She sang and she held the room in her hands. Her voice was clear alto, almost tenor, and guitar chords and percussion built an inexorable rythm in love and anger and grief. I can still remember shivering with it.
When I think of FreshGrass at Mass MoCA, I remember Rhiannon Giddens on a Friday night, early fall in the Hunter Center, singing to shake three hundred people with her voice alone.
You can take my body
you can take my bones
you can take my blood
but not my soul.
This year you can year her and Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell singing (recorded) alongside the ensemble Roomful of Teeth in the Climb up Holy Hill, opening the festival with a field trip to Hancock Shaker Village.
Three years ago she came as the annual commissioned artist to perform songs in folk traditions Black artists have deeply inspired and informed — folk, bluegrass and blues, Appalachian jug-band tunes, spirituals and field hollers, ring songs and work songs. On that Friday night, she opened with original songs, and then she presented a new song cycle, the work she was composing with the festival’s support.
In my memory, history played a role in this music too. She had followed the banjo to its roots in West Africa and the Middle East, and she had encountered women living enslaved in Islamic Spain and North Africa more than a thousand years ago who performed as musicians — women who might know 20,000 songs by heart.
So it follows naturally from her opening song, inspired by a woman living in slavery here a hundred and fifty years ago, knowing she will be sold away from her nine-month-old child.
And this is what I love about FreshGrass. It’s the feeling that people are listening, and the voices who come from all kinds of places, and the moments when the whole room are on their feet and moving together. It’s the moments when something acoustic and honest takes hold and stays with me.
And it’s the glad breadth of it. In one afternoon I can hear Berkshire songwriter Bernice Lewis singing in duet with her daughter Mariah, and Rana Santacruz, up from Brooklyn, swinging into a Mexican inflected waltz and singing in Spanish over galloping brass.
Or Berklee music students will experiment on banjo and double bass, and Hanggai, a Mongolian punk band, comes thundering along, belting over electronic and traditional strings, and the crowd is dancing, on their feet and laughing.
This year Martha Redbone will come as the festival’s commissioned composer, blending folk and blues, gospel and storytelling. Willi Carlisle is playing Ozark folk and acoustic guitar, and Felicia Collins, guitarist and vocalist for the Late Show with David Letterman, will honor the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. You never know what sound or song you’ll fall for.