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Rhiannon Giddens is artistic director of Silkroad Ensemble, the groundbreaking musical group founded by YoYo Ma in 2000. It was named for the Silk Road that connected Europe to Asia and brought distant cultures into contact in the first millennium BCE.


In North America, it was the building of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century that tied the young United States together, a feat made possible by the backbreaking labor of several immigrant cultures including the Irish, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as African Americans and native Americans. All these cultures brought their own musical traditions to their work on the railroad.


Rhiannon conceived "American Railroad" as her first major project with Silkroad, whose members and guest artists represent the diverse cultures of the railroad workers. Our second season celebrates the global roots of traditional music in a series of conversations and performances directly linked to Silkroad's "American Railroad" tours now in progress.

Railroad Connections

Rhiannon Giddens

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Rhiannon Giddens is dedicated to sharing the experiences and stories of people whose voices have been largely silenced, yet whose experiences profoundly inform the American story.

Singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and impresario, Rhiannon draws from many musical traditions including blues, jazz, folk, hiphop, African, Celtic, classical, and jug band. She bridges contemporary and traditional forms, and few musicians have done more to revitalize old-time influences in current music.

Giddens grew up in the North Carolina Piedmont where her formative memories include hearing her uncle’s bluegrass band and Hank Williams songs on the radio and watching Roy Clark “pickin' and grinnin' ” every Saturday night on Hee Haw. Clark’s prowess on the banjo sparked Rhiannon’s interest, but the instrument and its related traditions felt at odds with her ethnic background.

“I’m mixed. My dad is white; my mom is black.  I constantly learned how to go back and forth between one world and the other. Navigating that rub has made me who I am.”

It was only later, after earning a degree in Opera Theater from Oberlin Conservatory, that Rhiannon learned about the long and almost forgotten tradition of African-American string bands. It was a discovery that helped her find her place in American music.

At the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, North Carolina, she met and began studying with fiddler Joe Thompson. With fellow students Justin Robinson and Don Flemons, she formed a trio that would eventually be known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops and would become the first black string band to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops laid claim to the history and musical contributions of African Americans in traditional American music. Their work highlighted the banjo’s history as an African and an African-American instrument, and resurrected black string band music for a new generation.

Group members went their separate ways in 2014, but by then their fourth album, Genuine Negro Jig, had won a Grammy Award.

Rhiannon launched her solo career in 2015 with the critically acclaimed album Tomorrow Is My Turn, blending country, blues, jazz, and gospel influences on songs that honored the work of African-American artists like Nina Simone. Her second solo project, Freedom Highway, featured songs, most written by her, that explore the struggle, lives, and legacy of black people in America’s history.

Our Native Daughters is a group made up of four black female banjo players: Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Rhiannon Giddens. Their 2019 album, Songs of Our Native Daughters, was named one of the best albums of that year by NPR.

Rhiannon frequently collaborates with her partner Francesco Turrisi. Together they brought out the Grammy-nominated album there is no Other in 2019 and the Grammy-winning album They’re Calling Me Home in 2021.

Rhiannon wrote the music for Lucy Negro Redux, a ballet based on a book of poetry by Caroline Randall Williams that reads Shakespeare’s “dark lady” sonnets as written to a black woman. In January of 2021 she realized a longstanding dream of singing the title role of Bess in the Greensboro (NC) Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess. Her libretto for the opera Omar, based on the life of an enslaved Muslim scholar, premiered to acclaim at Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA and won her a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2023 along with composer Michael Abels.

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meet the
production team

My Music with Rhiannon Giddens is produced by the Will & Deni McIntyre Foundation, the team behind the Emmy-nominated series David Holt’s State of Music, which aired nationwide on PBS for six seasons.

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Front row: Rhiannon, Maeve Gilchrist, Will McIntyre. Second row: Sara Woodmansee, Schenley Sargusingh, Sarah Britt, Deni McIntyre, Aaron Bittikofer, Kyle Britt, Noelle Panepento, Adam Pinnell, Jan Balster. Third row (kinda): Nick Iway.

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Rhea Bigelow Charitable Trust  | Community Foundation of Henderson County, NC and its Perry N. Rudnick Endowment  |  Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation  |  The National Endowment for the Arts |  Carlyle Adams Foundation  |  Lyles and Melanie Glenn  |  Hunter Glenn and Daniel Eggleston  |  Frances and Joe Farmer  |  Cheri and Ron Allari  |  Betty and Benjamin Cone Jr.  |  Ben and Laurie Duke and Family  |  ABarA Ranch  || Myrna Harris  |  Fred and Lauren Weed  |  Richard and Jenny Schwartz  |  David Griswold  |  Charlie and Lois Brummitt  |  Tom Erickson  |  Patti and Walt Teague  |  Adrienne Amos Livengood  |  Jack Mitchell III and Marion Mitchell  |  Laurene C. Mann, MD and Casey R. Bartman, MD  |  Joe and Terry Graedon  |  Bernie Harberts  |  Valerie Hillings  |  Kathleen Brion  |  Dr. Theodore H. Gasper  |  Pat Grebe  |  Larry Isberg

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