Folk singer Rhiannon Giddens considers herself first and foremost a vocal artist, something she promises will be explored further on her upcoming debut solo record. She also plays a variety of stringed instruments, including the fiddle and a 19th century style banjo, which she informs the crowd — catching her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops on Sunday morning at Bonnaroo — was originally an African American instrument that sounded very different from the banjo we usually hear today.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a banjo and fiddle based old timey folk band out of the Piedmont region of South Carolina, focused on playing the traditional folk music of that area with an emphasis on how the folk tradition was shaped by African American musicians. The Drops won the Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy for 2010′s Genuine Negro Jig released on Nonesuch Records that gained ecstatic reviews from a variety of important publications, but they haven’t gotten as much attention as some of their peers in the folk music revival.
Their set at Bonnaroo was part hoedown, part history lesson. Giddens gives the historical background on different songs and instruments, and the band even commissions a dancer to show the crowd how people back in the day would have traditionally enjoyed the music the Drops play.
As a performer, Giddens oozes authenticity. When she talks about the South — about the musical traditions in minstrel shows, about the Gaelic songs brought to her region by European sailors — it doesn’t sound like she’s reading out of a history book; she just knows what she’s talking about. When she starts singing, whether it be a 17th century Gaelic song or the folked-up cover of R&B singer Blu Cantrell’s 2001 hit “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops),” her singing is equally as authoritative. This woman knows what she’s doing and it’s apparent to anyone watching her perform.