sick and he had to go to bed
Well and Polly drove steel like a man (well, well)
Well and Polly drove steel like a man
Giddens was interested in telling that story. Given the scholarship surrounding the song, the tale of Polly Ann had been given shockingly scarce attention despite its utter centrality to the John Henry legend.
“That story has always been inherently there,” says Allison Russell, “it just hasn’t been excavated and highlighted.”
When Giddens first threw out the idea to Russell and Kiah, the duo immediately became excited.
“That’s brilliant,” they responded, looking at each other.
Then they started to write.
The name Our Native Daughters came first. Giddens knew she wanted to make a collaborative album under that moniker, which helped frame the type of generations-spanning story she wanted to tell for a record that would be made specifically with the preservationist Smithsonian Folkways label. As Giddens notes in the album’s liner notes, the name was inspired by James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, a title itself partly inspired by Richard Wright’s 1940 opus Native Son.
The resulting debut album, titled Songs of Our Native Daughters (out Friday), arrives as a crucial pronouncement in folk music. It’s the culmination of a movement of 21st-century singers, artists, songwriters and instrumentalists of color who have been reclaiming the racially heterogeneous lineages of folk, country and American roots music.
“In the past 10 or 15 years, there’s been this real sense of need to bring forth this cultural history,” says Kiah. “You’ve got people now who are interested and invested in bringing attention to the history of folk music, who really bring things full circle and show that this is America’s music. This isn’t something that only black people or only white people do.”
Giddens’ initial idea for the album was to make a strictly historical work on the legacy of 19th-century American minstrel music, recruiting a group of black women who played the banjo as her collaborators. McCalla was a former bandmember in the Carolina Chocolate Drops; Russell, singer-songwriter in bands like Birds of Chicago and Po’ Girl, was a longtime friend with whom she’d worked before, Kiah was an up-and-coming singer that Giddens had admired and performed alongside (Toronto singer-songwriter Kaia Kater was also invited, but was unable to join due to scheduling).
Recorded over a 10-day session at Giddens’ longtime collaborator and co-producer Dirk Powell’s studio in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, Songs of Our Native Daughters sparked a communal creative outpouring. “I had just never been in a room with three other black women writers,” says Russell. “There are certain experiences that you don’t have unless you are a black woman. I really hadn’t anticipated the degree of instant kinship I felt with everyone.”
Once recording began, Giddens’ initial premise was all but thrown out the door. Russell, Kiah and McCalla began tossing out a flurry of ideas for originals, songs that mined past stories in the present tense and spoke to how inherited legacies informed 21st-century black womanhood.
“It felt like an opportunity to have a conversation that’s so necessary, that’s so needed,” says McCalla. “The record is asking: Who are we? Where are we going? And where have we come from?”
Or as Giddens puts it, “People who are talking now about what happened then, and what it means for tomorrow.”
It turned out to be the perfect project to release in conjunction with Smithsonian Folkways. “Songs of Our Native Daughters serves as a model for modern explorations of historical sources and contexts, the blending of old and new instruments, and the textures of voices and rhythms that amplify that narratives that are all too-often marginalized and trivialized within the American experience,” says Greg Adams, an archivist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who served as an adviser to Giddens on the project.
Lest Songs of Our Native Daughters sound like a dry academic exercise or a mere teachable lesson, the record is thankfully littered with enduring, accessible tunes that merge its conceptual underpinnings with compelling pop songcraft. These are songs you’ll catch yourself humming weeks after first hearing them: “I Knew I Could Fly,” a finger-picked blues lullaby; “Black Myself,” a storming rock & roll anthem; “Quasheba, Quasheba,” a haunting folk-noir.
With Russell, Kiah and McCalla pouring out songs, Giddens served primarily as ringleader, idea-sparker and co-producer. Her contributions on the album (among them, a modernized take on the 1855 minstrel tune “Better Git Yer Learnin’”) most closely adhered to the project’s original premise.
“It became more about what people wanted to say now,” adds Giddens, “and that’s what it needed to be.”
In some cases, the songwriters’ personal journeys ended up merging seamlessly with the larger premise of the project. Such was the case with “Quasheba, Quasheba,” Russell’s haunting exploration of and tribute to her ancestor Quasheba, a woman who had been sold into the slave trade in Ghana.
Russell learned about Quasheba only in the past couple years, after recently uncovering her Grenadian biological father’s family history.
“To get to connect with that side of my family coincided deeply, and perfectly, with what Rhiannon wanted to delve into,” she says. “I knew I wanted to write about Quasheba, bring her forward, and, basically, thank her. It really made sense to do it with that group of ladies. It sounds hokey, but when we were writing and recording, we felt surrounded by a circle of ancestors and their strengths. In these times, where there’s all this toxic talk surrounding immigration, I think a lot about how we all come from displaced people, and how there’s a resilience in those stories, as well as pain. But there is a vast, deep pool of strength that carries us all forward.”
Kiah had a melody in her head. It came from one of her favorite versions of “John Henry,” a 1942 field recording by Mississippi Hill Country musician Sid Hemphill. In his rendition, Hemphill transforms the tune from a lonesome acoustic ballad to an up-tempo fiddle tune. For some time, Kiah had been trying to write lyrics to accompany the music.
When Giddens suggested writing a song about Polly Ann, Kiah knew it was the perfect fit: the melody, after all, was based on the very song Polly Ann came from. Kiah began writing the first few lines, introducing the protagonist as a woman of uncommon physical and spiritual strength. “This was the opportunity to tell the story of a woman who ultimately was in a support role, but to show how she is strong, and she’s able to swing the hammer and also take care of her kids,” says Kiah.
Giddens gave the songwriters a tight deadline: They’d be recording the song later that evening. So before Kiah was whisked away for an interview by the Smithsonian, she showed Russell what she had started working on. When Kiah returned 20 minutes later, Russell had written the rest of the song, titled “Polly Ann’s Hammer.”
In the second half of the song, Russell outlines some basic details of Polly Ann’ story: she is a woman with “baby on her knee” who, nevertheless, swings a hammer “harder than any man can.”
“It was so galvanizing,” says Russell. “To think, ‘Here is the real hero in plain sight the whole time.’”
But it’s not until the final couplet that both the song, and the entire premise of Our Native Daughters, comes into clear focus. Having realized she can out-work not only her husband but also all of her male peers, Polly Ann has a revelation.
“This is the hammer, killed John Henry/won’t kill me, won’t kill me,” sings Kiah, as Polly Ann realizes that the entire system John Henry had given his life to — a system that values physical strength, relentless labor, deadening competition and endless profit — is broken, that it must be changed.
And so, after explaining to her child that it was a hammer that ultimately killed their father, she offers a simple piece of advice:
“Throw it down,” she tells her baby, “and we’ll be free.”